Bay Area Jewish parents accept joys, struggles of interracial adoption

It isn’t too hard to pick out Ruthie Heller in her 12th-birthday photo, even if she weren’t wearing colorful balloons fashioned into a hat atop her head.

Among the four Orthodox Jewish girls, arms around each other and flashing wide grins, Ruthie’s creamy bronze skin, dark brown eyes and facial features are a dead give-away.

Though they’re her best friends now, for a long time new classmates, even her good friends, hounded her: Why are your parents a different color?

“I’d stop and … lecture, ‘I’m adopted, and that’s the reason I’m a different color,’” says the Chilean-born Ruthie, her eyes rolling back in mocked exasperation.

“It made me feel uncomfortable a little, but I kind of got used to it,” she says in her matter-of-fact, adolescent way.

The Sunnyvale teen may be OK with the difference now, but many adults who have adopted African American children or kids from China or Latin America wonder: Can the Jewish community, not to mention the community at large, get used to it?

With its numerous mentions in the Talmud, adoption would seem to be no stranger to Jews. After all, who wouldn’t be happy for a nice Jewish couple who overcome infertility to expand their family by adopting a cherubic baby?

But some Jews who have adopted transracially are discovering the Jewish community is not always as welcoming as imagined — although that seems to be changing, slowly.

Still, being another minority within a Jewish minority can be extra difficult.

Nevertheless, because Jewish women face lower fertility rates than other U.S. women, and tend to marry later as well (which also could affect fertility), more Jewish couples and singles are looking to adopt. With many of those adoptive parents bringing home children from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, the old “Funny, you don’t look Jewish” saying is taking on new meaning.

None of that concerned Marie Roskrow, 38, of the Rockridge area of Oakland. Once the British transplant learned that — because she wasn’t a U.S. citizen — she wouldn’t be able to adopt a child from China, her first choice, she adopted an African American baby domestically. Says the single mother, who was raised in a Conservative Jewish home by a single mom and her Polish Jewish grandparents, “I just wanted a baby, quickly.”

Although the number of Jews adopting transracially is hard to come by, the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 indicates there are about 35,000 adopted children being raised in Jewish homes — slightly more than 5 percent of all Jewish households with children. How many of them are children of color or multiracial is unknown.

But more and more Jewish couples and singles are looking at domestic transracial adoptions, according to Elyse Flack, national director of the Stars of David International Inc., a Chicago-based support group and informational network for Jewish adoptive families. Still others are bringing children home from overseas — mainly from China, Vietnam, Russia, South and Central America and Korea.

Most Jewish families want to adopt a Jewish child, says Flack, but “the likelihood of a Jewish family adopting a Jewish child is slim to none, about 1 percent.”

Adopting a Jewish child is “extraordinarily difficult,” acknowledges Lynne Fingerman, co-director of Adoption Connection, which, at about 100 adoptions a year, Jewish and not, places more children than any other Bay Area group. But, she says, Jews living here are more open to adopting transracially because of the area’s diversity, and many are marrying people of other races or have family members who are.

“Jews have always been at the forefront of accepting diversity,” she says. “But to go from there to having a child [of a different race] is a huge jump.”

In her agency, a project of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, about 70 percent of the adoptions are domestic, the rest international. Of the domestic ones, a little more than 25 percent are transracial.

There’s no problem halachically with transracial adoption, according to Rabbi Michael Gold, author of “And Hannah Wept: Infertility, Adoption and the Jewish Couple,” which many consider as the adoption bible.

But Gold, himself an adoptive father of three, does see a problem in the attitudes of the Jewish community. “Many Jews are not prepared to fully embrace as Jewish, youngsters from another race,” he writes.

Diane Tobin, associate director at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco and an adoptive mother, takes it a step further. “Racism does exist in our culture,” she notes. “But [adoptive parents] have greater expectations from their religious community.”

The odd thing is, the Jewish community always has been a rainbow, from white Ashkenazi to olive-skinned Sephardics to the dark-brown Jews from Ethiopia and Africa. A more colorful Jewish community already exists — about 15 percent of all Jewish families in the Bay Area are interracial, says Tobin — but many American Jews hold fast their rather rigid ideas about who does and doesn’t “look” Jewish.

Finding a congregation that reflects the changing face of Jews is daunting, even in the multiethnic and racially diverse Bay Area.

The answer for Julia Weber and Charles Fineberg was joining Congregation Sha’ar Zahav when the San Franciscan couple adopted Zachary, now 2 _, who is African American. “I saw more adopted children and more multiracial children there,” says Weber, an attorney for the state on family law policies. “I almost became a rabbi; I am very committed to him having a sense of what it is to be Jewish.”

Rabbi Daniel Kohn of Mill Valley is the parent of an African American daughter. “We’re fairly observant, spiritually inclined people,” says Kohn of himself and wife Deborah Stachel. They adopted Nava Abigail, now an active 2 1/2, as a newborn. “For us, the issue has always been: Where are we going to go to synagogue? Where are we going to find families who look like ours?”

That’s why Tobin and her husband, Gary, founded Be’chol Lashon (“In Every Tongue”) in 1997, the same year they adopted Jonah, also African American.

One of Be’chol Lashon’s top goals is building a community for Jews of color. Another is giving transracially adopted kids role models to relate to, so they don’t have to chose between their racial community and their religious community — so they won’t know just African American people and Jewish people but African American Jewish people.

The Tobins had five children between them when they married in 1991. Adopting Jonah, now 7, “brought our family together,” Tobin says.

It also changed Diane Tobin’s way of viewing the world. “I’m so conscious of race now,” she says, “and I truly recognize what a privilege it is for white people not to have to think about it.”

The Tobins wanted to send Jonah to a Jewish day school, but they worried about the lack of diversity. He’s now a second-grader at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco — the only African American in his class — and they have found the school to be open and empathetic. “Part of what all of us are doing is educating the institutions,” she says.

But before that, the adoptive parents-to-be themselves must answer the questions: What would it be like to raise a child who doesn’t look like me? How will she be accepted by my family, my synagogue, by the larger Jewish community?

For Ruthie’s parents, Dorothy and David Heller, it meant hours and hours of research, endless phone calls to others who had adopted and to attorneys, and nights of soul-searching.

“We thought about the implications,” says Dorothy Heller, who, because of political turmoil in Chile, had to wait almost a year to bring Ruthie home at age 2. “We talked to a number of people. We both were afraid of domestic adoption.”

So were Judy Levy and John Polumbo, who adopted 8-year-old Anna from China when she was 7 months old. “We didn’t want to go through the potential heartache of [a domestic adoption] being retracted,” says Levy, a psychologist. “I just knew I couldn’t handle that.”

And when Levy discovered the group Families with Children from China, she took comfort in knowing that she wasn’t alone. “It’s a strong community … and we assumed we’d be a part of that community.”

Kohn and his wife worried, too, but for different reasons. “As Jews, as religious Jews, as a rabbi, that puts a lot on a child to be adopted into that,” says Kohn, a stay-at-home dad, author and educator at Lehrhaus Judaica and the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. “We were thinking about the welfare of the child … but it wasn’t so insurmountable in our minds.”

Weber and Fineberg, an Internet engineer, shared similar concerns. So they are “constantly vigilant about the environments in which he spends time,” Weber says, making sure they are as diverse — and Jewish — as possible.

Even if the couple hadn’t adopted an African American child, they would still choose to be part of those communities because “it wouldn’t be healthy to be a white child who’s marginalized” either, Weber says.

Nonetheless, he acknowledges, “I think we are forced to [seek diverse Jewish environments] because we love someone of another race. But I’m thankful for that. It’s the right thing to do.”

The Hellers, too, have bought their share of multicultural books to read to Ruthie, attend Camp Tawonga’s Mosaic Camp for multiracial families, and participate in multicultural activities run by other groups — events that Ruthie has one word for: “boring.”

“I shlep Ruthie to all these activities,” says her mom, surrounded by Ruthie’s brilliantly colorful oil paintings in their Sunnyvale home. “And she’s hated all of them,” she adds, laughing.

“I know I’m adopted,” says Ruthie, with just a hint of a grumble in her voice. “I don’t need anyone else to tell me.”

Judy Levy, who is Jewish, and her husband, a first-generation Italian, are struggling to find the right balance for the Chinese-born Anna, who is being raised Jewish.

“We thought we’d somehow figure it out. It seemed overwhelming, and it still does,” Levy says.

Anna takes Mandarin classes twice a week, and Jewish education classes at Chochmat HaLev. But Levy and Polumbo put Anna in a private secular school instead of a Jewish day school because, says Levy, “I wanted to have her in a multicultural setting, not just Jewish.”

Some parents believe, political correctness aside, that if they’re going through all the trouble to raise an adoptive child Jewish, why confuse the child further by inundating her with Spanish lessons or books and posters about Peru or Africa and so on?

“Culture is not genetic,” says Michael Tejeda, a member of the East Bay chapter of the Stars of David. He considered an international adoption before finding Walnut Creek-born Elena, who is white and now 15 years old.

What parents should want, he says, is a child who doesn’t identify as either African American or white but as a Jew.

“It’s hard enough on a kid’s identity [to be adopted]. Why do you want the give them two or three identities?” asks Tejada. “Do you want the kid to think, ‘Do my parents not consider me 100 percent theirs?’”

But Fingerman of Adoption Connection says that kind of thinking worries her. “Yes, be Jewish, but you can’t throw out the rest of the parts. To say you just raise them Jewish is very naive. We have to celebrate what that ethnicity and race is because the world is going to identify him by that and he has to feel good about that.”

Ruthie Heller doesn’t feel particularly inclined to learn any more than the rudimentary Spanish she knows or more about her Latin American heritage, although she wrote a report on Chile for school. And she hates all that I’m-adopted-but-I’m-special stuff, too.

“It’s always annoyed me. She’s my mom. I don’t need books to tell me that,” Ruthie says.

Still, the community that adoptive parents and kids live in — Jewish or not — apparently does.

Kohn recalls a moment that defines the experience perfectly. A new teacher had joined his daughter’s preschool, and after a few weeks she approached him and said, “Nava seems so attached to you. What is your relation?”

Kohn chuckles when he recalls the look on her face — that wide-eyed, partly shocked, partly embarrassed grimace one makes when instantly recognizing one has committed a major faux pas — when he said, “Why, she’s my daughter!”

And he’s used to strangers approaching Nava, inquiring, “Where’s your mommy?” if she is far enough away from him that people wouldn’t make a connection that they’re together.

The Weber-Fineberg family gets that, too, and worse. “There’s an assumption we are these wonderful saviors who saved Zachary from a life of poverty, that he’s ‘out of the system,’ which is a very racist assumption.”

For Scott Rubin, trying to look like a typical family was never even considered. Rubin’s son, Zeke, an almost 4-year-old whose background is both Latino and African American, has two dads.

“There’s nobody who would ever look at us as if we were a biological family anyway,” says Rubin, a research associate at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, who, along with his partner, Steven Moore, adopted Zeke when he was a week old. “Our intention was always to just be a family.”

Their first brush with discrimination came within days of bringing Zeke home as they searched for a mohel. They contacted a popular local Orthodox mohel who had done a brit milah for some friends. “I called and said, ‘My partner and I adopted a mixed race child …’” and the conversation quickly ended, Rubin recalls.

Another rabbi wouldn’t even return their calls. They were forced to call Susan Romer, the attorney who arranged the adoption, with a plea: Help.

“So we got an ob-gyn convert who was born in China. She did the bris on the dining room table, with her Chinese and Hebrew accent,” says Rubin with a laugh. “It was a very San Francisco bris!”

Concerns that he will be one of a few, and possibly the only, child of color in class is one reason Rubin, who was raised Reform, and Moore, a real estate agent with a Southern Baptist background, won’t send Zeke to a Jewish day school. With a Latino and African American background, not to mention two dads, “he’s got enough going on,” Rubin acknowledges.

Single mom Roskrow, an investment banker, won’t send 15-month-old Jacob, who is African American, to a Jewish day school, either. “It’s forcing too much Jewishness on him,” she says.

But raising their boys Jewish is important to them all, and they look forward to the day they step onto the bimah to become bar mitzvah.

Getting to that point is another issue for adoptive Jews.

Because most transracially adopted kids aren’t Jewish, they face conversion under Jewish law. The various streams of Judaism follow different procedures, and the more traditional branches may not recognize conversions by the more liberal ones. Which choice the adoptive parent makes “can have lifelong consequences for their children,” writes adoptive mother and educator Shelley Kapnek Rosenberg in “Adoption and the Jewish Family.”

“It is devastating for an adopted person who has been raised as a Jew to be told that he or she ‘isn’t really Jewish.’”

But no one could convince Ruthie Heller of that. Much to her parents’ surprise, Ruthie, who was converted at a mikvah in San Francisco with a combined Conservative-Orthodox beit din, decided to become Orthodox a few years ago. She is 100 percent Jewish, period.

“I walk around with long skirts. My friends are all Jews, practically,” says the seventh-grader at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School, as she proudly shows off a new silverplate Shabbat candelabra. “I just feel like a Jew.”