A man appears on a screen web-broadcasted to a huge auditorium at Caron Recovery. He’s wearing a kipa, has tzizit sticking out over his pants, and is carrying a colorfully painted guitar. He peers around, to all the unfamiliar faces, feeling a bit shoved into an uncomfortable situation. Shrugging, he introduces himself as Isaiah Rothstein and begins to tell his story of how he lost 180 pounds. This is a relatable story to the crowd of Christians in recovery from addictions, that ended as one of healing, and one of victory. As he spoke, he saw faces of those who desire to spiritually connect to themselves with their Creator, and realized he was speaking a language understood by Jews and non-Jews alike. A language that did not differentiate by race or religion. Rather, it was a language of acceptance and of hope for a better future for all.
When reading the anecdote above, I’m quite positive you did not initially picture that Isaiah was speaking to a group of Christians. Nor did you picture Isaiah as obese. Or as a Jew with a mother who converted to Judaism. And I’m actually positive you did not picture Isaiah as of a multiracial background.
“I was born being different,” Isaiah simply states. “Different in the Jewish community. Different in the world. I identify as a Jew of color. I’m a direct product of the civil rights movement. I believe in change. But 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.”
However, that quote isn’t as resigning as it seems. Yes, of course being a Jew of Color definitely presented Isaiah with many challenges growing up. He believed that Judaism did not have a space for him and his family. But despite this he always felt like a “spiritual person,” though he was turned off by religion at times, and later realized “that one should not judge a religion by its people, but by the religion itself.”
It wasn’t that experience in itself which led Isaiah to be “very open-minded and accepting.” His experiences of being around people, including himself and his family, who did not fit into a mold, led him to be more “open minded and accepting.” In addition, his weight, his family and feeling separate from the rest of the Jewish people also led him to be more “open minded and accepting.”
“As Joseph re-meets his brothers he says ‘She’lachni Elokim Lefnaychem, God Sent me here before you.’ So as to say, ‘because I struggled, when I see someone struggle, I can relate and therefore help that person in need.’ Further, I met so many different types of people who accepted and welcomed my family and those who did not, that I learned about human nature and social cues better based on this life experience.”
This life experience has helped to lead Isaiah, now twenty-four and living in Washington Heights, to his prospective career as a Rabbi and social worker. On the date of this publication, Isaiah will be graduating with his Masters in Social Work from YU’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He also expects to be ordained in a year’s time from YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, where he’s been a student since 2010. Throughout his educational career, which he believes is just beginning, he’s spearheaded various Jewish youth movements, including serving as president of the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship and Poverty Awareness Coalition, and the Orthodox community liaison for Hillel at Binghamton, his undergraduate alma mater.
“That’s where I discovered my love and passion for Judaism and the success of its continued development,” he says. “Its funny, after spending a year and half in Israel, I can proudly say that my religious identity was actually strengthened at Binghamton more so than anything before.”
That’s also the first place he ventured to lead and explore issues of identity in the Jewish world, forming a program called “identity crisis” where students would challenge and explore notions of identity and race. Upon his undergraduate graduation, he moved to Washington Heights and soon after applied for a position as the Young Israel of Stamford Youth Director position. That position included overseeing and designing programming for congregants ages 2 to 18, and the leadership, the rabbi and the community strengthened Isaiah’s skills and offered both support and guidance while expanding the Young Israel Youth Department. Since his arrival, the youth department has grown exponentially. Isaiah finds the community to be a large part of his professional development.
“I had no formal experience with youth and didn’t know what I was doing at first,” he laughs. “I only knew I was doing a good job once I started getting amazing feedback. It was also good for me professionally because it opened up so many doors, and is leading me down an exciting new path and journey. Hashem really does work in interesting ways.”
One such door it opened was the one to Stamford NCSY.
“Many of my students at the Young Israel of Stamford participated in NCSY. I became one of the advisers who added my music and spirituality to the shabbatonim. I facilitated meditation workshops and was one of the ‘ruach guys’. I have always been a spiritual person and I’ll never forget how during my childhood NCSY facilitated that. So I wanted to be the guy to facilitate it now.”
Since his involvement only a year ago, the Stamford chapter of NCSY has continuously grown. But he doesn’t want it to stop there. His goal is to expand the chapter to encompass all of Fairfield County. NCSY Stamford has already signed him on as Chapter Advisor for the following year, to ensure he is able to attempt this path.
“There’s so much to do. And there’s so much complexity in the world. My parents have raised their children with a the vision that we can influence the world and make it stronger. They believe that the redemption will come through the efforts of those who want to see it. With our life experience and perspective, and desire to heal the world, we are passionate to continue this mission. So it’s nice to be recognized [for the good you do], but you have to still remember there is so much to do, and we just have to keep moving, keep helping, keep pushing, and keep lifting. Thats all we can do as we continue to lamp light.”
Let us return to our initial anecdote of Isaiah. You now have a part of the picture of what makes him so unique. And as he concluded his story in front of his audience, he sang a song. A song that was meant to tell the people that in every moment of every day we are given the gift of renewal. But if we don’t believe that this moment contains this renewal, then we will simply leave ourselves to remain stagnant. That’s Isaiah’s ultimate goal: to “bring my vision and awaken people. To sensitize us again. I want to be a part of the team to facilitate change. There’s lots of work that needs to get done, and a divine force must help. But it’s possible.” His goal is surely no easy feat. But if anyone, Isaiah is the best one to do it.
“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. “In Devarim (Deuteronomy) 10:16 it says to “remove the cases from your heart.’ It’s where everything takes place. There are bigger topics out there. I’m still writing my story.”
P.S. Isaiah would like to invite everyone to the NCSY BBQ on the Beach. For more details email: email@example.com