Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein comes from an enormously complicated background — he grew up Chabad in Monsey, his father is a white baal teshuva, his mother is a biracial Jew by choice whose ancestors include both enslaved Africans and white Southerners who fought in both the Revolution and the Civil War (on the right side in one of those conflicts and the wrong side in the other).
He’s a wildly creative, idea-erupting, fast-talking 31-year-old modern Orthodox Jew; he got married to Leah Gottfried, who created “Soon By You” in a marvelously hipster wedding chronicled in glorious detail in the New York Times’ Vows section. He also has staid Jewish organization-world credentials; he’s the rabbinic scholar and public affairs advisor for the Jewish Federations of North America.
He lives in Harlem, in an area that’s both rich in Black history and experiencing a Jewish renaissance right now — it’s a renaissance because large numbers of Jews used to live there, and the term has resonance because it also was the home of the Harlem Renaissance, and both those historical facts have great meaning for Rabbi Rothstein.
On Saturday night, just before Selichot services, Rabbi Rothstein will talk about the themes of the High Holy Days for the New City Jewish Center as we move toward Rosh Hashanah. (See box.)
“The holidays carry with them so many different symbols and tools for us to use to reflect on our own identities, our relationships to others, and our legacy from our ancestors,” Rabbi Rothstein said. “There are three primary categories in Rosh Hashanah davening, and one of them, zichronot, memory, is thinking about our ancestors, what they have done for us that allows us to stand on their shoulders and be where we are now.
“Throughout Selichot and Rosh Hashanah davening, and then on Yom Kippur, we reflect on difficult characters and what they went through in their imperfect society. We look at their struggles, and we say that just as they were able to get through those struggles, so too will we. Yes, we are undeserving, but we will get through them. These are some of the themes of the liturgy.
“At the height of the holidays, we double down on the fact that we, the children of Abraham, have been sent by Hashem,” God, “to be in the world to bring glory and kindness to Hashem and to the world.
“We read the 13 Attributes of God, from Exodus 34. The rabbis ask what it means that we are commanded to walk in the ways of God. You should be like God in those 13 attributes — compassionate, slow to anger, merciful. So too should we be. The liturgy is filled with examples for us to think about, a framework to our past, our present, and our future, both as individuals and as a community.”
Rabbi Rothstein switched from the general to the specific. “My whole life, growing up in Monsey, was based on growing up in a mixed-race family with that Jewish framework for history, for legacy, and for honoring our inheritance, our traditions, and our humanity.
“I also grew up with a mother who is a Black convert to Judaism, and her family had a very different experience than my father’s side,” he said. Similarly, he had a different experience in Monsey than his peers’ more standard charedi childhoods offered.
“I am the youngest and the lightest child of the three in my family,” Rabbi Rothstein said. “I passed for white functionally.” That meant that when he was out with only his father, he would be treated in noticeably different ways than he would have been had his mother and brothers been there.
“From a very young age, I had to consider my identity both personally and externally as a mixed-race Jew — what they now call a Jew of color. I had to negotiate with my community all the time. I was under cover. I walk through life with a white skin, and many members of my family do not.”
That’s an experience Jews often feel.
“I had a friend who worked in politics, and she very often was the only Jew in the room,” he continued. “So sometimes people would say things. Her colleagues who knew she was Jewish were uncomfortable, but she would be quiet. She passed.”
Rabbi Rothstein is not passing but combining. Harlem’s a perfect place for that. “There are about 15,000 to 20,000 Jews in Harlem right now,” he said. “That’s a lot of Jews.
“Harlem is the fastest gentrifying part of NYC now, and I moved here to be part of the leadership that’s here to support and guide spiritual and religious life — diverse, multicultural.”
Once the pandemic is over, he hopes to create a kind of “modern Orthodox Chabad house. I want to put up a mezuzah Chabad style, but I want to talk about everyone, not just the rebbe.
“In every Chabad house, there is a picture of the rebbe, and no one else. I want a picture of the rebbe, but I also want Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and Marcus Garvey and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
He is modern Orthodox, he said, “but when people ask me what I am, I like to say that I am a millennial.” Divisions like modern Orthodox or Conservative or Reform are “not helpful in the 21st century. They don’t work. I am a millennial who is a traditionalist. That’s what I call myself.
“I am committed to mesorah and legacy, on both my Black and Jewish sides.”
As someone who by descent is half Jewish, one quarter Black, and one quarter a jumble of Dutch, Irish, and Italian, qualified to be a Son of the American Revolution, “I feel so very American,” Rabbi Rothstein said. “I am a product of America through and through. There is no way that I could be here without America.
“America was the host for other people, but I literally am the product of everyone here fighting for a different form of freedom, and everyone calling it freedom.” That’s true of his ancestors — the Ashkenazim, the enslaved people, their enslavers (from different branches of his family).
There are parallels to the holidays, Rabbi Rothstein suggested.
The point of the High Holy Days “is that they are about humanity,” he said. “It is the sixth day of creation, when Adam and Eve are created. It honors the origin of the species.
“The rabbis are relentless about human rights. The idea is that there is only one master, the Torah. That is what Mosaic law brought to the world.
“The idea is that we are all under one God. It is all about supporting and sustaining our species. Everything that God created has a holiness — the land, the animals, Shabbat.
“We are created with an origin story that has a very important idea. We all came from two people. That’s a fundamental teaching that the Hebrew Bible brought to the world.
“Why were Adam and Eve created alone? The response from the rabbis is that you can’t say that your ancestors were better — taller, better, from a better region, with a better nose — than any-one else’s.
“Although we do know that it is not that simple,” he added parenthetically.
On September 15, Rabbi Rothstein will go down to Birmingham, Alabama, to mark the yarzheit of the church bombing there in 1963. This year the Hebrew and English yarzheits will be on the same day. “It happens every 19 years, when the solar and lunar calendars link up,” Rabbi Rothstein said. “I am going there because my family is from there, and my distant cousin Carole Robertson was one of the girls who were murdered there.
“I am going on a pilgrimage of sorts, and I will also meet with the Birmingham federation, and with different Jewish communal leaders and leaders of the Black community.
“It’s the week before Rosh Hashanah, so in many ways the time is about reconciliation, both internally and in the larger society.
“It is about truth telling. It is about ancestors. I will meet with my family, the Magruders, who were slaves there. There are the white Magruders and the Black Magruders. I am related to the Black Magruders.” (Readers should note that Rabbi Rothstein’s background is endlessly fascinating; anyone with the time to go down particularly fascinating rabbit holes should google him.)
“I am going down there to be in those spaces,” Rabbi Rothstein said. “I am bringing my guitar. WE will continue to pray for freedom. And when we say freedom, in this new era of American struggles for American rights and civil rights, we remember that there is also anti-Semitism in the world, that’s both outright and veiled, both blatant and coded and so more subtle.
“I am going on behalf of my ancestors, who didn’t know that I would exist.”
Despite the tension, violence, depression, and fear in the world, Rabbi Rothstein is optimistic. “There is no question that hate won’t work,” he said. “It is not sustainable. Even if it prevails today, it doesn’t last tomorrow.
“If we can’t find trust and nuance, no one wins. Who was in the room when the Civil Rights Act was signed? Not the haters. We have to keep that in mind.
“What were the qualities of the 20th century struggle for civil rights that made it take off? Faith. Belief. It was for the sake of the klal. For humanity. People were willing to struggle and die for it. That song…” he said. Then Rabbi Rothstein began to sing.
“Before I be a slave, I be buried in my grave…”
Then he paused.
“Menachem Begin said the same thing,” he said. “We have no other option. Either we fight for our freedom or we are dead. There is no other option.”
And how do we fight? “With love. Anger doesn’t work. It just is not going to work.
“Dr. King would be so disappointed to see what’s going on now. We need a love campaign. We need relationships. There is no other way.
“And that’s what my rabbinate is about,” Rabbi Rothstein concluded. “It’s all about building relationships.”
Who: Rabbi Isaiah Joseph Rothstein
What: Will talk about “Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Change: Exploring the Role of the Jewish People — A Unique Perspective”
Where: On Zoom for the New City Jewish Center
When: On Saturday, September 12, from 9 to 10:30; Selichot services will follow
For the Zoom link: Go to the synagogue’s website, www.newcityjc.org/, click on “high holidays,” and follow the link to the flier; or call (845) 638-9600.