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

Jewish & Black: Finding my identity with the Rebbe

It was his unconditional love that got me through the shame and embarrassment of the racial mockery I endured as a child
A Moment with the Rebbe: Guiding My Path to Identity (courtesy)


For some time now, I’ve been waiting for the right moment to share my personal reflections. Recent conversations with one of my daughters about her experiences in seminary have underscored the persistent racial insensitivities and ignorance that still plague our society. I’ve often questioned my role as an ambassador for racial diversity and acceptance, wondering if my efforts will make a difference. Yet, as I reflect on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I am reminded that every action, no matter how small, can make a profound impact.

Choosing to begin sharing my thoughts and experiences on Juneteenth is intentional. It’s a day that not only commemorates the end of enslavement in the United States but also signifies a step towards racial acceptance and equality. By embracing Juneteenth, I aim to highlight its importance and promote understanding among my peers, both within and outside the Jewish community. This journey is personal for me, as I proudly embrace my Jewish soul while acknowledging the importance of African American history as an integral part of my identity.

A Chabad Rabbi’s Personal Odyssey of Overcoming Challenges, Embracing Identity, and Spreading Love in a Diverse World

In the hopeful echo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s words to New York Mayor David Dinkins on September 25, 1989, envisioning a future where the vibrant tapestry of humanity eliminates the need to emphasize differences, I am inspired. A future where we no longer feel compelled to label individuals by their race but instead recognize the shared essence that binds us all. “They are no different. All of them are created by the same G-d, and created for the same purpose,” the Rebbe proclaimed.

I owe my strength, determination, and life mission to the profound influence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

My mother hailed from a secular, working-class Jewish American family. At a tender age, she fell in love with a confident African American boy, and I came into the world in 1976. During her pregnancy, his mistreatment reached unbearable levels – infidelity, verbal and physical abuse. Despite her lack of religious inclination, my mother cried and prayed to G-d for help. When I was just six months old, in a heart-wrenching move, he yelled at my grandmother, forbidding her to ever touch me. Witnessing the pain in her mother’s eyes, my mother made the courageous decision to leave him that day and never look back.

In Judaism, there exists an imperative: G-d provides the cure before the disease strikes (Talmud Megillah 13B). My story truly begins before my birth, with my mother’s eldest brother. Chabad Rabbinical students, sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, approached him to put on tefillin on the streets of Cleveland about a year before my arrival. Himself an eccentric man, my uncle embraced Chabad, drawn to the open and proudly Jewish Chassidic students. Slowly, the Chabad House in Cleveland became his second home.


When my mother, not yet eighteen, sought refuge for herself and her newborn, no domestic abuse shelter in Cleveland would take them in. Turning to Chabad, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s emissary, Mrs. Devorah Alevsky, welcomed them when no one else would. Upon entering the Chabad House, my mother realized with certainty that she wanted to raise me as a Jew. Offered the opportunity to learn Torah and how to be Jewishly observant, my mother immediately accepted. The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s leadership and love, embodied by his emissaries, provided her with a one-way ticket to New York, marking the beginning of her transformative journey.

In New York, my mother was welcomed by many of the Rebbe’s dedicated followers. In Crown Heights, Rabbi and Mrs. Kazen’s daughters, pioneering shluchim (emissaries) of the Rebbe in Cleveland, Mrs. Henya Laine and Mrs. Rivka Kotlarsky, regularly hosted us for Shabbat meals. We were also regulars in the Zarchi home, and Mrs. Chaya Sara Zarchi took tremendous pride and joy in seeing me grow up to be a Shliach of the Rebbe.

Rabbi Yosef Boruch Wircberg, a teacher at the women’s seminary Machon Chana, and his wife Alessa, often hosted us in their small home. Rabbi Wircberg and I share an uncommon name, “Yosef Boruch,” and he enjoyed holding me on his knee and telling all, as my name translates from Hebrew, that I am an added blessing.

Mrs. Nechama Baumgarten became an instrumental mentor. The Eckhaus family went above and beyond, with their children watching me so my mother could study in the evenings.

Their acts of loving kindness, in the ethos of the Rebbe’s vision, were instrumental in helping us integrate into the extended Chabad family. We are all children of the Rebbe. Many in the “Rebbe’s Army” helped immerse us in the world of Torah and Chassidut.


Growing up as the sole Black child in a predominantly white Ashkenazic Jewish environment proved challenging. Childhood memories are tainted with hurtful experiences – a babysitter branding me as “bad” and confining me to a corner, being labeled a “wild animal,” and enduring taunts like “Shvartze Hotdog” in overnight camp. Despite these challenges, I was an outgoing, athletic, strong, and confident kid. I was good-natured and had close friendships. No one knew what I was going through as I suffered with conflicting feelings of shame and embarrassment in silence. I didn’t reveal to anyone the impact that racial attitudes in the community had on me, nor did I let on how deeply words affected me. As I entered high school, the racial mockery intensified, alleviating only after I confided in my rabbi and teacher at that time. Although he curbed the abuse, he cautioned me about the harsh realities of the world outside our sheltered community – a prophecy that proved true.

A revelation my mother eventually shared with me as an adult emerged – upon arriving in Brooklyn, she was encouraged to give me up for adoption. Despite being advised against raising a baby, as an 18-year-old, she defied the counsel. My mother stressed that I was the best thing that came into her life, she loved me dearly, I meant everything to her, and that it was her love and bond with me that gave her strength. The Rebbe’s teachings resonated with her, emphasizing that the power to overcome challenges is bestowed upon us. This mantra became her guiding principle, one she instilled in me.

At every juncture, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s unwavering guidance shaped my path. His unconditional love, the belief that every Jew is a diamond, and the embrace of Torah became my pillars of strength. Despite the hardships, I refused to let negativity define me, spurred on by the Rebbe’s assurance that I belonged.

Memories with the Rebbe are etched in my heart – from receiving coins as a child to passing him in line for charity dollars as I grew older. A pivotal moment occurred at age four when my mother got engaged to the man who would become the only father I knew. In 1981, the Rebbe granted private audiences with brides and grooms. My parents chose to include me in this experience. The audience centered around me, with the Rebbe engaging in a conversation about my tzitzis, leaving an indelible mark of love and care.


The Rebbe’s blessings have been a protective shield for me and my loved ones. Uncertain if anyone would want to marry me, I found a loving partner on my first date – a result, I believe, of the Rebbe’s blessing. Our journey through multiple miscarriages was met with prayers and visits to the Rebbe’s resting place. Miraculously, our prayers were answered, and we now have seven beautiful children.

Over my 47 years, struggles persisted. Childhood taunts eroded my confidence, and to this day, I grapple with approaching people and seeking financial support for our Chabad House. Yet, the Rebbe’s unwavering belief in my potential prevented failure. His love and will propelled the flourishing of the Rebbe’s Chabad House, defying my perceived shortcomings.

Today, as a Chabad rabbi in Hartford, Connecticut, I reflect on a life shaped by the Rebbe’s teachings. The Rebbe’s love and concern for every human being inspire my dedication to helping others. I am driven to spread his love, contribute to a world of love and peace, and play my part in building a world where everyone is equal – a world where skin color holds no significance.

My message is simple: emulate the Rebbe. Follow his example of unconditional love. Be mindful that what we say and do has a profound impact. As I began this essay, I end it: we must strive for a world where a person is not judged by the color of their skin. We must remember that everyone has potential and inherent good in them. We must recognize that each and every one of us has a unique mission in this world, and only collectively will we be able to make this a beautiful world of love, peace, and happiness.

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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