Jewish America’s Changing Faces

Adoptions are Accelerating a Trend Toward more Diversity.

Ken Podell looks at his 6-year-old and sees a beautiful little Jewish girl. But when Alexandra, who was adopted from China, showed up at one Jewish classmate’s birthday party, the host took one look and turned her away -until he saw his wife signaling frantically behind him that Alexandra was on the guest list. “I laughed afterward,” said her father, “but I was not laughing at the time.” International and trans-racial adoptions are changing the face of Jewish America. For decades, diversity from conversions and intermarriage has trickled slowly into a population made up mostly of white Eastern European Jews. Now increasing numbers of adoptions from countries such as Korea, Guatemala and China are accelerating that trend. According to the United Jewish Communities’ National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, just over 5 percent of Jewish families had adopted children in the household, accounting for about 35,000 children. “In one fell swoop, a nice white Jewish couple adopts a Chinese girl, and suddenly, what a Jewish kid looks like we have to reconsider,” said Adam Pertman, author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming America. Adopted children, said Pertman, potentially could face both anti-Semitism and racism – not to mention prejudice within the Jewish community itself. “We should expect it,” Pertman said. “… It would foolish for us not to acknowledge that race is an issue in our culture.” The Jewish community worldwide is already very diverse, says Abby Ruder, a family therapist in Wyndmoor, whose adopted daughter is of Irish and African descent. Adoption is simply making that reality more visible.

“It’s about embracing in a larger sense who we really are,” said Ruder. “A Jewish soul is a Jewish soul. It doesn’t require a particular outer coating.” But for the Jewish children with Asian, African and Latin American faces popping up in synagogues and Hebrew schools, being accepted holds its challenges. Podell is preparing Alexandra and her 4-year-old adopted sister, Daria, for a comment that he hopes they will never hear: “You can’t be a real Jew; you don’t look like a Jew!” “They are going to have to know more” than most children about what it means to be Jewish, Podell said. While the girls attend important Chinese festivals, they also celebrate Shabbat every Friday night, go to synagogue on Saturday, and learn Hebrew, not Chinese. “My daughters look in the mirror and they see Jewish little girls,” said their mother, Jeanne DeVine. And Alexandra was confused to learn that no one else in her kindergarten was Jewish. Who else isn’t Jewish? she grilled her father. Is Aunt Melanie Jewish? Is Ga-ga (her grandmother) Jewish? Podell asked, “Do you think Jake is Jewish?” With an exasperated eye-roll, Alexandra replied, “Of course he’s Jewish! He looks Jewish!” Jake is the family poodle.

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