I met Tony Westbrookin Jerusalem, in 2016, when we both studied at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Tony was a large presence in the program; he was known for hosting beautiful, multi-course Shabbat meals and making soup to deliver to anyone in the program who got sick.
Today, Tony is the Assistant Director of the Hillel at Washington University in St Louis. He’s also a burgeoning TikTok star, where he goes by @frumjewishblackboy. It’s a solid description of Tony, who has been deeply devoted to Jewish text and Jewish life ever since he converted years ago after growing up as an evangelical Pentecostal Christian.
Tony is 33, making him one of the elders of TikTok, where he shares his conversion story and educates his audience on Jewish traditions and discrimination against Jews of color. Some of his success is perhaps due to his style — Tony is a sharp dresser, and often posts pre-Shabbat clips dressed in a snazzy suit and hat. Plus, his house is uniquely colorful, so the backdrop of Tony’s videos always pops — perhaps it’s the lime green living room, which features stylized portraits of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Albert Einstein, or the vibrant red and orange kitchen.
For February, Black History Month, Tony decided to do a series of videos about Black Jews, trying to draw attention to the breadth of the community. He’s featured historical figures as well as living people, both famous and more obscure. That means hip hop star Drake has featured alongside Gugulethu Moyo, the first Jew of color to run a Jewish museum.
We spoke about what inspired him to do the project, the responses he’s been getting and whether any of his Hillel students have recognized him from TikTok (yes). Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.
What gave you the idea for this series?
One driving force came after a conversation I had with someone that was like “Oh, I only know three Black Jews, Sammy Davis Jr., Drake,” and I don’t remember the third one they said. It might have been Maya Rudolph.
I said you know, there’s a lot of us, there are lots of people that are really famous, there are lots of people who are not so famous. And they said well, we don’t have any here in St. Louis. And I thought, but you’re standing here talking to someone who is Black and Jewish. We’re here!
How did you choose who to include? It’s kind of a mix of Jewish communal leaders and, people like, well, Drake.
I live with my good friend and mentor Karen Kalish — I like to say she’s the Jewish Oprah, she knows everyone and anything — and part of the library here at the house is entirely Black and Jewish. There’s a book that talks about famous Black Jews. It’s from 1971, it’s really dated with lots of language we would not use today, but I just started researching.
I’d say a third of the people I profiled are people I know and have worked with, or people I just fanboy over — like Michael Twitty and I have become friends, and I just love everything he does.
I’ve been really intentional about having a balance in terms of gender representation, sexual orientation and across the religious-secular spectrum.
Is there any strategy behind your posts?
My content is super niche; either you’re Black and enjoy learning new parts of Black culture, or you’re Jewish, and there’s that rare combo of Black and Jewish, which I’ve discovered there’s a whole community of on TikTok.
I’m a planner by nature. I sat down and wrote out the entire month. Probably three hours of my Sunday morning is me shooting these videos, doing all the captions, changing shirts so it looks like it’s a different day, finding different lighting.
Tell me what the response to the series has been like.
I got a really great response today, someone was like, “Oh, I love this series, I always thought Jews were white, thank you so much for putting this out there.” Hillels have messaged me asking if they could share the videos.
But every now and then — and I’ve seen this on a lot of Jewish creators’ content — we get these very weird comments that say like, “ Well, Jesus was a Jew!” And I think OK, I was posting about Hanukkah, but thanks, I guess?
I’ve gotten lots of comments from Black Hebrew Israelites, and they just say really uncomfortable things. “You’re the true Hebrew, you’re the true Israelite. You don’t need to cater to these white people.” And I think, again, that’s not what this post was about.
And then I get a lot of blatant, “Do you know Jesus Christ is your lord and savior?”
I got an email to that effect this morning.
It’s really made this community stronger. There’s so much antisemitism on TikTok, and the fact that I and other Jewish creators have to keep making posts to call out antisemitism is bringing all members of the Jewish community to the table to talk about this.
There’s a young TikToker, and when they post about Israel, there’s no Israel, there’s just the conflict, there’s no other context. That person and a diehard Zionist made a duet video talking about antisemitism and I thought wow, these things can happen, that’s really great.
So what inspired the urge to get on TikTok?
I used work as an excuse. Other Hillels were saying all of their students are crazy about this TikTok thing, it’s the way we are connecting with them. And with many of our students not being on campus this past semester, I figured I’d see what they’re doing, what kind of content we like. And I fell down this rabbit hole.
I downloaded it in August, which was a particularly hard month. Lots of lockdown things were happening in St. Louis, and we were gearing up for students to return to campus and having high holidays. I haven’t always handled stress the best, and I’m not going to go out and drink or do drugs, so I downloaded TikTok. I lost hours to it. I learned a good deal of French, though!
Have any of your students seen your TikToks?
There are a number of students who knew me before I ever met them because of these videos, and they were afraid to talk to me because I was this TikTok star. I was like, “Guys, I am not a TikTok star.” I do a lot of these videos for my own enjoyment. I think of myself as being surprisingly shy and awkward and dorky, and I can make these TikToks because I’m usually the only one in the room.
What’s weird is when I find my students’ TikToks. Most of them are really mild, but anything that’s twerking or dancing, I just swipe. I don’t need to see that.
Any funny anecdotes of being recognized, in, I don’t know, the grocery store?
Actually yes! That happened the other day. I was running to get things for Hillel, for Shabbat, and there was this young Orthodox girl and she was there shopping with her friends. And they kept whispering and giggling every time I went past. I was like, have they never seen anyone who is Black and Jewish?
And then I heard the click of a camera, and I said, “Excuse me, did you just take a picture of me? I don’t know if there’s something on my face or what, but please delete it.” And they said, “No, no it’s not that — you’re frumjewishblackboy!”
Mira Fox is a fellow at the Forward. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @miraefox.