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A Biracial Orthodox Rabbi Creates An ‘All Welcome’ Jewish Community

(JTA) — Growing up in the Orthodox community of Monsey, New York, as the son of an African-American mother who converted to Judaism and a white Ashkenazi father who became religious later in life, Isaiah Rothstein knows what it’s like not to fit in. The New York hamlet is known for its large Hasidic Jewish population and over 95 percent of its residents are white.

Rothstein, who is light skinned and says he tends to “pass for white,” remembers the unwanted attention he got in school because of his family background.

“When I would walk in with my mom I would get all these stares, but when I walked in with my dad I didn’t,” he recalled.

Though his family was affiliated with the Chabad Hasidic movement, he often felt like an outsider as a person of color.

But the challenges he faced as a child in insular Monsey also motivated Rothstein to help create a different Jewish community for others.

Rothstein, who today identifies as Modern Orthodox and was ordained as a rabbi by Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, founded Union Street Sanctuary in Brooklyn last August. He previously was a co-founder of the Beis Community, a progressive Orthodox community in Washington Heights.

Though the Beis Community is a synagogue, the Union Street Sanctuary is a social organization only, hosting events such as Shabbat dinners, barbecues and open mic nights. Most attendees are millennials and about 60 percent are Orthodox.

One of Rothstein’s goals is to create an inclusive place for people regardless of their ethnic or racial background, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or other things that could make them feel like outsiders in other Jewish communities.

“Everything about how I was raised led me to my work on some level,” said the rabbi, who plays in a rock band and has been invited to attend the ROI Summit, a gathering of young Jewish innovators in Jerusalem in June.

The shared motto of the Union Street Sanctuary and the Beis Community — “All are welcome, always” — exemplifies that commitment.

This story "A Biracial Orthodox Rabbi Creates An ‘All Welcome’ Jewish Community" was written by Josefin Dolsten.

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