By Gisele Rogers
People often ask me what it’s like having an African-American son. I am a Modern Orthodox Jew and the mother of three biological children and an adopted son from Ethiopia. Jacob joined our family when he was 2. He is now 9 and growing up to be a remarkable young man.
Until recently, my family lived in an upscale white neighborhood in Los Angeles. We now live in a more diverse community in Dallas. We go through daily life just like everyone else. However, my family looks different and that sometimes causes people to stare or ask questions. The most brash question I have been asked, on more than one occasion, is whether I love Jacob as much as I love my biological children. I think what I am really being asked is whether it is possible to love a child that I did not bring into this world with the same depth and selfless devotion as a child I carried in my womb for nine long months? The answer is a resounding yes. I think this uncomfortable question is one that humanity struggles with. Is it possible to love thy neighbor as thyself when that neighbor looks nothing like you, acts nothing like you but wants to be free to live just like you?
The earliest stings
Once in a while, I am grimly reminded that being black in America presents an undue hardship for Jacob. A few years back, I was jolted into confronting this reality when Jacob started kindergarten in a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school in LA. Jacob had attended camp on school grounds that summer. I hoped it would help him acclimate better to his new school in the fall. However, during the summer, a few individuals from the school observed Jacob acting in ways they deemed abnormal childhood behavior. They did not like him playing hide and seek from his counselor on school grounds, which understandably is a safety concern. They did not like Jacob’s clingy attachment to his counselor or the fact that he did not always want to socialize with other children his age. They also did not like the fact that Jacob once got into a physical altercation with his sister in the carpool line. She is only eight months older than Jacob and his best friend. According to most parents and professionals, these behaviors are not abnormal for a 5-year-old child. However, because of preconceived notions regarding Jacob based on his skin color and background, these individuals deemed Jacob unruly and dangerous.
On the second day of school, I received an urgent phone call from a school administrator saying that my husband and I had to meet with several other administrators and staff as soon as possible to discuss Jacob’s background and ways the school could “set him up to succeed.” When I asked for more information, I was told that the school felt Jacob was a danger to himself and others.
At first, my husband felt that the phone call was an overreaction by the school. He told me to try and de-escalate the situation. I told the school that we felt more comfortable meeting face to face with Jacob’s teachers and the preschool director. I received a harsh email response from a senior school administrator telling me that under no uncertain terms, we had to attend the meeting.
The harsh reality
This was Friday afternoon as we were preparing for the Sabbath. I began to cry and fell into a depression. My head began to spin. Something wasn’t right…how could a school turn on us? We had three other children there. They were all terrific kids. I was active in the school and volunteered on various committees. How could people that we were friends with and trusted be prejudiced against a 5-year-old boy simply because he is black and had a tragic early start in life? Why didn’t anyone stand up for Jacob or our family?
That particular Sabbath was long and difficult for my family as we tried to make sense of what was happening. As soon as the Sabbath ended, I ran to the computer and began an email exchange with the head of school, who quickly empathized with the pain and hurt we were experiencing. He asked us to bring Jacob back to school and everything else would fall into place. I felt violated. Why should we bring Jacob back to school in order to prove his innocence? Although I appreciated the sentiment, the thought was heartbreaking.
But then I thought about Jacob. He was so excited to finally join his siblings at the big kid school. How could I tell him he could not go? With a heavy heart, I took Jacob to school that Monday and stayed with him. Nothing unusual took place. Instead, Jacob proved himself to be a very smart and normal 5-year-old boy. The prejudicial treatment he received by school administrators was so glaring it made me cry. Every time he looked at me, my heart overflowed.
Watchful and wary
Over the next few months, I kept Jacob close and didn’t feel comfortable sending him to synagogue with my husband or on play dates with his friends. I was worried that he would be judged unfairly by others and experience the same backlash that he was experiencing in school. I began seeing a therapist to help me work though all the heavy emotions, especially the anger, that consumed every minute of my day. I poured my heart into understanding why good people acted so adversely against my son. My research found that what happened to Jacob is happening nationwide at all levels of society. Specifically, black boys are being disproportionately punished in schools and black men are being disproportionately killed by police. Although overt racism is no longer tolerated in America, implicit bias permeates American culture. Implicit bias is a subconscious attitude or stereotype that affects our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. The people who misjudged Jacob did not intend to mistreat him. Nonetheless, they subconsciously acted on biased beliefs which in turn caused Jacob harm.
Jacob continued to experience racial discrimination. The most glaring example was at the end of the year. Jacob’s physical education coach, a young Modern Orthodox Jewish woman, permitted two bullies from Jacob’s class to harass him. When Jacob got upset and started fighting back, the coach yelled only at Jacob for disturbing her class. [Ultimately] this coach (or her assistant) called in the school’s armed security guard to scare Jacob into submission. Jacob curled into a ball and cried while the security guard stood over him. This lasted until Jacob’s older brother, who was 9 at the time, was found at recess and asked to help Jacob calm down.
The school never called us about this occurrence. Instead, I learned about it from Jacob’s friend who was over for a play date that afternoon. I was forced to piece together what happened to my son from speaking to the school’s athletic director, Jacob’s coach, his older brother and other witnesses at the scene. The senior school administrator, who so brazenly called us in for a meeting on the second day of school, instructed the black athletic director to defend the school’s action by once again characterizing Jacob as a threat to others. After a very emotional conversation with the athletic director, he decided to resign from the school. The school’s attempted cover-up and its racially biased defense was the final nail in the coffin. We would no longer allow Jacob to be subjected to the ignorance and cruelty of the failed leadership at this Jewish day school.
Sadly, the armed security guard standing over a black boy will forever be imprinted in the subconscious of every child that was present that day in class. What impression did it leave? That the only way to control a black boy (who will later turn into a black man) is with an armed security guard. After spending a whole year trying to make my microcosm of the world a little better, I felt defeated. Nothing had changed.
A fresh start
I penned this account shortly after Jacob’s terrible year in kindergarten but buried it in my desk until now. My family believed that sharing it would cause more harm than good. After living and breathing Jacob’s ordeal for a year, we knew our community was not ready for change. Although community members were willing to support us and offer us words of comfort, they were not prepared to be introspective and do the work needed to help stem the tide of racism. Today, as our country stands united in a moment of reflection after George Floyd’s brutal murder, perhaps the Jewish community is willing to do more than just listen.
In many cities across the nation, it saddens me to hear members of the Jewish community, who stand in solidarity with the black community, act detached as if the black struggle has nothing to do with them. However, if Jacob’s story can teach us anything, it’s that implicit bias is real. It lives and breathes in each of us and causes harm even when that is not our intention. It is our responsibility, individually and collectively, both as Jews and members of humanity, to work toward eliminating biases that cause our neighbors harm.
Since moving to Dallas in 2018, Jacob and his siblings have attended Akiba Yavneh Academy.