‘I Create My Own Jewish Life”
Tue, 08/23/2011
Staff Writer
Abraham Mercado chose Morgan State University for athletic scholarship, vicinity to Jewish community. steve lipman
Abraham Mercado chose Morgan State University for athletic scholarship, vicinity to Jewish community. steve lipman

Baltimore – On a recent Friday afternoon, an employee of a university here, passing through the Student Center building, noticed a student he knew sitting in a lounge and called out, “Shalom Abe.”

The school is Morgan State University, a historically black institution in the northeast corner of the city; the employee is Donald Hill-Eley, a devout Christian and Morgan State’s head football coach for a decade; the student is Abraham Mercado, a place kicker on the MSU football team.

A native of Mexico City who moved with his family to Florida when he was 9, Mercado, a junior, is one of a few hundred white students among 7,700 graduate and undergraduate students. And he is possibly the only Jewish student; no one keeps track of the students’ religious affiliations.

As a lone Jew at school populated mostly by Christians and some Muslims, Mercado is part of a small group that is a phenomenon, albeit a little-noticed one – Jews studying at historically black colleges and universities, known as HBCUs among African-Americans. The schools were formed in the United States, mostly after the Civil War, to educate the freed slaves, who were barred from most universities due to racial restrictions.

Today there are 105 HBCUs in the country, with a total enrollment of 214,000 students; Jewish students are known to matriculate at several of these institutions, but no one knows how many.

“I can’t even give you an estimate,” says Jeff Rubin, associate vice president for communications at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the nearest thing to an expert in the Jewish community on this arcane subject.

“A lot of these schools have graduate programs” that often offer lower tuitions and more-flexible entrance requirements than other universities, Rubin says, explaining one possible reason Jewish students end up in a decidedly non-Jewish environment.

The character of HBCUs has changed in recent decades, since civil rights advances opened other universities to African-Americans. Now, many top black students enroll in historically “white schools,” while HBCUs continue to attract blacks who prefer to stay in a black milieu, as well as a limited number of non-black students.

“I believe that Jewish students choose many schools that might not seem like a natural choice,” says Rabbi Kenneth Weiss, executive director of Houston Hillel, which coordinates programming for students at several universities in the city – including a law student at Texas Southern University, a historically black institution. “In Houston we have students at Houston Baptist University, the University of St. Thomas and TSU. “Often, Jewish students choose the graduate school (like TSU law school) or choose a specific program (like the music school at HBU). The choice seems to be program directed rather than a conscious choice to attend a historically black school,” Rabbi Weiss says. “Also, just because a student is Jewish doesn’t mean that their Jewish identity is prominent enough that it guides or at all informs their choice of school.”

An experience as a minority at a minority school is remarkably unremarkable, say Jewish students at HBCUs, including some black Jews. They say they encounter no hostility or anti-Semitism; other students, especially in the heavily Christian South, are open to or curious about the Jewish students’ faith, they say.

“I was treated with respect by my classmates” at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, says Andre Key, a doctoral student in African-American Studies at Temple University who is black and Jewish. “Although we had religious debates and discussion, we did not mistreat each other because of religious difference. The cultural difference between African-American, Caribbean, and African students was bigger than the religious differences.

“A white Jewish student would face challenges [at a HBCU] that any white student faces,” Key says — “that is, being a minority and adjusting to black culture as the normative cultural reference point.”

Morris Courtney, a computer science major at Morehouse College – alma mater of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — in Atlanta whose father is black, says he finds curiosity among his fellow students and disbelief among some Jewish students he meets at the Georgia Tech Hillel. “Jewish people don’t believe I’m Jewish,” says Morris, who marked his bar mitzvah during a Birthright trip to Israel.

Like Mercado, Morris is an athlete, a member of the Morehouse cross-country team.

Unlike Courtney and Key, who by appearance could blend in at at a black school, Mercado stands out.

Dark-skinned, he is careful about the way he describes himself. “I’m not really ‘white’ – I’m Mexican,” he stresses. “I consider myself a Mexican Jew with a Syrian background.”

He says his family – original name: El Kana –traces its roots back to the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 and settled in Syria, making their way to Mexico in the early 1900s.

Mercado, 20, who shares a dormitory suite with seven black students, says he frequently gets asked questions about his beliefs and practices. He is an anomaly among the Jewish students interviewed for this article. “I consider myself Orthodox,” he says. Mercado (5-feet-7, 160 pounds), attended a day school in Fort Lauderdale before transferring to a public high school in order to play football. He prays in his room with tefillin each morning, to his suitemates’ initial looks of puzzlement, keeps a separate set of kosher pots and pans and dishes, and attends Shabbat services and other events at the Hillel chapter of nearby Johns Hopkins University. The MSU campus is a 20-minute drive away from the heart of Baltimore’s Jewish neighborhoods.

“I create my own Jewish life,” he says.

At Hillel functions, Mercado says, Jewish students are prone to comment more on his family’s background than on the identity of his school. “A lot of people are surprised there are Jews in Mexico,” he says.

For Passover, Mercado goes to the Hillel seders and keeps a stash of matzahs in his room.

A one-time soccer player who kicks for at MSU, hopes to play in the National Football League one day. He chose Morgan State — whose football team has sent four players to the NFL Hall of Fame, and plays in the NCAA’s Division I-AA — because it was the best school to offer him a full athletic scholarship and because Baltimore has a large Jewish community. Other college teams offered him the chance to try out for the team as a “walk-on,” without the guaranteed financial aid, he says.

His parents supported his choice of universities.

Mercado realized he’d be virtually the only Jewish student on campus; there may be one more, he says, but he’s not sure. In most classes, he’s the only non-black. “It doesn’t really matter. I’m very accepting of all people.” As an athlete on racially mixed teams all his life, “I’ve always been among people of other races,” he says, adding that he’s subject to the same good-natured bantering that any athlete faces.

To his teammates, he’s “Merc — some call me Abe.”

“I’ve learned a lot about other cultures,” he says.

Jewish students at black schools have a unique opportunity “to experience the life of other cultures” from the inside, says Rabbi Bob Kaplan, who coordinates inter-group relations for the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

“Anytime people have experiences with other cultures, it will benefit” the Jewish community’s ties with different religious and ethnic groups, says Jeff Rubin of Hillel.

Mercado’s experiences at Morgan State seem to parallel the experiences of Gil Landau, an Israeli-born place-kicker who played for Grambling University in Louisiana in the early 1990s, maintained a traditional level of Jewish observance and established close relationships with his black teammates.

At Morgan State, as at many predominantly black institutions, religion is taken seriously. The Student Center posts notices for area churches’ worship services and for an upcoming end-of-Ramadan break-the-fast dinner; in the student bookstore, dictionaries for Arabic and Swahili, but, not surprisingly, not Hebrew, are for sale.

The school, founded in 1867 as the Centenary Biblical Institute, was affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal Church and was created to train black men for the ministry. It evolved over the years to its present status as a state university that is not affiliated with any religious group but, with a designation as “Maryland’s Public University,” is recognized as one of the top HBCUs in the country.

MSU has none of the anti-Israel activism found at many universities in the U.S. and Canada, Mercado says. When a professor occasionally makes a comment critical of Israeli policies, Mercado will challenge him and the professor will listen respectfully, he says.

Mercado says he’s had no problems of social acceptance on campus. “I’m not discriminated against. Being on the football team” — which grants automatic status — “might make a difference.”

The 2011 season will be Mercado’s first on the Bears’ active roster; earlier, he was a “red shirt,” a non-playing player who has maintained his athletic eligibility. “On the field I’m a sophomore,” with three years of eligibility left.

A broadcast major with an A average, he hopes for an eventual career as a TV director or announcer. And he wants to kick in the NFL. “One of my dreams,” he says, “has always been to put on tefillin before an NFL game in [the locker room of] a stadium. Hopefully that will happen, b’ezrat Hashem [will the help of God].”

As an Orthodox Jew, his only compromise — Mercado would probably prefer to call it a concession – with traditional observance is football. He plays on Shabbat; all the Bears’ games this season, most of them against fellow HBCUs, are on Saturdays. “My rabbi says ‘One day you won’t” have to violate the Sabbath. For now, playing collegiate football is “something I want to do.”

The team’s homecoming game, against Savannah State University on Oct. 8 at 1 p.m., is on Yom Kippur. Mercado isn’t sure what he’ll do. “I’ll be fasting, even if I play.”

He says the football team respects his level of religious observance. Coach Hill-Eley has learned a bit of Judaism, including some Hebrew greetings, from his place-kicker, Mercado says. Often, the coach will wish the player a “Shabbat shalom.”

“Sometimes,” Mercado says, “he says it on Monday or Tuesday.”

steve@jewishweek.org