It’s not hard to see that racial injustice still cruelly endures. Despite the work over generations of community leaders, religious figures, public servants and, most importantly, average Americans who abhor needless hate, racial discrimination remains entrenched — consciously or not — in our society. Whether in our frequently unjust criminal justice system, the wealth gap between white, black and Latino Americans, inequality of employment and educational opportunities, or police violence disproportionately directed toward people of color, the effects of bigotry remain prevalent.
As a rabbi, I’ve made it part of my spiritual work to fight this injustice. As a Modern Orthodox Jew, I’ve sensed prejudice at times, but never in a way that I felt harmed me personally. I’ve never directly felt the impact of systemic racism, and have usually thought about race in the abstract.
That changed after my wife, our children and I welcomed two foster children of color to our family. For the first time in my life, racism has become personal.
My wife and I are blessed to care for multiple foster children over the last several years. They, like our three biological children, brighten our lives. The first child we fostered was African-American –– a boy who came to our home when he was only a few days old. More recently, we began fostering a Latino child, a boy less than a year old. These children, like so many in the foster-care system, came to us after going through difficult personal circumstances. Frequently, children enter the foster system due to abuse, neglect, substance abuse issues or unstable family situations. It’s hard to imagine enduring what these children face. And though they were new to this world when they first became part of our home, as I’ve held each of them in my arms, I’ve sensed something that I never have with my biological, white children: They’re defenseless in the way all children are, but also susceptible to a world where they will be constantly underestimated and undervalued because of the color of their skin –– a reality, of course, that’s already the obvious and routine lived experience of countless individuals, but a revelation for me.
When our white, biological children were born, we were overwhelmed by offers to cook for us, celebrate with us and give gifts to the babies. When our foster children of color arrived, some of the same people became more distant and less supportive. Maybe that’s because we’re not their biological parents, but I sense something else. A few times I’ve ventured out into my neighborhood and felt other people staring. “Is he really their father?” I could almost hear them thinking. Based on these interactions, I’ve started to imagine, and feel, just a bit of the weight my foster children will bear as they grow up, and they’re out in the world. I find myself worrying about future discrimination that they might face, or hostility they might endure.
I have dreams for all of my children; that their potential will be realized and that they’ll have bright fulfilling lives. But these dreams are tinted by my experience as a white man. When I look back at my own childhood as a time of continuous, unthreatened growth –– something that’s far less certain for my foster children of color –– I see clearly now that the difference is race. One way to describe it is white privilege. Another is a journey from the ideological to the personal. I can’t ever really walk in their shoes, but by becoming part of my family, for me, they’ve changed racism from something I loathed to something I feared. I still think about race in terms of right and wrong, but now I also think about it in terms of survival. I worry that my African-American foster son might one day encounter a police officer with a less-than-disciplined trigger finger. I worry that my Latino foster son will be treated as less than fully American because of the anti-immigrant, anti-Latino rhetoric swirling around the political ether.
So why did it take parenting children of color for this societal cancer to become so urgent for me? Because until now it wasn’t close enough to home. Yes, while they’re living under my roof, it is both my and my wife’s job to take care of our foster children of color in the same way we take care of our biological children. But the experience has driven home to me that my job is also to take care of them by doing everything in my power to help make the world they live in a more tolerant and just place. I didn’t fully appreciate this until I saw that my current fears are their future fears.
Psalm 119:18 teaches, “Open my eyes that I may see wondrous things in your law.” Each day forward I will commit to the mystical and ethical enterprise of opening my eyes, reaffirming my commitment to human dignity, and to approaching the world with a deeper and more open spirit of learning compassion. It’s something I knew, but that my foster children helped me truly understand.
What I’ve learned, and believe more white people must learn, is that because I didn’t know the extent to which racism was a part of all of our lives, I was too passive in combating the racial injustice around me. Now, I’m better prepared to confront bigotry and bias –– including my own –– because racism is no longer just in the news or in my thoughts. It’s in my life.
Yanklowitz is a Modern Orthodox rabbi. He is the founder and president of YATOM: The Jewish Foster & Adoption Network.