Pamela Frydman
Chaplain, author, and educator

The Jewish People: A Faith, Not a Race

I wish to dedicate this article to my esteemed colleague Dr. Saji Varghese, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Lady Keane College, in Shillong, Meghalaya, India. Dr. Varghese asked, “Please help me understand, are Jews a race? If not, why are Jews described as a race in relation to the Holocaust?” Our conversation led to this article.[1]

Overview: Judaism is a religion and a way of life. In other words, it is a faith and a spiritual path. There is a Jewish community and a Jewish people. However, there is no Jewish race. Rather, Jews hail from many races just like Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and others. The notion of a “Jewish race” is a fiction perpetrated by anti-Semites who wish to define Jews as having their own race in order to denigrate Jews as being from an “inferior race,” and as being subhuman.

From Adam to Noah: According to the first chapter of Genesis, Adam was the first human and Adam was created male and female.[2] Soon after, Eve was created. Adam and Eve had progeny and their progeny populated the world. Then came the flood when all human beings were destroyed except Noah and his wife, their three sons and their sons’ wives.[3]

If the stories in the Bible are to be taken literally, then all humanity is of one race and what we call “races” are evolutionary patterns within the one human family.

Independent of whether the Biblical account is true, the Biblical view of evolution is relevant to peace, because considering humanity to be from one source helps us to bridge the gaps between animosity and harmony.[4]

From Hebrew to Israelite to Jew: Some say that Abraham was the first Hebrew while others say that Abraham and his wife Sarah were the first Hebrews. Abraham and Sarah’s uniqueness is defined by their belief in one G-o-d and the call of the one G-o-d to Abraham to migrate[5] from his native land to a new land. According to the Torah, G-o-d promised this new land to Abraham and his descendants, and for that reason, it is called the Promised Land.[6]

Every Jewish person is considered to be directly connected to the lineage of Abraham and Sarah either by birth or conversion. This connection is considered so potent that when a non-Jewish person converts to Judaism, s/he is given a Hebrew name that includes the phrase “son/daughter of Abraham and Sarah”[7]

Abraham and Sarah’s descendants were known as “Israelites” or “Children of Israel,” because their grandson Jacob was given the name Israel when he wrestled with a man-angel-being.[8]

After forty years of wandering in the wilderness,[9] the Israelites entered the Promised Land. They settled in tribal communities and came to be known as the twelve tribes. Eventually the twelve tribes united to form the Kingdom of Israel. Saul was the first king,[10] David the second,[11] and Solomon the third.[12]

After the death of King Solomon, two of Solomon’s sons – Jeroboam and Rehoboam – fought over the throne. This led the tribes to divide into two separate kingdoms, with Jeroboam reigning over the northern Kingdom of Israel, and Rehoboam reigning over the southern Kingdom of Judah.[13]

At the time the united kingdom came to be known as the Kingdom of Israel, the Jewish people were already known as the Children of Israel. Thus, the land came to be known by the name of the people rather than the other way around. It also bears mentioning that there was never a time when the Promised Land was populated only by Jews. There have always been people of other faiths living there as well.

The division of the united Kingdom of Israel into the divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah took place in approximately 933 B.C.E. After this division, the residents of Israel continued to be known as Israelites and Children of Israel. The residents of Judah also continued to be known as Israelites and Children of Israel in the religious sense of being identified as children of Jacob. However, the residents of Judah also came known as Judeans, reflecting the name of their kingdom. Thus, one might say, “I am a Judean Israelite” or “I am an Israelite Judean.”

For nearly two centuries, the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah coexisted, each with their own king. Then, in approximately 722 B.C.E., the Assyrians destroyed the Kingdom of Israel and forced its residents off their land and into captivity.[14] The Kingdom of Israel never reconstituted and its former residents are known to this day as “the lost tribes.”[15]

146 years later, in approximately 586 B.C.E., the Babylonians destroyed the Kingdom of Judah and forced its residents off their land and into captivity. 48 years later, in 538 B.C.E., Persia conquered Babylonia. According to the Biblical Book of Chronicles, Persia’s King Cyrus received the spiritual calling to have “G-o-d’s House” built in Jerusalem. King Cyrus gave his blessing to those who wished to return to Judea to rebuild the Holy Temple there.[16] Many Judeans returned to Judean. They settled in the land and the Holy Temple was rebuilt there.

In Hebrew, the name “Judah” is “Yehudah” and “Judean” is “Yehudi.” During the Babylonian period, “Yehudi” was used both to delineate a resident of the land known as “Judah” or “Judea,” and to delineate a person of the Israelite faith. Over time, the geographic translation of “Yehudi” continued to be “Judean,” while the faith based translation of “Yehudi” became “Jew.”

The following are Hebrew terms that we continue to use to refer to the Jewish people:

“Yehudi” (singular) and “Yehudim” (plural) meaning “Jew” and “Jews”;[17]

“B’nai Yisrael,” meaning “Children of Israel” or “Israelites”;

“Beit Yisrael,” meaning “House of Israel”;

“Am Yisrael,” meaning “People of Israel,” or “Jewish people”;


“Klal Yisrael,” which is best translated as “Jewish community.”

When the modern State of Israel was founded, the founders decided to call it “Israel” or “State of Israel.” This decision was based on many factors, including the fact that the original united Jewish kingdom was called Israel, and also because Jews consider themselves to be the “Children of Israel,” “House of Israel” and “People of Israel.”

Notwithstanding the decision to call the modern Jewish state “Israel,” the memory of the ancient Kingdom of Judah remains prominent in the Jewish heart and mind. The first two examples that come to mind are the prayer “Tzur Yisrael” recited every morning,[18] and the “sheva brachot,” the seven blessings with which we bless a couple when they get married.[19] In addition to preserving the memory of ancient Judea, we continue to refer to ourselves as “yehudim,” which literally means “Judeans” even though we translate it as “Jews.”

The Census of 1229 B.C.E.: According to the Book of Numbers, shortly after the Israelites began wandering in the wilderness, G-o-d told Moses to take a census of all males, age 20 and older. According to the census, there were 603,550[20] Israelite males, not including the Tribe of Levy. The census of the Tribe of Levy included 22,000 males over the age of one month.[21]

Imagine 603,550 males age 20 and up, plus 22,000 males age one month and up. How many females and children would there be in such a community? While we do not know for sure, it seems reasonable to estimate that the total was 2 million.

That census was taken in approximately 1229 B.C.E.[22]

Going back to the beginning of Jewish history, Abraham and Sarah lived around 2000 and 1900 B.C.E.[23] They had a son, Isaac. Isaac and his wife Rebekah had two sons, Jacob and Esau. Jacob became known as Israel. Esau became the father of the Edomite people who were not Jewish.

Jacob had 2 wives, 2 concubines, and 13 children. According to the Torah, when Jacob and his family arrived in Egypt, the household numbered approximately 70 souls, including Joseph and his family who were already in Egypt.[24]

While in Egypt, the Children of Israel multiplied greatly and their descendants were eventually enslaved. They left slavery in approximately 1230 B.C.E. and the above-described census took place shortly thereafter. How did the Children of Israel multiply from just Abraham and Sarah to 625,550 males within 670 to 770 years? Save for a miracle on the level of the parting of the sea, I believe that it is only through a combination of births and massive conversions that this could have been possible.[25]

From the Wilderness to Modern Times: The census described at the beginning of the Book of Numbers took place in approximately 1229 B.C.E. The Holocaust began in 1933 C.E. There were 3,163 years in between.

At the beginning of the Holocaust, there were approximately 17 million Jews worldwide, although some sources report the total to be as low as 15.3 million, while others report it to be as high as 17.4 million. Based on these figures, it appears that the worldwide Jewish population grew from 2 million to between 15 and 17 million in 3,163 years. That is a relatively modest population growth over such a long period, even counting the attendant losses in two genocides and periodic persecutions.[26]

As of 2014, there were an estimated 14.2 million Jews in the world. Thus, it appears that the worldwide Jewish population has increased incrementally during the 71 years between the end of the Holocaust and this writing.[27]

In summary, the Jewish people began as a family. In the early centuries, there was a huge influx of converts in addition to native births. From the end of the wandering in the wilderness until today, the Jewish population appears to have increased modestly through the centuries.

Playing the Race Card: Today Jews live on six continents[28] and belong to many different races. When one enters Jewish synagogues, community centers, and schools, one sees Jews from a variety of races, including Caucasian, African, Asian, Indian, Islander, and others. This is true because people of any race may convert to Judaism.

In addition to including many races, Judaism also includes many cultures within the Jewish culture. There are different types of Jewish art, music, and food that have been adopted from different locales where Jews have lived over the centuries. There are also Jewish dialects, such as Ladino, which is a hybrid of Hebrew and Spanish; and Yiddish, which is a hybrid of Hebrew and German.

While Judaism is a faith, there are many different types of Jewish observance. There are also many Jews who consider themselves to be non observant. A Jewish person may also be an atheist or agnostic and still be considered part of the Jewish community. Sometimes a religious Jew might go through a crisis of faith. This does not cause the person to stop being Jewish any more than it would cause a Catholic to stop being Catholic. A Jewish person who experiences a loss of faith may or may not cease to be observant, but that is a different issue, apart from the fact that Judaism involves people hood as well of faith.

However, although Judaism involves peoplehood, Jews are, nevertheless, not a race.

Anti-Semitic Distortions: Adolf Hitler sought to eradicate the Jewish people. To help accomplish this, Hitler called Jews an inferior race. Using that language helped him and his supporters to demonize Jews and treat them as subhuman. This is described in detail in numerous books and Holocaust museum exhibits. One of my favorites is a book entitled, The World Must Know by Michael Berenbaum.[29]

Hitler’s Pedigree: Hitler had an attorney named Hans Michael Frank, who represented him in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1933, Hitler appointed Frank as German Minister of Justice. Later, Frank was demoted because he tried to defend the rights of prisoners in the Dachau Concentration Camp who were being put to death without judicial due process. Some time later, Frank came back under Hitler’s good graces, and in 1939, Hitler appointed Frank as General Secretary of German occupied Poland.

In the early 1930s, Hitler asked Frank to investigate allegations that Hitler had a Jewish ancestor. Frank researched the matter and issued a statement that according to his research, Hitler did not have any Jewish relatives.

The majority of Jews murdered during the Holocaust were murdered in Poland on Frank’s watch, including both Polish Jews and Jews who were transported to Poland from other countries for forced labor, torture, and/or death.

At the end of the Holocaust, General Secretary Frank was arrested and he was one of many Nazi leaders who stood trial at Nuremberg. Frank wrote his memoir while in prison awaiting trial. In his memoir, he stated that it was indeed possible that Hitler had a Jewish relative. There are a number of theories about this. One is that Hitler’s father was the son of a Jewish man. Another was that Hitler had a Jewish relative further back in his family history.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that many German Christians were persecuted as Jews even though they themselves were not Jewish. The determination that these German Christians were Jewish was based on the identity book that Germans were required to keep in their possession before and during the Holocaust. The German identity book stated the religion of the person’s ancestors going back a certain number of generations.

Treating Victims as Subhuman: During my Holocaust research, I heard the following story: A young Jewish woman had been taken into custody. She was branded on her forearm by a German woman. The German woman rubbed blue ink powder into the painful branding, as was the custom for every Jewish inmate and many other inmates as well. “Do you know why we do this?” asked the German woman. “No,” said the Jewish woman as she bore up under the pain. “To show that you are subhuman.”

If Hitler did, in fact, have a Jewish ancestor, then his pernicious maniacal focus on the extermination of the Jews, together with his calling Jews an inferior race, may have been related to a certain amount of self-loathing. All that notwithstanding, Hitler and the Nazis, together with present day White Supremacists and other hate mongers, refer to Jews as a race in order to demean and dehumanize Jews in their imagination, and in order to advocate for the persecution of Jews by others. Sadly and tragically, this type of strategy has been used by fanatics throughout the centuries as justification for committing atrocities against all kinds of people of all kinds of faiths.

Never Again: The slogan “never again” must include a commitment to never agree to denigrate and demean any religious group, because doing so can lead to persecution, war crimes, and genocide when we least expect.

[1] I want to also thank Susan and Larry Handman for their thoughtful edits and comments during the writing of this article.

[2] Genesis 1:27. (chapter 1, verse 27)

[3] Genesis 7:13, 7:23, and 9:1. (chapter 7, verse 13; and chapter 7, verse 23; and chapter 9 verse 1)

[4] It says in Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5, “Therefore, Adam was created as a single human being, the ancestor of all humanity, to teach us that one who destroys a single life, it is as if s/he destroyed an entire world, and one who saves a single life, it is as if s/he saved an entire world.”

[5] Genesis 12:1-8.

[6] Genesis 14:13-17.

[7] Some Jews use “son/daughter of Abraham” when calling a convert to the Torah and “son/daughter of Sarah” when praying for healing for the convert if s/he is ill. Others use “son/daughter of Abraham and Sarah” at the Torah and “son/daughter of Sarah” when praying for healing, while others use “son/daughter of Abraham and Sarah” in both settings.

[8] Genesis 32:25-30.

[9] See Deuteronomy 2:7 and many other Biblical references in which the forty years of wandering are mentioned. The Hebrew word “midbar” may be translated as both desert and wilderness.

[10] 1 Samuel 8:1-21 and 10:1.

[11] 1 Samuel 16:1-13.

[12] I Kings 1:39.

[13] See I Kings 12:17 and 27 regarding King Rehoboam. See I Kings 12:20 regarding King Jeroboam.

[14] “The History of Israel – A Chronological Presentation: Early Times 1000 BCE to 135 CE.” 2009-2015. <>

[15] Ibid.

[16] II Chronicles 36:22-23.

[17] The feminine are “Yehudiya” (singular) and “Yehudiyot” (plural).

[18] During shacharit, the morning service, we recite these words just before the amidah (silent devotion): “Rock of Israel, arise to help Israel, and fulfill Your promise to deliver Judah and Israel. Our Redeemer, Lord of Hosts is G-o-d’s name. Praised are You, O Lord, Redeemer of Israel.”

[19] During “sheva brachot,” the seven blessings with which we bless a couple when they get married, we say, “It will yet be heard in the cities of Judea and the outskirts of Jerusalem:
the voice of joy and the voice of gladness,
the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride.

[20] Numbers: 1:2-3.

[21] Numbers 2:32.

[22] Hertz, Dr. J. H. (editor) “Chronological Table in connection with the sedras and their haftorahs.” Pentateuch & Haftorahs, Hebrew Text, English Translation & Commentary. London, 1994: Soncino Press. Page 1052. According to Dr. Hertz, the Israelites left Egypt in 1230 B.C.E. That means the census took place in approximately 1229 B.C.E.

[23] Ibid, page 1052.

[24] According to Genesis 46:26, Jacob went to live in Egypt together with 66 of his offspring plus the wives of his offspring. Jacob had three additional offspring who were already living in Egypt, including Joseph and Joseph’s two sons Menashe and Ephraim. Adding 66 plus 3 plus Jacob himself yields 70, which is the number found in Genesis 46:27. However, that figure does not appear to include the wives of Jacob’s sons who are mentioned separately in Genesis 46:26, but are neither named nor enumerated.

[25] There are those who say that mothers gave birth to sextuplets in those days and that is how the population multiplied, but even that kind of phenomenon would not account for the population increases from under 100 family members to 625,550 males in less than 500 years.

[26] Jews have been the victims of approximately three genocides, two of which occurred before the Holocaust. These include the eradication of the Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in approximately 722 B.C.E. and the Roman occupation of the Kingdom of Judea from approximately 64 B.C.E. to 324 C.E. Persecution of Jews over the centuries in the Middle East, North Africa, Spain and other parts of Europe have been too numerous to mention in a footnote.

[27] This article was written in 2016.

[28] From time to time, some of the scientists, military forces and tourists who migrate through Antarctica are Jewish, but to the best knowledge of my knowledge, no one lives in Antarctica indefinitely.

[29] Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know Revised edition. Baltimore, 2005: Johns Hopkins University Press. Rabbi Berenbaum designed the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Presently, he serves as Director of the Sigi Ziering Institute Professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

About the Author
Pam Frydman is a Hospice Chaplain with Tufts Medicine Care at Home based in Massachusetts. She served as founding Rabbi of Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco and Interim Rabbi of Congregation B'nai Emunah (now Am Tikvah) in San Francisco and Congregation P'nai Tikvah in Las Vegas. She is a past President of the Northern California Board of Rabbis and author of "Calling on God; Sacred Jewish Teachings for Seekers of All Faiths."
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