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Babysitter or JSitter: what's at stake when we discriminate

I recently received a press release announcing the launch of JSitter.com, a site that purports to connect families with "reliable" Jewish babysitters, pet sitters, and house sitters. My initial reaction to this was disgust. This morning while I was catching up on my reading, I saw a post on TC Jewfolk that caught my attention.  In their advice column, "Ask Shuli," a reader asked: "I’m wondering where to find a Jewish babysitter. Do you think it even matters?"  As a Jewish woman who not only never had a Jewish babysitter, but had a German au pair, I argue that no, it does not, and should not, matter.

I understand this can be a touchy issue and it is not my intention to be incendiary, but it seems to me that the real reason sites like JSitter.com exist is because many Jews, on some level, distrust non-Jews with the unsupervised care of their children, pets, or houses. That being said, I recognize and cherish the level of trust that does exist within the Jewish community. This is a beautiful thing and should be valued.  It does not mean, however, that non-Jews are any less trustworthy simply because they are not Jewish.  To assume so is discriminatory, and to assume that this type of discrimination does not occur within the Jewish community is naive. Services like JSitter.com represent a distrust of non-Jews that is detrimental not only to our community as a whole, but to Jewish children in particular. Recent sex abuse scandals in the New York Orthodox community should also remind us that "Jewish" is not synonymous for "trustworthy."

Babysitters make a big impression on the kids they care for. I fondly remember playing board games, reading books, learning how to paint my nails, practicing my handwriting, and trying new foods for the first time. I don't believe any of my babysitters were Jewish. When my mother returned to work after my younger brother was born, we hosted a non-Jewish college student from Germany who lived with us as an au pair. As a small child, the significance of this arrangement went over my head, but not over the heads of my Holocaust-surviving grandparents. ("We didn't survive the camps so our grandchildren should be raised by Germans!") They were furious, but my parents held their ground. I also spent a good amount of time in the care of a non-Jewish, African American student who worked as an au pair for my first cousins. As a woman with strong Jewish identity, I challenge anyone to argue that my upbringing would have been better if my babysitters had been Jewish. 

In her column, Shuli states that she is an "equal opportunity" sitter-employer, but goes on to make some valid points for hiring Jewish. For one, shul is an easy and logical place to find teenagers looking to babysit. She also points to the need for some families to have a sitter that understands how to work within a kosher kitchen. These are good points, but I am still unconvinced. 

While shul is a great place to find babysitters, they can also be found in your own neighborhood, or perhaps through a co-worker or friend. Reaching out and engaging with your local Jewish community is important, but should not preclude engagement with other communities. Babysitting can be a wonderful way to form meaningful relationships that may not have occurred otherwise. And while I can see the convenience of having a babysitter that already knows his or her way around a kosher kitchen, it is ridiculous to assume that a non-Jewish person would not be able to learn the rules, or that a person would know these rules just because they are Jewish.

In the end, the alleged "convenience" of a Jewish sitter does not outweigh the benefits of diversity. Babysitters are an excellent way to expose children to other cultures, religions, and ethnicities. It gives them a safe place to ask questions, learn, and forge formative relationships with people from different backgrounds. Of course it is important for Jewish children to learn about their own heritage, and it is important for them to have Jewish mentors and role models. I would argue, however, that this is not the role of a babysitter. Babysitters keep children safe and entertained. They are not responsible for their Jewish education, nor is there any guarantee that a Jewish sitter will possess or impart any such knowledge just because he or she is Jewish.

Like all of us, I am influenced by my own experiences and upbringing, and my personal opinion does not necessarily represent that of my co-workers or the Jewish Women's Archive. I welcome other opinions and responses in the comments.

Still, I implore anyone currently considering a "J-sitter" to take a moment and think about your decision. There may be valid reasons for choosing a Jewish babysitter, but distrust of non-Jews is simply not one of them. Decisions like these are good opportunities to examine your own feelings, tendencies, and prejudices. They also become "teachable moments" for your kids. Children learn by example, and putting your trust in a non-Jewish babysitter will teach them to trust and engage with people who are different from themselves.

More on: Children, Internet

How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Babysitter or JSitter: what's at stake when we discriminate." 19 January 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 15, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/babysitter-or-jsitter>.

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