‘Don’t ask me where I’m from… I’m from here’

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‘Don’t ask me where I’m from… I’m from here’

Rosy Akalawu-Ellman, who is half Nigerian, and Elliot Jebreel, who is Sephardi, reflect on discrimination they've faced in the community - and what needs to change

Rosy Akalawu-Ellman, 17, from Manchester

A pupil at King David High School, who is currently leading an ­international campaign to combat sexual harassment on public ­transport, Rosy Akalawu-Ellman is a granddaughter of the former Labour MP Louise Ellman and a chip off the old block when it comes to social justice.  

She told Jewish News: “I’m ­half-Nigerian, and on this long journey trying to work out what words to use [to describe non-white/Ashkenazi Jews]. For now, I’m saying ‘brown Jews’ because  it feels quite soft and nice.

“I went to a Jewish primary school and grew up in the Jewish community. I don’t think the community has an issue with black or brown people, I think it’s just uncomfortable with otherness, with gentiles. It’s a culture thing, rather than a colour thing.

“For non-Jews, it’s more of a shock when they find out I’m Jewish. They have this Ashkenazi-centric perception of what it is to be a Jew. 

Rosy Akalawu-Ellman, 17, from Manchester

“Don’t ask me where I’m from. I’m from here, from Manchester. And don’t ask me “where I’m really from”. Again, I’m from here… 

“Also, don’t grill Jewish converts. It makes them feel very uncomfortable and sleighted. 

Conversion is a really intense process, so they’ve been grilled enough! They’ve been asked enough questions to even get there. 

“In the sessions we had, when  we shared our experiences over Zoom, there were so many  moments where I felt: ‘That’s me, that happened to me.’ 

“It’s only when you share that you realise how common they are.

“When it comes to racism, nothing shocks me now. Try being black and walking into an ultra-Orthodox shop ahead of Pesach. 

“Things disappoint me or dishearten me, but nothing shocks me. If you’re shocked by some of the things in this report you’re probably not aware of the kind of world we’re living in.”

Elliot Jebreel, 33,  who lives in London

“I’m Sephardi. My parents moved here in 1979 from Iran and my family stretches back many generations, even pre-dating Ashkenazi Judaism. 

“I grew up with a specific set of traditions, history and culture – in my home life. In the Jewish community, I found a completely different set of traditions, a different type of Judaism, so my experience was of having to reconcile the two. 

“There are challenges. Inclusion doesn’t come as standard. There are barriers you need to overcome just because you’re not Ashkenazi and don’t fit the standard mould as to what the Jewish community in the
UK perceives itself to be. 

Elliot Jebreel, 33,  who lives in London

“I feel like a minority within a minority. At Jewish school, kids would call me a terrorist.

“Growing up, you see what ‘should be’ in a standard Friday night meal – challot, roast chicken, chicken soup, roast potatoes – and not having that at home. It’s part of popular culture, what many British Jews are proud of, but the portrayal of Jews in the UK is very different to my experience of being Jewish in the UK.

“If you look at the numbers [of Sephardi, Mizrahi and Yemenite synagogues] then I think there is a lack of representation at the Board
of Deputies. I don’t think that’s anyone’s fault. 

“Most of these synagogues are small and independent. They just get on with life, do their own thing, and don’t actually see a benefit.

“I’m constantly stopped at synagogues and airports. It’s a pet peeve, but I’m now used to it. I see a lot of people just walk in. I know they’re new to the synagogue, maybe they’re visiting, but they look how a Jew ‘should’ look. It’s a simple thing and just makes me and others who experience it feel less welcome.

“My brother was doing some synagogue security training once. Someone asked: ‘Who are the kind of people we should look out for?’ They pointed to him. And it’s not even true! White nationalists are a threat – they don’t tend to look like me.”


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