Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish

Since 1984, when the Israeli government airlifted jets full of Ethiopian Jews, the landscape of Jewish faces has changed, says Rabbi Jordan Cohen, associate director of Kolel: the Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning. Speaking at the launch of a recent three-week series titled “Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish,” Rabbi Cohen said that no longer is a gathering of Jews dominated by white, Ashkenazi faces. “The racial diversity of a Jew is ever more prevalent in our society.” Also on the panel was Hamilton physician and convert, Dr. Tony McFarland, who is originally from Jamaica, and Claudette Edgehill, a native of Guyana who converted to Judaism in 1996. “Through conversion, adoption, immigration and contact with Jews from previously remote communities around the world, it is becoming increasingly more obvious that Jews can came from any culture or nationality,” Rabbi Cohen said. “Jews of color, and multicultural Jewish families, [however] still face unique challenges of integration in the Jewish community,” he said.

Having worked and lived for three years among the Jewish communities of Asia, Rabbi Cohen said that he counseled many Asian women who converted to Judaism after becoming involved with Jewish men, as well as a number of North American families who adopted Asian children. “[With children], the question becomes ‘How do I raise my child to identify and appreciate Judaism, but at the same time learn about the heritage given to them at birth?’ The questions are enormous, and the answers are only starting to flow out,”he said.

Among those trying to deal with this issue are Linda and Jeffrey Cutler, who last summer adopted a daughter, Shoshana Kayla Shifeng, from China. The Cutlers, who also have two special needs children ages 9 and 7, wanted to find a way for their new baby to grow up comfortable being Jewish, so they decided to contact other parents. With the help of Rabbi Reuven Tradburks of Kehillat Shaarei Torah Congregation, they started an e-mail list, and they had about 28 responses to an ad in The CJN’s What’s New column about a Chanukah party.

They have since formed the Jewish-Asian Society. “We know that our daughter may have some issues, but meeting other people from multi-racial families will help. We do not want her to feel isolated,” said Linda, a family physician. They want their daughter to learn about her roots, said Jeffrey, a lawyer who is now on parental leave. “That is who she is. She is also Canadian and Jewish. She is a blend of three cultures. Our challenge is to help her with her identity.”

McFarland says it is important to him to blend his birth culture with his identity as a Jew, and each year he goes to Jamaica to celebrate the High Holy Days. Edgehill said that when she emigrated from Guyana, she babysat for a Jewish family and helped them celebrate Shabbat each week. “That was my opening to Jewish life, I got so involved in the ritual that I began learning more about it. I eventually studied at Adath Israel Congregation. -I cannot put into words why I did it, but the congregants opened their arms and welcomed me. I am blessed to be in such a synagogue.”

We all have barriers around us to protect ourselves, said Rabbi Cohen, “but sometimes [those barriers] get in the way of looking at who can be a Jew.”

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