Photo by Elinor Samuel
Hughlin Boyd, a UCLA PhD candidate, frequenter of Hillel, and successful lawyer and politician, shares his story about how he crossed countries and cultures to reach his goals despite the challenges he has faced.
Boyd, who identifies as “Orthodox with a caveat” was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica. He grew up knowing his mother was Jewish and was constantly being told by his family that “you’re from these people [the Jews].” Living with no Jewish community but still keeping Shabbat in Jamaica, Boyd was known by his peers as being Jewish. His family, descending from Sephardic Jews following the Spanish Inquisition, remained close to their heritage.
“Jamaica as it is, is part of Judaism… When the Jews left Spain, Jamaica was their port. They went to Jamaica with Christopher Columbus and helped the British to come to the island,” Boyd related.
From 2,500 Jews in the late 1800s to under 250 today in Jamaica, there has been a continuous 400 years of Jewish settlement in the country, with thousands religiously identifying as Jews and as descendants of Sephardic Jewish immigrants.
The son of a single mother, Boyd was raised by his grandmother when his mother left to work in the United States. At age 15, Boyd reunited with his mother when she arrived in Jamaica to see her family for the last time, having recently been informed by doctors of her poor health. Within a month, she passed away, leaving Boyd responsible for his household when his grandmother and younger sisters moved to New York, packing up the family business and joining them.
Of his youth in New York, Boyd says that “religion was not a part of my life.” Boyd did not want to be “different” in America, but wanted to be integrated in American society. After moving to New York, Boyd relied on $100 a month social security and juggled jobs. Expressing his dream for further education, Boyd said that “going to school seemed like a luxury.” Joining the Jamaican community in Brooklyn, NY, he avoided the Jewish community in favor of being “normal.” Feeling a deepening sense of patriotism, Boyd joined the American airforce. Boyd completed his bachelor’s degree in Indiana, after being stationed in Ohio, beginning his pursuit of further education. Boyd went on to attend Law school, as well as gain a postgraduate degree at the University of Connecticut, in addition to a Masters in Pittsburgh and studying at University College, University of London. Upon graduating, Boyd received a call to work in Jamaica, returning to his country of birth and advising ministers in the government.
Working his way up, Boyd eventually had offices at the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, and the Ministry of Water and Housing at the same time. He became Senior Director of Legal Affairs for the Jamaican government. For the 2007 general elections, Boyd was assigned 25% of the parliamentary seats, winning the majority. However, the party lost the government, and Boyd returned to the United States. Today, Boyd notes that “this was Hashem’s way of saving my life.”
Upon his arrival to the US, Boyd recalls suffering from bouts of colds and minor illness. After a year of tests and further investigations, he received the news that he had stage four throat cancer.
“The doctors told my family to prepare for my funeral,” Boyd reflected, “but I had faith I wouldn’t die. Had we won the election, I wouldn’t be in the US and I wouldn’t necessarily be walking with Hashem. I believe that all things work in course for the purpose they were meant. G-d works in mysterious ways, but I believe he works in mischievous ways too.”
But Boyd’s journey to being cured was long. “I lived in a hospital for a number of months on and off. The longest was three months at any one time. I was given the highest level of radiation, highest level of chemotherapy and a number of surgeries,” Boyd recounted, as he outlined the seemingly futile attempt to rid himself of the cancer. “The radiation and the chemotherapy destroyed my esophagus, salivary glands, and swallowing capacity, and scarred my upper lungs. I rely on a gastric tube to eat.” During these years, Boyd suffered from a number of other ailments, not least glaucoma, and describes how he was “nothing but skin and bone.”
Boyd tells of his simultaneous corresponding increase in interest in Judaism. Boyd retained and developed his faith through his treatment, learning Torah with members of his community of Bnei Jacob synagogue in Brooklyn, both at the shul and at the hospital. He successfully won the battle against cancer, acting as key-note speaker at Cancer Survivors Day at VA’s Brooklyn campus, where he quipped “I have a million medical problems, but cancer is not one of them.”
Yet Boyd described the difficulty and prejudice that he regularly encounters. “Oftentimes when I am around Ashkenazis, the first question they ask is how am I Jewish, as if I should prove that I am Jewish… In other words, ‘you don’t belong, prove to me that you should be here.’” Boyd noted that he does not face the same prejudice with “Sephardic Jews or with Lubavitch, but I get that a lot by Ashkenazi Jews.” Nevertheless, Boyd reflected that “I don’t feel put off by it because I’m not a Jew because of Ashkenazis, Sephardis or Lubavitch — I’m a Jew because G-d made me a Jew. I don’t care what man thinks, I care that I live my life according to the tenants of the Torah. Whatever issue man has is his issue, not mine and I am not going to adopt his cancerous mind.”
Boyd shares his personal relationship with his faith. “For me, my Jewishness is about me, not about the community. I live according to what the Torah says. I will go to shul, but oftentimes, I am not well received. So I will just go to prayer and then go home but I live according to the tenants of the Torah. That is my Jewishness, it’s not about being around certain folks because my acceptance is not with man, but with G-d. Whatever I can do to help Jews accomplish whatever they want in life, I do my best. That said, I will do that for anyone… doesn’t matter because we are all G-d’s creation.”
Presently, Boyd is earning his Ph.D. in Education at UCLA and is on target to graduate in three to four years, two years faster than the national average. He described how “even with all the medical challenges, I completed the requirements for Ph.D.” and how he completes additional credits every quarter despite weekly day trips to the hospital. He goes to services at Hillel, attends classes and learns with the rabbis. Nevertheless, Boyd’s difficulties are not behind him: “I was hospitalized Valentine’s Day weekend” he said nonchalantly, describing the complications with his heart. Nevertheless, Boyd has many hopes and aspirations for the future.
“I hope for professorship and to make contributions to society and not sit at home and be sad about certain limitations and challenges that I now have to deal with on a daily basis.”
Flying to Jamaica over the summer, Boyd is keen to further his education and teach others: “no society progresses without having an educated workforce. Education is a tool to advance society.” On a personal level, Boyd said: “I hope that I be a better person and a better Jew in the long run on a personal level.”
Humble and eloquent, Boyd jokes that for “a boy from the streets in New York, I did not turn out too badly. You don’t have to have a lot of resources in life to be successful and you don’t have to be successful immediately — you just have to keep working towards success. It’s when you stop trying that you have failed.”
Boyd thanks G-d for his successes: “all that He has promised to do He has done. I have found a family here at Hillel and in my department I have found wonderful students. I am happy.”
Boyd has abandoned his previous shame of being Jewish and is now proud of his heritage. “Be proud to be Jewish, Jews have given the world a lot … The world should be happy there is such a thing as Jews.”