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Black History Month reminds us our Jewish community includes individuals of diverse backgrounds, including Black Jews.

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Friends of Hezekiah ben Habakkuk, bar mitzvah boy, in Abuja, Nigeria, circa 2014. (Photo: William F.S. Miles)

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When we think of a typical Jewish person, most people picture white, European Jews. The clothing changes, the accent differs from person to person, but the picture remains the same. The stereotypical Fiddler on the Roof.

The truth is that we Jews are not a one-note family. We are a people enriched by a plethora of diversity with individuals of all backgrounds, creeds, and colours; including Black Jews.

This month in Canada we celebrate Black History Month. We recognize and honour the many contributions made by Black Canadians to their communities and to our nation. According to the Canadian Heritage website, we can trace the arrival of Black people in Canada to the arrival of Mathieu de Costa, a navigator and interpreter, in the early 1600s.

In 1979, at the urging of the Ontario Black History Society, the City of Toronto proclaimed February as Black History Month. In 1993, again at the request of the OBHS, Black History Month was adopted by the province of Ontario. What followed in 1995, through the Honourable Jean Augustine, the first Black woman elected to Parliament, was the introduction and recognition of Black History Month by the House of Commons. Subsequent to that was the adoption of the motion made in 2008 to accept February as Black History Month by the Canadian Senate as introduced by Senator Donald Oliver, the first Black man appointed to the Canadian senate.

Judaism is not determined by skin colour nor by country of origin. There are Jews from all over the world including the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and western central, eastern, and southern Africa. The complexity of the relationship to Judaism when it comes to various peoples mainly lies in the ability to trace individuals’ Jewish heritage, whether it be through conversion or through birth. But a Jew is a Jew. Or should be.

Astoundingly, for a people who have faced persecution in all forms throughout history, and are seeing increased levels of antisemitism around the world, there are still some Jews who refuse to see beyond the stereotypes of colour.

Does being Jewish make us immune from bias towards others? Of course not. However, with all that is wrong in the world, it somehow still surprises me when I hear of Jews judging other Jews on the basis of their black skin.

In a recent interview with Rivka Campbell, the Executive Director of Beit Rayim synagogue in Vaughan, Ontario, she shared with me some of what she faced as a Black Jew. She spoke of some of the challenges of being a minority within a minority. Rivka has felt the warm embrace of the Jewish community, but has also felt the challenges of “walking in this community in my skin.” Challenges such as strangers asking her how she came to the Jewish people or congregants approaching her at a kiddush (after services refreshments) and asking her about liking fried foods.

Don’t misunderstand. Rivka clearly loves and embraces her Judaism, she is simply urging us all to recognize that before we take on the immense challenge of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), we have some healing to do within our own Jewish world.

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Michaella Etienne has also seen her fair share of challenges as a Black Jew. She is, despite the assumptions of conversion by many, born into Judaism and embraces her Jewish heritage. But that does not make her immune to biases or to challenges.

Micahella refers to the concept known as “Jewish Geography.” It’s a sort of six degrees of separation within the Jewish community.

Here’s an example of how it works: “Where are you from? Oh, what area? What street did you live on? Do you know Mrs. Schwartz? Yes? Oh, she’s my third cousin’s in-law on his wife’s side of the family. Such a small world!”

Her connection to Jewish Geography is not so simple. Michaella points out that for her, as with many Black Jews, it’s much more difficult to achieve that “community within the community.” Here we see the minority within the minority played out in a different way. She warns us that we have all, including the Jewish community, bought into the xenophobic stereotypes of what a Jew looks like put forth by the haters of the world.

We fail to see the Sephardi Jews, the Mizrachi Jews, the Indian Jews, the Chinese Jews, and the Black Jews that exist throughout the world.

Rivka Campbell, a Toronto resident of Jamaican descent, is the co-founder of the group Jews of Colour – Canada (Photo: Lucy Villeneuve / Western Gazette)

The message is pretty clear. The Jewish community is welcoming and embraces Jews from all walks of life, but we are not perfect. We all hold within us certain perceptions of others and that includes unconscious biases. We are a community that has faced opposition and persecution for thousands of years and the last thing that we should be doing is inflicting any of those things upon our own.

So, the next time you are at synagogue and see someone enter who is Black (or Indian, or Chinese, or Persian), instead of greeting them with a “where are you from?,” how about extending your hand and simply saying a warm Shabbat Shalom. 

Rav Corey Margolese is the founder of JTeach.ca, a not-for-profit organization that offers training and resources in the dangers of antisemitism, Holocaust education, and in Judaic traditions, culture and religion. He is a public school teacher.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

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