Actor delivers humorous take on adoption and Jewish identity

For many Americans, adoption is the happy resolution of two tragedies: one couple’s untimely or unwanted pregnancy and another couple’s infertility. In its ideal form, finding “homes without children for children without homes” is a mitzvah of the highest order, one that benefits all participants in the adoption triangle –– birth parents, adoptive parents and adoptees ––– and their extended families as well.

Paradoxically, adoption is on the increase in the United States even as the number of adoptable infants may be decreasing. While the federal government has not kept adoption records since 1975, current estimates of the National Committee for Adoption (NCFA) suggest that there are already more adoptions in the United States than in all rest of the world. In 1982, the number of adoptions in the United States was estimated at 140,000, the largest proportion (64 percent) by stepparents and the remainder by nonrelated adults. At the same time, the percentage of babies placed for adoption has decreased from 7.6 percent of all babies born to unwed teenage mothers in 1971 to 4.6 percent in 1982 (National Center for Health Statistics)

Focus on infertility
The increase in the number of adoptions and in the number of American seeking to adopt is the result of a number of factors, foremost among which is the increased focus on infertility. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), whose national surveys provide the only reliable data in this data in this area, there has been no overall increase in U.S. infertility since 1965. Then and now, some 2.4. million American couples, or 1 out of every 12 (wife aged 15- 44), experience either primary or secondary infertility. (“Secondary infertility” is the inability to have more than one biological child.) The perception of an increase in attention paid to the problem –– by the medical profession and by the couples themselves. More new medical techniques are being practiced by more infertility specialists, and more couples are spending more time and money on visits to doctors and surgical procedures (in 1987, an estimate $1 billion). Half of all who go for treatment are indeed rewarded with the reversal of their infertility. But since infertility increases with age, especially after 35, the problem is not likely to disappear as more Americans postpone marriage and children.

Also contributing to demand for adoptable babies is the more sophisticated “consumer’ approach of a generation of educated adults used to pursuing their goals in an energetic, proactive manner. For these people, infertility is an obstacle to be overcome rather than a fate to be accepted.

Fewer Babies Placed
While more babies than ever are being born to single mothers, fewer are being placed for adoption. According to the Guttmacher Institute and the NCHS, the proportion of births to teenage mothers has actually decreased (from 89 per 1,000 in 1960 to 52.8 per 1,000 in 1983), while the proportion of births to unmarried women of all ages has increased (from 29.5 per 1,000 in 1985). Contrary to widespread popular belief, the number of women having abortions has remained constant for the last decade at nearly 3 per 100 women of childbearing age (higher for nonwhites than for whites) Far more single women choose to carry their pregnancies to term and to rear their own children. In 1984, 80 percent of all children born to unmarried mothers were kept, clearly the result of changing social norms that have lessened the stigma of single parenthood. Some argue that this trend toward intact birth families, however socially or economically disadvantaged is an indicator of a healthier society overall. In any case, the adoption emphasis has subtly shifted from finding families for babies to finding babies for families

To this end, more Americans now look abroad for adoptable infants. In 1986, some 9,945 international adoptions occurred in American families (NCFA data). Of these more than half were from Korea: others were from the Philippines, India, Colombia, Chile and other countries of Central and South America. Foreign adoptions are now estimated to be 10-15 percent of all annual adoptions. At the same time, there are an estimated 36-50,000 children in foster care who are legally free for adoption (U.S. Children’s Bureau, Department of Health and Human Services). These children are likelier to be black, older, and to have physical and emotional problems, and they often have living siblings with whom they wish to be jointly adopted (The New York City Health Department estimates that 19995 there will be 20,000 AIDS orphans in the city needing adoption or foster care.)

Activist Approaches
Another hallmark of the activist approach is the manner in which many adoptions today take place. Once the exclusive province of public or private agencies, adoption is now mostly a ‘do-it-yourself” affair. Variously called “independent” or “private” or “open” adoption, this is a process by which prospective adoptive parents, alone or in groups, seek out pregnant women. (“Collaborative,” “cooperative,” “identified,” or “designated” adoptions combine independent searches with agency involvement.) They place advertisements in newspapers across the country and install private telephone lines in their homes; they may also distribute resumes to doctors, lawyers and others. Once contact is made, the adoptive parents and the pregnant woman work out an agreement among themselves, often including the couple’s paying for the birth mother’s housing and medical care during the pregnancy; then all go to a lawyer to finalize the arrangement. Legal fees for this range anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 or more. All but four states (Delaware, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota) now permit “open” adoption, although there is variation from state to state about specific aspects of the arrangement.

This method appeals to birth mothers who seek greater input into who shall parent their babies, and it offers adoptive parents a faster route than long agency professionals tend toward caution in recommending open adoptions, however, and remind both parties of the risks involved: birth mothers who may change their minds after the baby has been born or placed, on the one hand adoptive parents who may seek to terminate an “unsuccessful” adoption on the other.

Adoption –– a Lifelong Process
All sides of the adoption triangle increasingly subscribe to the dictum: “Adoption is a lifelong process. “Support groups exist for adoptive parents and for adoptees of all ages, before and after the adoption has occurred. As New York psychoanalyst and adoptee Mary Freeman says. Adoption itself makes for children with special needs that do not necessarily emerge until later in life, often during the adoptee’s adolescent years. Adoptive parent must learn to deal with what Boston psychiatrist Miriam Mazor calls the narcissistic injury of infertility. These parents must let go of the dream of the biological child they will never have, and the children whom they adopt must learn to accept their “dual roots” origins.

Many adoptee advocacy groups sometimes with the support of adoptive parents, now routinely recommend that all adoptees search out their biological parents for purposes of reunion, and many are also fighting to open previously sealed court records containing this information as well as to ensure open records in the future. Indeed, adoption agreements frequently include ongoing or intermittent contact with birth parent or parents throughout the adoptee’s life. This contact can range all the way from exchange of letters and photographs on holidays to scheduled visits at each other’s home. Other experts and adoptive-parent groups question the wisdom of such contacts and urge adoptive families to consider themselves discrete units.

Birth parents too confront difficult issues. Women who relinquished babies in the 1950’s and 60’s often did so in strictest secrecy and shame. Already feeling guilty for premarital sex that resulted in out-of-wedlock pregnancy many felt guiltier still for giving up the baby. Some now say that they were pressured by society to do so when instead they should have been offered job training and parenting skills to enable them to keep their children. They tell us that birth mothers never forget and can never “get on with their lives” as they so often advised to do. Many experience feelings of loss, rage, anxiety, and depression that intensify over the years and can affect the families they later establish.

Birth mothers who choose to relinquish in today’s more open climate are presumed to be more informed in their decision although it is too soon to tell how they will fare years from now. And we only just beginning to hear from the previously silent ranks of birth fathers many of whom did not play any part at in that decision. What issues are clear is that placing a baby for adoption is a complex and pivotal life choice, and all involved must weigh very carefully the relative merits of what adoptive parents call ‘the myth of biology” against what birth mothers call “the adoption myth.”

Jews in the Adoption Triangle
Jewish couples may well exemplify the modern American problem that writer Shirley Frank calls “the new infertility.” Typically delaying marriage and childbearing for education and career building, they later become among the most active in seeking babies for adoption. Some report relative disadvantage in an adoption market in which agencies and birth mothers often talking about find “good Christian homes”: others suggest that couples actually have and adoption advantage in that they are likelier to tap into network of doctors or lawyers, and also because some birth mothers respond positively to the stereotype of Jews as successful professionals who can give child material and educational advantages.

There is no evidence of greater infertility among American Jews; in fact, infertility occurs most commonly among black couples with low levels of education. It is possible, however, that infertility imposes a special burden on Jews, for whom parenthood is often viewed as “a ticket of admission to the Jewish community.” For such people, Dr. Mazor goes on to say, infertility becomes a “biblical stress test for faith.” Whatever the reason, many Jews are involved in activist adoptive- parent organizations often as founders and their intense motivation to establish families is often deeply rooted in Jewish values.

Jews figure prominently in all corners of the adoption triangle. Contrary to popular belief, there are Jewish birth mothers who place babies for adoption and even more Jewish birth fathers. Jewish women are visible in the leadership ranks of birth-mother advocacy and counseling groups speaking out publicly and publishing books and magazine articles presenting the birth mothers’ point of view. Similarly, adult Jewish adoptees are active in adoptee advocacy and support groups, and have authored books and articles describing their personal odysseys and debating the issues surrounding open and closed records reunions which biological parents and profiles of adoptees in therapy. Last but not least, individual Jews are also active as adoption lawyers and as doctors helping birth parents and adoptive parents to find one another.

Judaic Perspective
Judaism itself offers perspective that can be highly supportive of adoption initiatives. The rabbinic response to infertility is to urge couples to pursue all means possible within Jewish law (halakhah) to overcome obstacles to their observance of the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.” While adoption as we know it today is not formally mentioned in the Bible or Talmud. Rabbi Michael Gold’s book And Hannah Wept: Infertility, Adoption and the Jewish Couple , cites many de facto instances of adoption in biblical literature, including Abraham’s “adoption” of his servant Eliezer and Michal’s “adoption” of her sister Meirav’s five sons. Furthermore, the concept of “guardianship” is implied in Jewish law, and is reinforced in the Midrash that states: “The one who brings up a child is to be called its parent, not the one who gave birth” (Sanhedrin 19)

At the same time, Rabbi Gold–– himself an adoptive father–– acknowledges that Jewish law, unlike civil law places great important on bloodlines. Thus he counsels Jewish adoptive parents of the need for formal conversion of adoptees into the Jewish community. He also acknowledges such technicalities as the nontransmission of priestly or Levitical status through adoption, the converted child’s right to reject Judaism at age 12 or 13, and the Orthodox recommendation adopting born-Jewish babies so as o preclude situations in which some adult adoptees may have questionable marital status within the Jewish community. In general, couples are urged to consult with their rabbis about conversion procedures.

At this time, however, rabbis of all movement do not necessarily agree on what is required to bring an adopted child into the fold. While some Reform rabbis quote Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof’s 1956 ruling that adoption itself constitutes full membership into the Jewish family and the Jewish community, others urge congregants to pursue Orthodox conversions for their adopted children so as to guarantee their full acceptances of the faith. However, Orthodox practices in this area vary considerably; some rabbis will provide Orthodox conversions for all adoptees, while others insist on family commitments of increased observance. Still other families manage to avoid facing this issue altogether at the time of adoption, but as bar or bar mitzvah approaches, they are distraught to learn that their child’s Jewish status is in question.

Within the Jewish Community
Beyond establishing and upholding rules regarding conversion, American rabbis and the synagogues they represent are generally not formally involved in the adoption concerns of their congregants. Few rabbis are trained to counsel birth parents or adoptive parents, and there are few reports of rabbis who are programmatically engaged in efforts to absorb the growing numbers of foreign- born adoptees into congregational family. Some rabbis are informally active, however, in underground networking efforts to match adoptable infants with prospective families, as evidenced by occasional printed announcement in CCAR rabbinic newsletters.

Jewish Family Service agencies, once deeply involved in adoption services, moved away from this activity in the 1960s. Nevertheless, according to an August 1988 report from the association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies, the Umbrella organization of all Jewish Family agencies, some 34 agencies across the country (out of a total of 139) report that they provide some adoption services. These can range from information and referral services through doing home studies and networking all the way to actual adoption placements domestic and international. Others organize support groups and seminars. Agency involvement, which varies from place to place, is now growing rapidly.

At the informal level of grass-roots communal involvement, there is burgeoning of Jewish self-help support groups under the “Stars of David.” Founded in 1984 by Phyllis Nissen and Rabbi Susan Abramson of Temple Shalom Emeth in Burlington, Mass., it has gron to the point where its co-founders do not claim to know how many chapters exist. (Reliable estimates suggest there are a least 35 involving more than a thousand families.) with no formal ties to any Jewish organization or denomination, the autonomous chapters provide a social network for Jewish and partly Jewish adoptive families. Approximately half the families served have foreign-born adopted children. Chapters gather for Jewish holiday celebrations and information sharing and maintain some contact through a national newsletter. (Many chapters now put out their own newsletters as well.) Rabbis Abramson and Gold serve as advisors.

Interviews and meetings with Jewish adoptive parents around the country suggest several areas in which the Jewish community could be doing more to meet their needs. Perhaps foremost is the concern that rabbis of all movements agree on a joint set of requirements regarding conversion of adoptees, and that this information be readily accessible to adoptive families. Families are mixed in their desire for greater involvement of rabbis and synagogues: some would prefer greater programmatic activity within the synagogue community, while others prefer to pursue full participation without the stigmatized “adoptive family” label.

There is greater consensus on other kinds of communal supports adoptive families wish to receive. With increased funding as the common link, families ask for more postadoption services and greater centralization of services, perhaps on a national level. Others request more specifically Jewish content in the communal services that are currently offered. Some would like to see the Jewish community reestablish functioning adoption agencies, while others prefer to receive professional assistance from the Jewish community in their individual pursuit of private adoption. It is harder to get information about what Jewish support services birth parents and adoptees themselves need but surely greater counseling before and after adoption records, while others suggest that communal intervention to support young pregnant women is needed to prevent what they believe is the breakup of a fragile new Jewish family

Facing the Future
For the long term, the Jewish community must begin to address some very deep issues that adoption raises:

  • As adoption activist Abby Ruder notes, in acknowledging the multiple heritage of race and ethnicity borne by many adoptees, Jews are also addressing complexities of race and ethnicity within the Jewish community itself. For Jewish adoptees, conversion need not necessarily wipe out the past; the Jewish community and even Jewish identity can be enriched by the incorporation of other cultural backgrounds. As non European Jews in Israel and elsewhere already know, the tag line “Funny, you don’t look Jewish” can be more an expression of ignorance and insularity than of genuine humor.
  • As the scramble for adoptable infants from the third world continues, Jews as people must face difficult ethical concerns about the large-scale adoption of deprived members of one cultural community by privileges members of another. Journalist (and adoptive father). Lawrence Bush writes: “We who adopt are exercising a certain privilege of class or nationality. If we exercise that privilege without a heightened sense of responsibility, we are participating in oppression, however innocently…. What, then am I asking of adoptive parents…? Only that they be conscious of the privilege that has gained for them the ability to overcome the infertility curse, and that they channel that consciousness into a sense of tikkun olam that includes but goes beyond the loving attention they give to their adopted children. Our world is terribly imbalanced when whole nations are unable to hold on to their younger generations. Reckoning with that imbalance involves more than the uplifting of individuals kids–– notwithstanding the Jewish teaching that saving a single life is like saving the world. Saving the world begins with the saving of a single life; it doesn’t end there (Genesis 2, Winter 1987/1988).

    For the Jewish community, adoption means change, change in how families are formed, change in how we define ourselves in terms of race and ethnicity, and change in how we relate to other culture and nationalities with whom we interact. How we respond as a community to the adoptees among us, as well as to the adoptive parents and both parents, will in part determine the strength and vitality of Jewish family life into the twenty-first century.

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