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

Jewish & Black: Recognizing racism in childhood

Understanding the impact of early experiences on identity formation


In my previous blog post, I shared my childhood experiences and how young children embrace diversity and live in harmony without noticing racial distinctions. Now, I want to explore my early experiences with Black racism and how these experiences shaped my identity and my family’s approach to looking different.

Early experiences with Black racism

Around the age of ten, I began to experience disparaging remarks regarding my skin color from boys at the local JCC swimming pool who were not part of my immediate Chabad community, and when I went away to overnight camp. This was when I first started to recognize and understand racism.

While my first overt experience of racism occurred around age ten, supporting the idea that younger children do not initially care about racial differences, my earliest memory of mistreatment was when I was just three or four years old. During that time, I was babysat by a mother with physical disabilities. Her adolescent daughter would verbally abuse me, falsely accuse me of ruining bedroom furniture, and make me sit in a corner for hours until my mother came to pick me up. Although I was so young, I recall the palpable fear that I felt. I dreaded having to go to this babysitter. In my pleadings with my mother not to take me to the babysitter, she did not recognize my underlying fear. I was too young to understand it at the time; it was only years later that I began to question this girl’s bias towards me.

Reflecting on my experiences, I vividly recall the burning sting of being treated differently, a feeling that gnawed at me, leaving me in self-doubt and deeply hurt. To this day, the pain remains with me. There were times when I was singled out and picked on by those in authority, sometimes mercilessly and for no apparent reason.

One of my most humiliating memories was being shamed and assaulted in front of the entire overnight camp by the head counselor. I was arguing with a bunkmate to get out of my seat when the whistle blew. The head counselor had me stand on the stage with my nose to the wall. When he felt that my nose was not touching the wall, he kicked me in the seat of my pants. I remember the absolute humiliation that I felt. A helpless rage consumed me as I felt defenseless. I tried so hard to hold back the tears, but I was miserably unsuccessful. I have not been able to completely erase the shame and indignation from that day.

There was an overnight counselor who apparently harbored a special disdain for me. I loved being part of the camp spirit, cheering, singing, and competing in athletic activities. Yet, his constant nitpicking and harsh reprimands felt like a relentless assault, as if he were trying to diminish my joy and destroy my lively spirit. I often wondered what I had done to deserve such treatment. Similarly, I had two supervisors during my years as a Yeshiva and rabbinical student who did not treat me well. One of them slapped me twice across the face in front of my class. I felt so impotent. At sixteen years old, I was strong and athletic. I wanted to retaliate, but I was powerless. Any reaction or reprisal would have potentially ruined my rabbinical aspirations. The same supervisor, after I got into a fight defending a friend from a bigger student, told me that I was a wild animal. He said he could not believe the level of barbarism in me and that there must be something wrong with me. While I have tried to forget his verbal beatdown, I am fairly certain he also pointed to my being Black.

As I processed these interactions, I began to question if my experiences were the result of subliminal, or even overt, racial discrimination because of my being Black. I will never know for sure if some of these people treated me the way they did because of my ethnicity, but I do wonder. These experiences eroded my confidence. The derogatory things I was told about me, and what I heard said about Blacks, affected me. I began to question if there was something indeed inherently wrong with me. Did I harbor a dark side because I was Black?

Despite these painful experiences, I am grateful that I had the unwavering support of my close-knit community. My Chicago community, my family, and my friends were my shelter.

One experience that left an indelible impact on me was when I divulged my racial background to a boy I met in middle school. The comments and mockery that followed compelled me from that point on not to share with others that my biological father was Black. By my teens, I was keenly aware of often being perceived differently and the general attitudes in some circles towards Black people.

Family and identity

My parents tried to shelter me from feeling different within our community. G-d bless my mother, I am blessed to be the oldest of twelve siblings. I was fully embraced by my siblings and my adopted father’s family. My grandparents treated me no differently than my other siblings. If anything, I received preferential treatment as the eldest child. As a rabbi and father, my grandparents repeatedly told me how proud they were of me. My siblings didn’t ask about our different complexions until adolescence. They tell me that they didn’t even notice, and it didn’t occur to them until they were older to wonder why I was darker.

My mother genuinely does not see the difference between people. This unconditional love my mother has for all people fostered my empathy and embracing of all people. Her example taught me to see the inherent value in everyone, regardless of their background or appearance.

I am most grateful for my close relationship and bond with my siblings. Because my parents did not treat me differently, I have always been 100% their eldest brother, mentor, and role model. I have so many beautiful memories. My sisters eavesdropped with excitement on my calls when they deduced I was dating. I would take my little siblings with me whenever I went shopping, buying them little treats. My sister Shuli recalled years later how I loved buying Snapple beverages. When they were younger, my siblings came to me for advice on all matters – from hairstyles to professional decisions to dating advice. My sister Tzippy even got a pixie cut at my suggestion. There were many late nights when my siblings discussed their dates with me, seeking my opinions and advice. To this day, some of my siblings call me when they are wrestling with a big decision or feeling uncertain. My family is my bedrock. They have always made me feel loved and valued.


Reflecting on my early experiences with racism, I grappled with deep-seated doubts about my self-worth and identity. The pain of being treated differently and the sting of derogatory comments left lasting scars. Despite these painful memories, the unwavering support of my close-knit community and family provided shelter, fostering a sense of belonging and love.

As I navigated the challenges of understanding my place in the world, the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the values instilled by my parents played a pivotal role in shaping my perspective. Yet, the journey was far from over.

In my next post, I will delve into how these experiences influenced my approach to parenting and the pivotal moments that led me to address our racial identity with my children. I will explore the healing process, the importance of embracing one’s identity, and the lessons I have imparted to my children to help them recognize their infinite value. Stay tuned as I share the next chapter of my journey, filled with self-discovery, growth, and the profound impact of the teachings of Chassidus.

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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