Rivka Campbell is worried. There are people like herself, Jews dedicated to the welfare of the Jewish People, who don’t feel welcome, who are constantly called upon to explain themselves and, to a certain extent, justify their connection to the mainstream Jewish community.
She fears that younger Jews of colour who don’t want to put up with it will marry out or simply distance themselves from the Jewish experience.
And so, Campbell has made integrating Jews of colour something of a mission. In late January, the Union of Reform Judaism in New York recognized her efforts by naming her one of 12 “JewV’Nation” (pronounced “juvination”) fellowship recipients.
Campbell, who is of Jamaican descent, is the only Canadian among the fellows, each of whom will receive a $3,000 (US) grant for a project that explores an aspect of the Jewish experience. Fellows will also have access to URJ resources, including leadership training, program development, community organizing and fundraising.
In her case, Campbell is planning to complete a short documentary on Canadian Jews of colour, starting with the Toronto community, as well as to create a social media presence to bring minority Jews together, including those of Asian descent and from other non-mainstream backgrounds.
According to the URJ, Campbell “seeks to build community among Jews of colour in her Canadian city while opening dialogue among the white Jewish community about the experience of Jews of colour… Rivka hopes to share stories that widen the concept of what it means to be Jewish in Canada and throughout the world.”
Her film, expected to run between 30 and 60 minutes, will feature interviews with Canadian Jews of colour, of which there are more than the mainstream community realizes, she said. Some have been adopted, others have converted, some have been brought into the fold through intermarriage and others, like herself, trace their heritage back centuries.
Growing up in a relatively non-observant family, Campbell began to discover her Jewish roots when she was around 18. Her family hailed from Jamaica and she could trace her ancestry on her mother’s side to the Sephardi expulsion from Spain 500 years ago.
As she got older, she began to live an actively Jewish lifestyle. She enrolled her children in Jewish school, attended synagogue regularly and became a passionate advocate for Israel and the Jewish People.
But Campbell has felt the sting of feeling excluded by virtue of her skin colour. She’s certainly not alone. Often, Jews who aren’t white are asked to explain themselves, to tell how it is they became Jewish. It can become taxing. “For some, you have to have a tough skin,” Campbell said. “It can wear you thin.”
When entering a synagogue where you are an unfamiliar face, she said, “you’re nervous. Will they greet you? Ask you why you’re there?”
She stressed: “I feel we Canadian Jews of colour don’t feel part of the family. And younger Jews might not want to put up with it.”
Campbell acknowledges that other URJ fellows will explore the black Jewish experience, but she believes the Canadian situation is different and deserves a project all its own.
And she’s already laid plenty of groundwork. A few years ago, she created a Facebook group called “A minority within a minority – Jews of Colour,” while she and Hamilton resident Deryk Glodon co-founded Jews of Colour Canada, a social group and online community. “Jews of colour encompasses black, teimani [Yemeni], Sephardi, Mizrahi [eastern], Asian, southeast Asian or any other diverse combination,” the group’s website states.
“It’s open to Jews of colour and also to people who have Jews of colour in their family, and people who are interested,” Campbell said.
It can be difficult being a Jew and even more difficult being a minority Jew and having to answer well-meaning queries from fellow Jews.
“The ‘why’ we’re doing this is very important to me,” she said. “The ‘why’ is because we want to prevent all these questions, to keep Jews of colour in the community and not lose them, so that Jews of colour feel part of the family.”