Yosef B. Kulek
Shliach, Chaplain, Educator: Embracing Diversity, Inspiring Inclusiveness

Jewish & Black: Do Children See Color?

Just before my third birthday
Innocence: Just before my third birthday

Reflections on My Childhood and Racial Awareness


I am overwhelmed and deeply grateful for my first blog post‘s outpouring of support. Many people reached out to share their similar experiences, thanking me for inspiring them. Thank you to all those who reached out from far and near to express their love and support. I am gratified to learn that people found valuable lessons in my story. One key theme was the uplifting nature of my positivity despite difficult experiences. Although I originally planned to delve into my feelings of shame and inadequacy growing up, I will postpone that discussion. Instead, I will continue to explore my lived experiences.

Childhood Experiences with Color

Studies suggest that children notice racial distinctions from infancy. The American Psychological Association supports this with recent research. While I won’t delve into the minds of babies, I want to share my lived experiences.

First year in Camp Gan Israel of Chicago, age 5

As a young child growing up in Jewish communities, I don’t recall distinct racist incidents where I felt singled out because of my Black complexion. My earliest friends never mentioned my color. I was just one of the boys—energetic, confident, and vivacious. At Cheder Lubavitch Hebrew Day School in Chicago, I was one of the oldest boys in the inaugural class. I was highly competitive and a leader in sports and games. We were a tough group of boys to manage, but academically I thrived and won accolades. Although my Cheder Lubavitch classmates were White Ashkenazic Jews, we were still a diverse group. One friend and his family were converts. Another was raised by a single father, his mother having passed when he was very young. Another was from the Brisk Yeshivah community. In fact, only a small handful of friends came from Chabad homes.

Class performance, at age 8

Beyond my circle of friends, I was accepted and treated like all the other kids in our Jewish neighborhood. When my family first moved to West Rogers Park, I had just turned six years old. I was excited to see a boy with long curly peyot, or sidelocks, playing in a neighboring yard. I introduced myself to Zevy Goldsweig, and although we went to different schools, he became a close childhood friend. He once told me that even though I was a year younger, he loved including me in his sports activities because I was so good. I don’t think so, but I’ll accept the flattery. We certainly had many fun weekends together. Zevy introduced me to youth from his school and community. I was also close friends with the Soloveichik family, who embraced me from the moment I began attending Cheder Lubavitch with two of the cousins, Meir Yaakov and Yisroel Yosef, of blessed memory. While some of the Soloveichik cousins attended Cheder Lubavitch, others went to different schools. The Soloveichik family was an integral part of the Brisk Yeshivah community, where I felt right at home and formed wonderful friendships. Rabbi Meir Soloveichik and Shmuel Soloveichik danced at my wedding, and Shmuel remains my best friend to this day. I also consider his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, one of my mentors.

My first class in Cheder Lubavitch Hebrew Day School, age 6

My childhood memories of racism mostly involve antisemitic attacks by non-Jewish youth in our neighborhood, which felt expected given our history. I loved to read and learn, and I knew all about Jewish persecution and antisemitism. The Jewish people are often hated for being different. I recall being attacked by an older boy in my apartment complex after he came home from Christian Sunday school, accusing the Jews of killing their Savior. I was only eight years old at the time.

These childhood experiences show how young children are embracing of diversity, yet continue to maintain their unique identities. Without outside influences, young children do not notice or put much weight on ethnic differences and can live in harmony and mutual respect. The Rebbe once expressed this vision for all of society where people of different backgrounds could do just that: “May G-d Almighty bless everyone with a happy year, and to go from strength to strength in all things necessary, especially for the benefit of the multitudes of nationalities.”

With childhood friend, Yudi Abrahams, by Lake Michigan, near the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago

Reflecting on Childhood and Looking Ahead

Reflecting on my childhood, I believe that young children do not inherently notice racial distinctions. They are able to live in harmony and mutual respect while maintaining their unique identities. However, as children grow older, they begin to question ethnicity and absorb social influences. In my next blog post, I will delve into my early experiences of Black racism, how these experiences shaped my identity, and how they influence the way I raise my children. Stay tuned as I continue to share my journey of self-acceptance and the teachings of the Rebbe.

About the Author
Inspired not only by the profound teachings but also by the boundless love and genuine concern of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Kulek's journey is deeply rooted in a commitment to view each person as a precious diamond. Shaped by this philosophy, he embraces his diverse biracial background, serving as a dedicated Chabad Shliach. Not only does he serve as the director of Chabad at the University of Hartford, fostering a warm home for students alongside his wife and 7 children, but he also collaborates with the university as a recognized Chabad Chaplain and a member of the G-d Squad, contributing to Cultural Diversity & Belonging within the Division of Student Success. Beyond the campus, Rabbi Kulek extends his outreach to the Hartford Police Department, working closely with police officers, and the Connecticut Department of Corrections, providing pastoral presence for both the incarcerated and correctional officers. His multifaceted approach, rooted in years of teaching students of all ages, embodies the Rebbe's teachings, fostering positive change and unity within diverse communities. It's important to note that the views and lessons expressed are personal and not in his official capacity as a chaplain with the DOC or HPD.
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