Students learn about Jews of colour as part of Black History Month

Rapper Young Gravy performs in a music video on YouTube. (YouTube screencap)

When Andria Spindel and Rivka Campbell addressed Grade 6 students at Bialik Hebrew Day School in Toronto as part of Black History Month, there was a very good chance that none of the youngsters had ever heard of Emerson Swift Mahon.

Likewise, there was probably very little familiarity with the Lemba people of Zimbabwe, the Sefwi Wiawso of Ghana, the Abayudaya of Uganda or the Ibo of Nigeria.

And if you mentioned Darrin Bell (an editorial cartoonist from the United States), Aaron Samuels (founder of Blavity) or David Blaine (an American magician), chances are you’d get a blank stare.

Yet all these people, all these black people, also happen to be Jewish, or at least profess to be Jewish, whether accepted halakhically or not.

Emerson Swift Mahon

Mahon, a native of Grenada who moved north for economic opportunities in 1912 and converted to Judaism, is considered to be the first black Jew in Canada. His descendants still live in Winnipeg. Likewise, the previously mentioned groups of Africans are people who have embraced Judaism, despite their distance from traditional Jewish communities, or who have been found to carry genetic markers identifying their Jewish heritage.

For Spindel, the founder of Kulanu Canada, an organization that supports emerging Jewish communities around the world, and Campbell, herself a black Jew from Jamaica, the Jewish world is far from monochrome. Jews come in all sorts of colours and from a variety of backgrounds, they say, and many are black.

“What I wanted to do was to get our Jewish children, who only learn about their Ashkenazi and Sephardi backgrounds, to realize Jews come in all colours,” Spindel said.

Spindel, the mother to three adopted children from various backgrounds, said Jews of colour are still being asked to explain their backgrounds when they appear at Jewish institutions.

That’s a phenomenon that Campbell has experienced herself. The descendant of Jews who fled Spain and settled in the Caribbean, Campbell said she told the youngsters at Bialik “to be cognisant of the fact that if you see people like me in a Jewish setting, don’t assume they’re not Jewish.”

As part of her presentation, Campbell showed a slide show containing photographs of dozens of Jews of colour, including Bell, Samuels and Blaine.

There were some familiar black Jewish celebrities, including Toronto rapper Drake and American actress Lisa Bonet. And there was rapper Young Gravy, whose pro-Israel video, Diaspora, can be found on YouTube. But some of the people in the presentation might have come as a surprise to the kids, including Mark Obama, former U.S. president Barack Obama’s half brother, who was born to a Jewish mother and now lives in China.

Spindel notes that in the United States, an estimated 20 per cent of the Jewish population can be considered people of colour. That would include adopted children, converts, as well as Jews from India, Iran, Africa and elsewhere.

Canada has some small communities of Caribbean and Indian Jews, and many other countries, including some in Africa and South America, have Jewish communities of colour.

There’s even a group of Ethiopian Jews, known as Beta Abraham, who “live on the outside as Christians, but live privately as Jews.” There are an estimated 140,000 people in that community, Spindel said, most of whom practice their Judaism in secret, out of fear of discrimination. Recently, younger members of the community have been “coming out” and identifying publicly as Jews, she said.

Spindel believes the Jewish community is unaware of the wide variety of Jews in the world. “Jews come in all colours and have lived in every country,” she said.


Campbell believes their presentation went over well with the kids. “Some came up to me later and said, ‘Thank you so much.’ One girl said she learned so much from my presentation.”

“For me, the overall goal of it is not just to introduce the concept of Jewish diversity and Jewish identity, and to broaden their view of who is a Jew and what a Jew looks like, but also to make it part of programing in Jewish day schools,” Campbell continued.

“It should be an integral part of the curriculum. It’s not just my history. It’s their history.”