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Jewesses with Attitude

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
9 Comments

The difference is more important when you are a jew looking for a job vs a family looking for a sitter. As a jew looking, if they want meals prepared, how can I do that in a non-kosher home?

etc

When you are only involve with people you are comfortable with, and those with similar background, you never leave the box. How can you ever go to different places and never experienced different things and people, if that is the case many people should just stay in their own country and not go to other countries and try to conform that country to the familiar ways in which they are accustomed to. Meeting people and doing different things with people is a learning experience. Jewish families are not the best nor the worst, just different. There are many childcare centers or persons who can teach and provide Jewish children with what the need, and they themselves are not Jewish. If the Jewish parents are teaching their children and laying out the foundation at home, the nanny or childcare provider doesn't have to raise the child, just help implement and enforce what is already established between the parents and children.

Firstly, Leah, it is so fun to read what you're up to these days! Speaking of non-Jewish babysitters, I still have very fond memories of Joanna.

I like to think that I exposed the Orthodox Jewish kids that I nannied for to a lot of things that they otherwise would not have known about or experienced. Living with this family was also an amazing learning experience for me that I really treasure. My favorite story is that the 4-year-old I cared for excitedly told a very conservative Orthodox gentleman that his nanny had two moms. :)

When my son was little, we had an au pair from Stockholm living with us. We grew very fond of her, and keep in touch to this day. Miko came to us when she was seventeen, and is now a well-known lawyer and political activist in Sweden and is married to a Lutheran minister. She often speaks of her fond memories of her life with us in New York, and we all cherish the relationship. Dare I suggest that the world will be a better place when we all reach out to other cultures?

Dear Jewesses, I'd argue that a fondness for Jewish babysitters doesn't automatically mean a distrust of non-Jews. In my post, I pointed out that it's easy (and recommended) to find babysitters from circles in which we feel comfortable. If that happens to be the youth group members at synagogue or teachers at our JCC, wonderful! That means our children will feel comfortable with those sitters as well. Of course, many others will find the most comfort in circles such as their neighborhood association, sports teams or book clubs. As usual, our children's comfort and references are the most important factors. Thanks for reading! Ask Shuli

What if my daughter was asked to babysit a child, perhaps referred by neighbors who know her well from her watching their children. And how would we feel if, upon arriving to babysit, she was informed that their home was a "Christian Household", and she was turned away?

There is a big difference between wanting your child to marry someone within your faith versus letting them play with those of different cultures and beliefs in a school yard.

Am I the only one who sees the racism in this approach?

Leah, your post is right on. I followed your link to JSitter's site, and here's the language that is most telling to me : "JSitter is a safe and convenient destination for local babysitters, petsitters and housesitters in your Jewish community. JSitter brings together Jewish families and Jewish sitters to create a network of comfort and trust."

"Safe," "comfort," and "trust" are all code words for "LIKE US." The target audience must be families in very insular communities. As you point out, those of us who embrace diversity and are not threatened by "the other" might see the babysitting arrangement as a great opportunity to welcome a loving person into our homes who can teach our kids about other cultures, languages, perspectives, etc. But to me, it all boils down to that word "loving": as a parent, I look first for someone who is nurturing and kind to take care of my kids, rather than considering their ethnicity, religion, race, etc.

I think this all boils down to people tend to be more comfortable with those with a similar background. When my mom died, I had to find household help for my father who was suffering from Parkinsons disease. One of the first questions that the agency asked me is "what religion is your father?"

I don't know if this is right or wrong but it sure is the way life is. My parents always insisted that I date "ONLY JEWISH BOYS" and they encouraged me to have Jewish friends. Their reasoning was "you're most comfortable with one of your own".

I can see where, if you just happen to be Jewish, worrying about the ethnicity of a babysitter seems discriminatory. But if you are in a religious household it takes on additional importance. Do you want a babysitter who does not understand kashruth, or who does not understand other ritual issues (perhaps it is a khag and lights cannot be turned on or off, for instance)? What on earth is wrong with looking first to babysitters who understand these issues and can be trusted to know when there are ritual issues and what might be required?

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 May 26, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/babysitter-or-jsitter>.

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