By Cindy Mindell
STAMFORD – Isaiah Rothstein was at the Young Israel of Stamford Youth House, his usual hangout on this particular weekday, as the congregation’s youth director. He was leading a discussion on diversity of the Jewish people with a group of young elementary school-aged kids, together with his brother, who is very dark-skinned.
“I asked, ‘What are the main differences between my brother and me?’” Rothstein recalls. “One kid said, ‘Your ties are different colors;’ another said, ‘Your heads are different sizes.’ One of the more eager, outspoken girls pointed to my brother and said, ‘He’s black!’”
The conversation opened up: Rothstein asked the children what they would think of his brother if he weren’t wearing a kipa, weren’t in a synagogue. They started to talk about “different” kids they knew, and then about themselves and what it feels like to be different and isolated – one of only two Shomer-Shabbat children in the entire school; the only Jewish girl on a gymnastics team. The take-home message? “We’re all very different, we all have struggles, we all want to be a part of something,” Rothstein says. “But based solely on our looks, those desires can become a great challenge.”
Rothstein and his two older brothers are, indeed, black. And Jewish. They grew up in Monsey, N.Y., a Jewish enclave northwest of Manhattan and home to several Chasidic and ultra-Orthodox groups. The product of a multiracial family – his father is Ashkenazi Jewish, his mother is an African-American Jew by choice, raised as a Methodist – Rothstein counts Muslims, Methodists, and Buddhists among his extended family.
His father, raised largely secular in New York, joined a Chabad community in his late 20s; his mother, a Chicago native, converted to Judaism under the tutelage of a Chabad rabbi. The couple married and lived in Boston and Englewood, N.J. before settling in Monsey 25 years ago, when Isaiah was born.
“My family’s story is about being able to hold up fundamental belief systems and appreciate both sides of our history – the struggles and the beauty,” he says.
After graduating from Kushner Yeshiva High School in N.J., Rothstein spent 18 months in Israel and then attended Binghamton University, double-majoring in English and communications, and music theory and composition. He spearheaded several student initiatives and served as president of the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship and Poverty Awareness Coalition, and as Orthodox community liaison to Hillel at Binghamton.
“That’s where I discovered my love and passion for Judaism and the success of its continued development,” he says. That’s also where he explored issues of identity, participating in Jewish and interfaith groups, an “identity crisis” group where students would challenge notions of identity and race. Before leaving college, Rothstein organized and led several Birthright-Israel trips, and continued after graduating in 2010. Along the way, he served as musical director at Camp Maayan in Denver.
Rothstein entered Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 2010. Last month, he earned a master of social work from YU’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work, and expects to be ordained in a year’s time. He is active in the Jewish Multiracial Network. “I identify as a Jew of color; I’m a product of the Civil Rights movement,” he says. “Being from a multiracial Chabad family in Monsey, the only ones among white Orthodox Jews, is abnormal. People aren’t used to it and they react sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. Most people were just confused because everybody is so conditioned to think that a Jew looks a certain way.”
Over the past academic year, Rothstein was a fellow at the UJA-Federation of New York Weiner Education Center and a social-work and rabbinic intern at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York. This month, Rothstein completes his first year as youth director at Young Israel of Stamford, where he oversees and designs programming for congregants from ages 2 to 18. He is also director of Stamford NCSY, an Orthodox youth group.
Navigating a rich and complex family history has, to say the least, left Rothstein with a unique sensitivity and appreciation for the Other. The life experience and insight that he has brought to the mostly Ashkenazi Jewish community has not gone unnoticed: Rothstein will continue as Young Israel youth director and with NCSY, which he plans to expand into Westport and beyond. He will also work as a spiritual educator at Carmel Academy in Greenwich.
“We Jews are taught to welcome and protect the ger, the stranger, someone who is different and stands out,” he says. “But we should all see each other as Jews and know that it’s OK if we’re not all the same. The challenge is, how do we better integrate the Jewish community?”
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