A new wave of companies are hoping to meet the growing demand for Jewish-friendly taxi drivers

YidRide, Ka-La-Ju and UMD are three services promoted to Jewish customers in different cities in North America.

Encounters with anti-Israel graffiti and posters, the ongoing disruption of events, and attacks on businesses and institutions have left many Jews in Canada feeling unsafe since Oct. 7.

The apprehension also apparently involves fearing what could happen if an unfriendly driver does a pick-up arranged through a ride-hailing service.

Currently, several North American communities have established their own car services and “Jewber” taxis—including Montreal, Los Angeles, and Chicago, home to “KalaJu” (“Call a Jew”)—but while these may operate on communications platforms like WhatsApp, they haven’t been accessible through a dedicated smartphone application.

A new taxi app launched in Toronto last month hopes to change that.

Jacob Levin, a Jewish newcomer from Mexico, is at the helm of UMD Canada, a secure, community-based car service that works like Uber or Lyft. (The company is currently advertising through The CJN, but it did not influence this editorial content.)

Levin, his wife and their three daughters moved to Toronto in 2017, after the last of three times he narrowly escaped a kidnapping in Mexico City.

A former owner of a paint-store chain, Levin says others from his hometown’s Jewish community welcomed the concept when the UMD taxi app launched there in 2022.

But his near-miss incidents, Levin says, point to desperation more than hate.

“They just need money. They see somebody with a nice car, a guy with a business,” he says, adding that he then drove a modest car.

“They want to kidnap you and ask for ransom.”

Now, in Toronto, Levin thinks the Jewish and Muslim communities desire a greater feeling of security when someone they don’t know is behind the wheel.

“It’s important to note that non-Jewish people don’t really know what’s happening here with the Jewish community and the [Muslim] community, they don’t have a clue,” he says.

Levin says his app relies on the same parameters as Uber and Lyft to determine fares—distance, vehicle type, real-time demand and time of day–and estimates a similar price structure.

The app is open to anyone, Levin emphasizes, noting the extra touches from his fleet—like offering bottled water, or chatting if a passenger engages—represent a standard of service he says was once the expectation from Uber when it became mainstream a decade ago, but became less common over time.

He verifies drivers’ abstracts and vehicle details personally when meeting them, he says. Ten of the 20 drivers are former refugees from Ukraine, Israel and Russia who are permanent residents, says Levin.

He hopes to expand the app to Montreal, and later Vancouver.

A car service or taxi app focused on safety assurances for riders would be a welcome change to Tatiana, a York student who experienced an unsettling end to an Uber ride in October, after the Hamas attacks.

Tatiana, who declined to give her last name, says she doesn’t appear to be “obviously Jewish.”

She was on the phone with a friend in Israel during the ride, asking how her friend and their family were doing.

The call ended before the vehicle reached the destination, and the driver spoke up.

“He abruptly asked if I’m Jewish,” she told The CJN in an interview.

When she said yes, he stopped the car.

“He unlocked the door and said ‘get out,’” she said. “It was his answer to my answer.”

Startled and confused, she exited the car and walked the last few blocks to her destination.

Tatiana complained to Uber—though has had no updates, she says, which led her to hesitate the next time she thought to use the app.

“It’s really scary something like that can happen, something as simple as taking an Uber” to surprise her and make her feel unsafe, or at least more aware of the conversations about Israel happening around her.

When ordering a ride, Tatiana now looks at drivers’ photos, though she wishes she didn’t have to consider potential hassles like the driver that ended the ride early.

“[To avoid] another similar experience, [to] make sure I don’t get on the phone, keep to myself… I shouldn’t have to feel that way,” as a passenger and paying customer, says Tatiana.

“There’s definitely something to say about providing a different level of service,” she says.

“Knowing the driver got the job because they spoke to a human being, not just submitted an emailed background check and has a car,” would give her a higher level of confidence, she said. “You could be getting in car with just about anyone.”

While Tatiana’s experience might fall into the shocking but not surprising category, other ride app passengers who spoke with The CJN say they’re taking precautions.

The CJN has privately confirmed with a number of Jewish Canadian women who have changed their names on the Uber app to make their identity less apparent.

For example, after Oct 7, a woman named Chana switched her Uber profile name to “Hannah.”

She travels frequently for work, including between Toronto and Detroit.

Chana—which is not actually her first name—says she’s had friendly interactions with some drivers, but when she Ubers from the airport on Fridays and calls a friend while stuck in traffic, she avoids saying “Shabbat Shalom.”

While she has her doubts about keeping quiet, Chana says she isn’t taking risks.

Recently in Detroit, even when one friendly Lebanese driver seemed nice, she kept her Israeli background to herself.

“He offered me to try his favourite chocolate from home, and he was telling me all about like what it was like to learn the English language.”

The driver himself said he’d once been held at gunpoint in an Uber “by crazy people,” he told her, and felt more comfortable taking female passengers “because they’re less dangerous,” she told The CJN.

The warm conversation was ending when he asked if she’d learned other languages.

“I said no, which is not true. I speak Hebrew,” says Chana.

“It’s really a shame… he was telling me about his favourite food from Lebanon and I could have been like, ‘yeah, I love Middle Eastern food.’”

While her own experiences thankfully haven’t left her feeling unsafe, Chana says those experiences “definitely exist.”

Her cautiousness encompasses more than her daily travels, she says.

“It’s always on my mind, so it doesn’t feel more relevant in an Uber,” than at her client’s site, or walking down the street.

“The way it feels in an Uber is no different than the way it feels in the rest of the world right now.”

“Obviously in a perfect world, it would be cool to be safe in an Uber,” she says.

“But that doesn’t actually solve the problem of what’s going on in the world.”