Black Jewish Women – In their own words

In honour of Black History Month, the Jewish Federation of Ottawa and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) are co-hosting an event to learn from Black Jewish Women about their experiences and challenges, and to celebrate their successes. 
The E-Bulletin spoke with Sheba Birhanu, Associate Director of Partnerships at CIJA and moderator for this event. 
EB: What is your role at CIJA?
SB: My role is to facilitate partnerships between different communities on shared issues. It looks a lot like collaborative advocacy. Working with other communities to get legislation passed around online hate, which does not only impact the Jewish community. We’ve worked with the Queer community on getting the blood ban lifted.
In the past, we advocated for the protection of genetic information. We did this because insurance companies and employers could deny coverage to people with genetic predispositions to certain illnesses. This impacts us all, including Ashkenazi Jewish women, who carry the BRCA marker at higher rates than Canadian women. It would have meant that you could have been penalized and denied coverage for the results of preventative, life-saving tests.
By aligning with other groups, we make our voice stronger. 
EB: Why are you interested in moderating this panel?  
SB: After I learned who would be featured on this panel, I was really excited! These two women have help shape me and my work and are leaders in the world of Jewish advocacy. Just hearing them speak in the past about their own experiences, has given me the OK to speak about my experiences. Not only being black in Canada at this point in time, but also being Jewish. I feel like I have permission to be myself and to live proudly in my skin. 
I heard Rivka on a panel in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. What I heard were the kinds of things I never thought I would hear out loud. It was very powerful. 
Diaspora Jews move through the world differently, black Jews move through the world differently and she was given a platform where she was received so beautifully, and it made me feel like I could be myself and speak up for what I believed.  
The feeling of empowerment I have received from these two women is why I wanted to moderate this panel.
EB: What do you hope the participants learn?  
SB: We’re focusing on Black, Jewish, women. Those are three amazing categories independently. And when you bring them all together, you're talking about someone fabulous. Learning could be:
Pulling from all those identities and where those identities place you in the world.
How you view the world or how the world views you. By the way, you may or may not agree with that worldview.
How to be a better ally.
I think it’s really easy to be boxed into an identity and to not even realize that it is happening to you. I know that it has happened to me. My whole life was built around expectations of who I am, what I believe, and what that means. I’m a product of where I grew up, the stories my parents told me, the mean kids at school, and the very nice kids at school. They all shaped me, but they don’t make me.
I would love the participants to be curious and surprised and to learn the difference between the identities we choose and the identities that are cast onto us. 
EB: What is your most illustrating Jewish memory or experience that helped you become the person you are today?  
SB: This is an interesting question. What jumps into my mind is my third-grade public school teacher, Jordana Milberg. She was Jewish and was the only Jew I knew in the school. Through her modeling, I was allowed to be Jewish out loud. If I needed to miss school for a holiday, she would say, “Ok, me too, see you later.” It was in her classroom when I finally realized why my mom wanted me to go to Hebrew school. Why she wanted me to have wholly Jewish experiences. It wasn’t just about learning about my religion, people, or history (although I’m very grateful for those lessons), but it was about finding people who inherently understood how I felt and thought.
The flip side of having her as my teacher was that we both had to deal with antisemitism. Other students accusing the teacher of giving me good grade because I was Jewish or asking us if they could see our horns. But she was not afraid and labeled their actions as antisemitism and to take it to the administration. Through her I learned to find my voice.
EB: Is there anything else you want the community to know?
SB: Yes, the three women on this panel all come from different cultural, ethnic, and national backgrounds and yet we all ended up in roughly the same place. We all stand tall for our community. It’s amazing to see how many paths one can take and how diverse we can all be and still know that supporting the Jewish community is where we need to be.
Join Sheba Birhanu, associate director of partnerships at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), Rivka Campbell, co-founder of the group Jews of Colour Canada and the Executive Director of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto, and Annamie Paul, lawyer and climate advisor. The event will take place on February 29, at 7 pm on Zoom. Register here.
The discussion will focus on how being Jewish informed and supported their rise to success and the challenges they faced. 
Expect to be awed, empowered, and motivated to take a stand against discrimination as you hear from women who would not let the world hold them back!