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Raising my biracial Jewish child

Should a multi-racial family move away from their Jewish community so they can live in a more diverse setting?

Today’s Jam

My husband and I are both white; we have a six-year-old adopted daughter who is biracial. We are socially progressive and it is important to us to be self-aware parents of a brown-skinned child, staying updated on issues that matter to us especially as a multi-racial family, and becoming aware of and working on our own unconscious racism. We don’t live in a very diverse area, and our Jewish community is almost exclusively white; it is important to us to have more brown-skinned people in our daughter’s life, yet it feels problematic to us to target people for friendship just because they are African-American, and surely would feel problematic to them as well! Moving into a more racially diverse neighborhood would, in our city, remove us from the hub of Jewish activity which has been very important to our family. How can we find ways to make sure that Sarah’s world has people in it who look like her and with whom she may share some heritage and experience, without turning people into objects or tokens, or sacrificing the quality of our (and her) Jewish life?

Jenny Sartori says…

Jenny SartoriYou’re right that, as a transracial adoptee, Sarah needs to grow up with people of color in her life. You’re also right that targeting people for friendship just because they are African-American is problematic. Instead, try putting yourselves in situations in which you are likely to meet a diverse group of people who share your own interests: join a book club, attend cultural events, join the Y or enroll your daughter in an activity in a racially diverse area. And introduce yourself to people, not because they are African-American but because they seem to be nice people with whom you share something in common. Just because you may have made a deliberate choice to put yourself in these situations doesn’t mean the efforts and the friendships are not genuine.

I would also encourage you to find ways of bringing the Jewish and African-American aspects of your family’s identity together. If Sarah does not see herself among her Jewish peers, it may well have an impact on how she feels about being Jewish. Is there a more diverse congregation or Jewish communal organization in your area? If so, try them out and see if they might be good fits for you. Check out the Jewish Multiracial Network or Be’chol Lashon, groups that work to promote awareness of diversity and combat racism within the Jewish community. Encourage your congregation to become involved in anti-racist work from a Jewish perspective. These things might help your daughter see the various aspects of her identity as integrated rather than competing.

Finally, perhaps you might think again about moving to a more diverse neighborhood. Adopting, especially transracially, involves change — for parents as well as children — as you take active steps to embrace a multiracial identity for your family. For many of us, it involves going outside our comfort zones – as we are often asking our children to do. We may start by making these changes for our children’s sake but find in the end that they also enrich and transform our own Jewish identities and sense of self.

Jennifer Sartori, Ph.D, is Associate Director of the Jewish Studies program at Northeastern University and Co-Director, with Dr. Jayne Guberman, of the Adoption and Jewish Identity Project. She is also the mother of a 9-year-old daughter adopted from China.

Yavilah McCoy says…

Photographs for Mayyim Hayim Web Site.Jenny’s thoughts about reaching for people of color and diverse experiences to include in Sarah’s life, and finding Jewish organizations that do outreach and advocacy for multiracial families, are all important steps toward Sarah’s seeing and understanding herself positively as a Jewish child of color (JCOC). I also encourage you to focus attention on raising Sarah’s awareness and understanding of how race operates and how its construction impacts our Jewish lives. To have strong self-esteem and a balanced sense of herself as a person of color who is Jewish, she will need to explore her identities comfortably and openly, ask questions about societal practices around race and religion–and learn about things she may not yet be asking about.

Share with her honestly that there are reasons your family has not been able to find a viable option for living in a vibrant Jewish community and near other people of color. Teach her how segregation, racism, and economic disparity persist in shaping your world, and why so many Black and White people live separately and under such different conditions. (To be sure, it can sometimes be hard to know how much is too much and how little is too little in exposing children to racism, social constructs around race, and their consequences, in age-appropriate ways.)

It must be you and not other people of color in her life who are prepared to answer the hard questions: “Why do people call me Black when my skin is brown?” and “Why are custodians and service workers the only other Black people that we see in shul and other Jewish spaces?” Your learning to speak truthfully and explicitly about race in and around the Jewish community, however difficult, will ultimately serve both you and Sarah well in forming an empowering identity for her as a JOC.

Lastly, build upon Sarah’s faith and imagination. That work begins not in more diverse social circles but at home. I constantly teach my children to believe in what they cannot see as part of what it means to be Jewish. I teach them to believe in the Brown Jewish faces that have always been a part of our Jewish history, in a multiracial Jewish people that is our own, in their own beauty. As I say to them often “Let’s face the world together, and never let anyone steal our joy.”

Yavilah McCoy is the CEO of Visions Incorporated. She is a diversity and anti-racism facilitator and the proud mother of four African-American Jewish children.

José Portuondo-Dember says…

José Portuondo-DemberAlthough any change carries with it some loss, I encourage you to see your family’s situation as an opportunity for enrichment, in particular with regards to the quality of your Jewish lives. Jenny discussed ways to integrate multiracial identities within a context of activism. Especially given the current milieu, this is critical work. But I would suggest that you practice taking integration of identities even further.

Yavilah gives one example when she mentions teaching her children to believe in the unseen—“the Brown Jewish faces that have always been a part of our history.” This opens up the whole realm of Jewish learning, both in school and camp settings and at home. Another way of envisioning the unseen would be creating your own midrashim—creative elaborations of the biblical narrative that fill in textual gaps. Look at the story of Moses. Here, in our tradition, we have an example of an adoption that crosses ethnic, if not racial, boundaries. Imagine with Sarah what that might have been like for him growing up. Or how might his experiences in this context made him feel when it came time to confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites? I don’t mean to gloss over the complexities of that narrative, just to offer adoption and cross-cultural family configurations within Jewish history and Jewish tradition as a potential resource for your family.

There are other ways to integrate Sarah’s cultural inheritances into your family’s Jewish practice. For example, I use plantains as my karpas on Passover, because it connects my Puerto Rican background to the holiday (plaintains and bananas are both “fruit of the earth”—it doesn’t have to be just parsley or potatoes!). When I used to regularly lead Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday nights, I would use two popular plena melodies (a folk genre) for the poem Lecha Dodi. The consequence of these types of practices for me is that I do not have to compartmentalize and choose between aspects of myself, but rather allow them to be present simultaneously and mutually. Discovering similar possibilities for your family, in addition to connecting her with other people of color including JOCs, could also help Sarah experience the integration or co-existence of her identities.

José Portuondo-Dember, Esq., is a first-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College and a descendant of the Jews of Spain that converted to Catholicism and came to Cuba and Puerto Rico in the shadow of the Inquisition. His interests include developing relationships with the Jewish communities of Cuba, and full inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish practice.

Now, what do YOU say?

Which life changes do white Jewish parents of adoptive children of color need to consider seriously? Weigh in by adding a comment below.

And of course, if you have a dilemma you’d like us to address in the Ethical Jam, send it to

Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism of Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts, which is working to create a rich pluralistic discourse on issues of vital concern to the Jewish community and to the world at large.
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About the Author
Ethical Jam presents contemporary ethical dilemmas and the responses of Jewish thinkers from across the world Jewish community. Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism (CGJ) at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts and of the Times of Israel, and was created by CGJ’s director Rabbi Or Rose and Hebrew College president Rabbi Daniel Lehmann. It is edited by Rabbi Sue Fendrick, Editor at CGJ. (Illustrative ‘thinking woman’ author photo via
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