Aardvark Celebrates Israel�s Multiculturalism

Being Black and Jewish in America is quite a novelty, but in Israel it is quite common. When I first moved to Israel, almost five years ago, I would people watch on the bus and constantly be surprised to see such a diverse society comprised of different skin colors and levels of observance. I was fascinated with the variety of yarmulkes that I would see and try to understand the different styles that represented the multitude of communities. However, even more fascinating were the faces which wore them. I would see Asians in streimels, black women with religious head coverings, and the list goes on.

I’ve spent a large portion of my time in Israel working for a gap year program, Aardvark Israel Immersion Programs, which has offered me the privilege of working with Jews from many different nationalities and backgrounds. America, Canada, Latin America, Europe, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand… our students come from all over the world to experience life in Israel, the epicenter of the Jewish people. Aardvark Israel has decided to spotlight three of our students and one of our educators who truly embody Jewish multiculturalism in Israel and abroad. These four individuals, Adimika Smith, Preston Harris, Dejene Hodes, and Bishop Bledsoe, come from different backgrounds but now live in Israel and are exploring their Jewish identities.

Adimika Smith, originally from California, grew up in Arizona, where she became a licensed clinical social worker and completed her MA at Arizona State University. Thirteen years ago, “Mika” completed her conversion to Judaism. It had taken about five years, but having been curious about G-d and religion, her spiritual journey led her to Judaism and she eventually made Aliyah in September 2010. One major reason that brought her to Israel was that she felt there would be a larger dating pool in Israel. In America she found it much more difficult, as Jews sometimes forgot that they come in different colors. Mika had visited Israel on various trips, and she always felt that in Israel she could just be Jewish – there was nothing to prove.

At her first job in Israel, she discovered her new boss was also an African American oleh to Israel. It was unexpected, but nice to have someone who had faced similar challenges growing up in America. Mika feels the most difficult obstacle is when speaking to people who act as though she has something to prove in her Judaism. She told me that it’s as though if her skin tone was pale, her Judaism would not come into question. Many in Israel are shocked to learn she is American as she is often assumed to be either Ethiopian or Yemenite. For the most part, however, she has had a positive experience thus far in Israel and does not feel any different.

Preston Harris is from the Bronx. He grew up in a modern Orthodox household and went to Jewish day school. For Preston, it’s been a reoccurring factor throughout his life in America where he’s had to “prove” he is Jewish. When he’s visited a new synagogue he is always asked if he is Jewish, and once he says yes the first question asked has always been, “when did you convert?” Since arriving in Israel this past September, he’s found that when asked if he is Jewish (and people do ask), once he answers it’s followed up with a “how lovely that you’re here” and that’s the end of the conversation.

Preston first came to Israel on a summer NCSY program. At day school he was always the only African American student so he was shocked we had other black Jews on our program, “It’s always nice when people can relate to your problems, and it’s nice to see a colored face.” Back in America, his neighborhood is far from ‘yarmulke friendly’ so he feels more comfortable visibly expressing his Jewish-ness while walking around Israel. While he says he does occasionally get looks from more observant Jews, he has not been in any situations where he been treated differently.

Preston acknowledged that for Caucasian Jews, it’s more accepted, as if for Black Jews, outsiders think you are confused – that you are supposed to be Christian but somehow got mixed up somewhere along the way. It’s hard for Preston to explain to such individuals that, “this is who I am, this is just how it is.” “Life”, says Preston, “is easier here for a black Jew. “in America it is nicer that the Jewish communities are more tight-knit, it’s more of a close community. But in Israel, the environment is more open to all different types of Judaism.”

Dejene Hodes was born in southern Ethiopia. He grew up in a non-Jewish Ethiopian community, but was adopted by his father, Dr. Rick Hodes, an Orthodox Jewish doctor who performed Dejene’s surgery for tuberculosis of the spine. Dejene moved in with his father in 2001 and that’s when he started learning about Judaism. All his friends in Ethiopia knew that this house was Jewish, and in Ethiopia Judaism was well known, though thought to have similarities to Christianity. Dejene and his adopted siblings all went to America for their high school studies, and prior to high school he had gone back and forth to America for surgeries. Whenever he was asked where he was from, people would always assume he was Jewish (falasha) when he said Ethiopia and that would be the end of the conversation. In Israel it’s been different. Here in Israel, when he meets other Ethiopians on buses they do not understand why he does not speak Hebrew. No one seems to understand how he speaks English and Amharic. Once he tells them where in Ethiopia he is from they think he is disguising himself as Christian by not speaking Hebrew.

Prior to coming on Aardvark Israel, Dejene had been on some other trips to Israel where he had been the “only one.” While there were Ethiopians at his schools in America, they were always Falasha. Being the only one never created any problems, it just made him different. If anything, people are mostly curious about him, especially when he is seen with his father – together they create awareness.

Dejene chose to come on our religious program because he wanted to study more about Judaism. He enjoys learning about Judaism, but doesn’t feel he knows enough to practice what he does not understand. His first Shabbat on the program is one of his favorite memories as we were singing and dancing at the Kotel, “It feels like sometimes people get too carried away with religious practices and forget what the point of it all is. Singing and dancing at the Kotel created a happy vibe and made us feel proud of being Jewish.”

Bishop Bledsoe is from Memphis Tennessee and was always accepted with open arms by the Memphis Jewish community. Everyone knew he was Jewish and it was no big deal, he was “Bishop, the black Moroccan Jew.” Bishop never went to Jewish day school, however he was active in BBYO and had many Jewish friends. Some of these friends only hung out with other Jews, but Bishop had friends from all different backgrounds. One of his best friends is Lebanese and Bishop describes his Memphis upbringing as having been a melting pot.

Bishop, along with many other Memphis Jews, attended a Catholic school where they received a quality education and learned about ethics while focusing on all religions. He always celebrated the Jewish holidays and they were an important part of his life growing up. He grew up proud of being Jewish.

In America, Bishop did feel as though he’d be treated differently at times, but these moments were more often related to being black. If he was called a derogatory word it would be related to his skin color always before his religious beliefs. Neither being black nor being Jewish, however, were really considered to be a big deal for him in Tennessee. He felt more or less accepted by everyone.

In Israel there are many more black Jews than there are in Tennessee. However, living in Florentine, he does feel he encounters some racism at times. For Bishop, living and volunteering in Tel Aviv, he finds that most people he encounters assume he is Sudanese. People are astounded when he speaks English and says he is American. Unfortunately, it is that which makes them change their attitude.

Mika, Preston, Dejene, and Bishop have many things in common, but the least of it is the color of their skin. These four individuals have all connected with Israel. For Mika, she has chosen to spend her life here, but for these three students, Aardvark Israel can’t wait to see what the world has in store for them and we are thrilled to be a part their experience!

For more information on Aardvark Israel please visit their website at www.aardvarkisrael.com or email them at info@aardvarkisrael.com
(Tags: Identity, Jews, Black)

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