It was a regular Shabbat morning service and Kiddush lunch. Children of various elementary and even preschool ages played in the hallway of our synagogue while their parents sat at tables throughout the social hall sharing stories about our trials and tribulations in parenting. The friendly banter between tired parents was interrupted as one child ran into the room waving for our attention. I had no idea about the reason, but a pit immediately formed in my gut, and I quickly made my way to the hallway to locate my two sons.
I was not the first parent to arrive, but I was not far behind. As I rounded the corner, I saw one little girl with tears streaming down her face, her sister by her side. I looked beyond her and saw my oldest son. Still little in stature, I could make out both the stiffness in his stance and the stormy blue-gray eyes that were locked on the finger pointed in his face by one of the mothers I had just been eating a bagel with. She was kneeling and wearing an angry expression I had never seen before. All her attention was directed towards my son. My steps slowed for just a moment as I tried to process the scene before me. I walked past the crying child who was being embraced by her father and swooped down to the side of my own child. Without hesitation, I interrupted the scolding and asked what was going on. The mother lowered her finger and told me that my son had pushed the little girl. She had stumbled from the push and had immediately begun to cry. The mother reiterated the warning to not put his hands on anyone, specifically girls. As I tried to gain control of the situation and ask him to explain what led to this moment, my son got up and ran to the men’s bathroom. The little girl’s sister stepped forward and whispered, he didn’t do anything wrong.
I was confused and asked for an explanation. The child explained that her sister had continuously invaded the personal space of my son. He had asked her several times to stop touching him. She didn’t listen. The last time she attempted to touch him, he had pushed her away, and she stumbled. All of this was an accident, but it was also a violation of personal space — his — however, the adult (mother) that arrived first never asked these questions. She simply responded to what she saw: a little girl crying, the victim of an obvious perpetrator — a boy, my son. It would be easy to presume that it was merely quick thinking based on positions within the moment that solely drove the assumption of fault, but as the mother to two boys of color in the United States, I can’t afford to ignore that it was a White little girl crying and that the Black boy was deemed the guilty offender without any investigation.
Race is a dynamic marker of privilege and power in the United States. We all have socialized racial identities. Racial socialization is the psychosocial process that includes the direct, explicit messages children receive about the existence of racism and the meaning of race, as well as related indirect or implicit messages (American Psychological Association, 2018). It has been primarily studied among communities of color, specifically Black children and families. Decades of research on racial and ethnic socialization (RES) has consistently shown that while the approaches may vary, the intent is to prepare, protect and foster resilience in children about the ways racial bias might influence their lives. This is summed up perfectly by a Jewish mother of color who stated, “People of Color don’t have a choice. There has to be a conversation. Kids will continually be faced with them being different.”
Race is not the only identity that is socialized. Religious identity is also socialized. In the Jewish tradition, we use rites of passage such as b’nai mitzvah to share the history, beliefs and customs of our people. We are motivated to send our children to Hebrew school, day schools, Birthright trips and camps to teach our shared language and nurture pride in being Jewish. While the research on Jewish socialization is not as extensive, we know that many Jewish parents and communities prioritize preparing their children for a world where encounters of antisemitism are a real threat.
There is a glaring gap within socialization research. It has largely ignored the approaches parents take to socialize intersectional identities (that is, multiple identities held by an individual, specifically identities that have been historically marginalized). The Jewish Diaspora, particularly in the United States, is multi-racial. Despite mainstream narrowed perceptions that center European origins as the default lineage of American Jewish people, the Jewish Diaspora has always been comprised of individuals that reflect multiple racial experiences and identifications. However, there has been an implicit and explicit adoption of a European ancestral lineage as the dominant if not sole path of the Jewish people in the United States, which has in turn created a pathway for many to assume tentative Whiteness (Goldstein, 2006). Jewish people in America are consciously and subconsciously forced to assume a racial identity in addition to their religious identity through the process of racial and ethnic socialization. This means that in any given Jewish community, there is likely to be a diversity of persons with either majority or minority and marginalized racial identities.
Through both narratives (e.g., Gordon, 2016; Haynes, 2018), anecdotal sharing and recent survey data (e.g., Jews of Color Initiative, 2022) on the experience of Jews of color (JOCs), the Jewish community is learning more about the ways Jews of color intentionally engage in intersectional racial-ethnic and religious identity socialization. However, there appears to be no research on the racial and ethnic socialization (RES) experiences of Jewish families who do or can identify as White, and ultimately, how race and racism are discussed, if at all.
To develop my children’s Jewish identity, I allowed my husband to convince me of the joys of Jewish summer camp. I am a city kid and with my allergies to almost all things green (my children have compared me to Melman, the risk-averse giraffe from the Madagascar animated film series), I have never desired a camping experience. However, my husband was persistent, and thus we became a Jewish summer camp family. We joined my mother-in-law at the camp that my husband, his brothers and nearly all his cousins grew up at.
His family, specifically his mother, is a fixture at the camp. Curious as to how her son was doing in his staff role as one of the sports instructors, my mother-in-law asked her bar mitzvah student to share his thoughts. The 12-year-old was having a hard time placing my husband, but then it clicked. He stated: “Oh, the guy with the two adopted boys.” My mother-in-law quickly corrected her student that those two boys were his biological sons. It was an innocent misassumption, but it was one that stuck with her. I could hear it in her voice as she re-told me the story.
Adopted or biological; they are my husband’s children. However, it is important to sit with the assumption the young boy made and consider why he made it. My children are multi-racial. I am Black American, and their father is White. Born in Israel to an American mother and Moroccan Israeli father, he has learned through years in United States that racially, he is seen as White. Our children are a beautiful blend of both of us. My oldest favors his father, the youngest favors me. However, in one seemingly innocuous statement, the camper stripped the boys of their biological lineage to my husband. He (my husband) was White, and they (our kids) were “other.” This subconscious reasoning also signals the commonly held incorrect attribution that race has biological origins. It is does not. Race as we know it in modern times is entirely socially constructed.
The innocent exchange between my mother-in-law and her young student’s assumptions is a pivotal moment that reflects the fact that although we as parents may not explicitly talk about race to our children, they, too, inhabit a race-based society and receive messages about how to apply racial labels. Therefore, if we don’t intentionally teach them about race, racial bias and racism, they are in danger of developing perceptions and limited knowledge that concurrently reinforces and ignores the harm of racial inequities and injustice.
As one of 11 fellows of the Race, Religion and American Judaism Project funded through the Center for Jewish Ethics and the National Endowment of the Humanities, I aimed to explore how Jewish parents consciously and subconsciously engage in Jewish Racial and Ethnic Socialization (J-RES). A total of 121 parents completed my anonymous online questionnaire in the summer of 2022. Most respondents identified racially as White, with only 17% identifying as Jews of Color. However, almost a third of the parents stated that they were raising children who identified as Jews of Color. Most of the households had parents that were both Jewish who were also likely to self-report living in a large Jewish community (47%) and be members of a synagogue (79%) on the East Coast.
I asked parents to reflect on how prepared they felt they were to discuss race and/or racism with their children. The majority indicated that they had a discussion with their children. But while nearly 83% had talked to their kids about racism in the United States, only 54% had talked to their kids about responding to and disrupting racism, specifically racial discrimination occurring in Jewish spaces. Parents who identified as having Jewish children of color or having close friends and family that identified as racial minorities felt more prepared to engage in these conversations with their kids and to respond to discrimination. Overall, the greatest predictor of willingness to engage in conversations about race was preparation. Learning about race and racism as well as the best ways to respond to discrimination when in Jewish spaces was clearly linked with a willingness to act.
In response to highly publicized racial injustices, such as the murder of George Floyd, parents were prompted to begin these discussions with their mostly school-aged children. However, almost all who cited current events as an initial motivator were raising White Jewish children. This is in glaring contrast to the response given by most parents raising Jewish children of color who intentionally began these conversations years before and in anticipation of their children experiencing discrimination. In fact, parents who were motivated by the swell of public outcry felt less prepared to have the discussion and while they talked about race abstractly, they did not talk or teach their children about how to intervene should they witness discrimination. One parent admitted, “I don’t think we’ve explicitly taught our children how to respond to racial discrimination or microaggressions. We may laugh at someone’s stupidity or something like that, but I don’t think we’ve actively given them a toolbox for how to respond … .” While calls to act and the recognition of systemic injustice were reasons that many parents gave for why they engaged in these discussions, others embraced a colorblind approach. They instead taught their children, “ … color and race don’t matter.” Perhaps one day the importance of race will disappear, but that day is not today. By not talking about race or dismissing the existence and importance of race, we are invalidating the lived experience of most racial minorities and are thus less prepared to stand collectively against racism.
One of the stark differences between Jewish parents who identified as White and were raising White children from parents who identified as Jews of color and/or were raising Jewish children of color was the anchoring of the conversation about race or racism with the recollection or unpacking of a racial microaggression (i.e., brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation, social class, religious slights and insults to the target person or group as defined by Sue (2010)). For example, one participant shared, “When my son came home from school and shared that he was racially profiled, we had a conversation about it. We named what happened and talked through the situation, and I let him guide what actions I took.” The ability to personally disconnect from these conversations was a privilege that some White Jewish parents subconsciously embraced. In fact, many reflected on how they relied on Jewish people of color in their community to be the sole transmitters of information on race and racism within Jewish spaces. This was seen as a frustrating approach by other parents, “ … Temple tried to do better but that involved making the 3-4 families with POC (People of Color) solve the problem. Same with (the) Jewish community in our area. It’s like hey you POC solve this for us … we don’t see race, we’re just like you oppressed, etc. You are not! Please stop putting the work on the ones being hated.”
This concerning pattern has led me to adopt specific terminology to capture this handing off of responsibility. I call this White Social Loafing. Social loafing is a psychological term used to describe when members in a group do not put in the same effort they would if they were working alone. Instead, they rely on their teammates to carry some if not all the responsibility. The willingness for White Jewish parents to avoid explicit conversations or teaching about racism and race, while assuming that the Jewish families of color will drive the acquisition of this knowledge for their children, is not only White social loafing; it is the complete objectification of the Jewish Black Indigenous Person of Color (BIPOC) identity and experience. This approach or hand-off was most common among Jewish participants in large Jewish communities throughout the Southeast.
When parents did engage teaching about racial injustice and discrimination, it was tied to our Jewish values. Tzedakah, Kavod, Tikkun Olam and Betzelem Elohim were frequently echoed as the reasons (i.e., the why) ultimately driving these discussions. These are all powerful guiding values in life. However, these values, in the context of this conversation, unintentionally positioned the White Jewish parents and their children as the protectors, if not the saviors of those historically deemed as the vulnerable other (i.e., the racial minority). While the desire to protect is valiant, without an acknowledgement and examination of your own bias and privilege, this position falsely assumes that the threat is always external and leaves no room for the possibility that you could be the threat instead. A perfect example of not recognizing the harm that misconceptions can have was illustrated by the words of a parent who wrote, “We had discussions to see everyone as an individual but that not everyone has the same view. That if you see someone being mistreated, you stand up for them. Most of the Jews of color are from one parent that is a Jew by choice … .”
I am doubtful that my son remembers that Shabbat morning. He and the rest of the children have continued to grow together, most recently attending each other’s various b’nai mitzvah services and ranking who had the longest haftarah or Torah portion to read. I, however, can’t forget. My son’s truth, the sharing of his story regarding the events that transpired was denied in that moment. From my own lived experience as Black American Jewish woman in combination with this study and work, I have learned that our racial and ethnic Jewish socialization is rooted in shared storytelling. So, perhaps the tool or path to preparation and education about race, racism and discrimination — both within and beyond the Jewish community — is through the sharing, listening, reflecting and centering of an explicit multi-racial Jewish story anchored in past, present and future inclusion while concurrently centering humility.
American Psychological Association (2018). “What Is RES?” Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/res/about/racial-ethnic-socialization
Goldstein, E. L. (2006). The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity. Princeton University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvs32sd7
Gordon, L. R. (2016). “Rarely kosher: Studying Jews of Color in North America” in American Jewish History, 100(1), pp. 105-116.
Haynes, B. D. (2020). The Soul of Judaism: Jews of African Descent in America. New York University Press.
Jews of Color Initiative (2022). “Beyond the Count: Perspectives and lived experiences of Jews of Color.” https://jewsofcolorinitiative.org/research/
Sue, D. W. (2010). “Microaggressions, marginality, and oppression: An introduction.”