The Challenges of Adoption in the Jewish Community

Since 1982 when they adopted their first child – a nine- month old son who came to them through a closed domestic process–Larry and Corrine Spiegel of Portland, Oregon, have pretty much covered the major adoption bases. Their second son was adopted form an orphanage in Colombia, their third Chile. Their daughter, a rarity in that she was born of a Jewish mother in the United States came to them as a two-year-old in an open adoption.

The children look different from each other and from their adoptive parents and differ in their abilities, especially academically. It’s not easy to be part of the people of the Book and not shine in school, says Corinne. One son has serious emotional issues and a strong interest in Hispanic birth culture not shared by his other siblings. For a variety of reasons––including poor prenatal care, drug use by the birth mother, or abuse or neglect after birth–adopted children are more likely than others to have disabilities.

Congregation Neveh Shalom has been quite accepting of the Spiegel children, say their parents, who are hard-pressed to identify any Jewish-specific adoption issues or concerns in their lives, once the boys’ conversions were completed.

Cantor Eric Wasser of Congregation Beth Hillel in Wilmette, Illinois, was raised in Toronto as one of four adopted children (one of them his twin brother from three sets of biological parents who were all, as far as he knows, Jewish. Back then Wasser is 40– “you went to pediatrician,” who looked for potential matches, he says. Local records at the time were sealed.

About ten years ago, Wasser started wondered whether, as the elder twin and “firstborn of his biological mother,” he needed a pidyon ha’ben Receiving conflicting opinions, he gave up his search. No other specifically Jewish issues connected to adoption have troubled him in life, he says nor have any traditional text–– been either particularly vexing or inspiring to him as an adoptee.

Similarly, Rabbi Steven Rubenstein, assistant rabbi of congregation Beth Shalom in Kansas City Missouri, and the father of an adopted son, says he doesn’t “feel a need or a drive to have special rituals” in Judaism to acknowledge or deal with adoption. However, he does appreciate the message of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 19b) that a parent is the person who raises the child.

Still, issues may surface over a lifetime says Ray Kalef, a member of Keneseth Israel Congregation in Louisville, Kentucky, who ran a non-profit non-sectarian adoption agency with his wife for 22 years.

The first issue that must be faced is conversion. Immersion in a mikveh, as part of the child’s conversion, is generally required for most Jewish adoptive families, since almost no children born to Jewish mothers are available for adoption in North America. Kalef remembers fewer than half a dozen passing through his agency. Increasingly, Jews adopt from abroad, China currently a popular source country.

Adoption laws vary widely from state to state, and the opinions of rabbis can vary on individual points. Some questions pop up everywhere: Does the child look Jewish or feel Jewish? Will the extended family accept someone not of their blood? How, if at all, should the birth mother be included in family and religious ceremonies?

Rick Reamer of Pawtucket, Rhode Island father of two adopted daughters and a member of Temple Emanu-El in Providence, would like Jewish clergy to be more active in discussing the often agonizing ethical choices that can crop up in adoption. What if the birth mother desperately needs money but the law sees that as buying a baby, preventing you from helping her? What if you promise to keep in touch with the birth mother, just to close the deal, and then renege?

“There are so many junctures where people have to decide how ethical to be” Reamer says.

Rabbi Michael Gold of Temple Beth Torah in Tamarac, Florida, the father of three adopted children, wrote the groundbreaking book And Hannah Wept: Infertility, Adoption and the Jewish Couple.

He notes that for Jews, the desire to have children is very strong. Those who cannot reproduce biologically may suffer intensely when encountering the references to infertility in our tradition, where sometimes it is even invoked as a curse.

The story of Hannah, the haftarah reading on the second day of Rosh Hashanah can be particularly hurtful. Rabbi Morris Allen of Congregation Beth Jacob in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, says he uses services that day not only to speak on fertility issues but to celebrate all members who had children in the previous year, no matter how.

“For women, infertility is almost the central drama of Genesis,” says Dr. Dina Rosenfeld, Jewish community educator for the Jewish Child Care Association of New York’s Ametz Adoption Program. Infertility issues that arise during adoption counseling and issues that surface during bereavement counseling are “really very similar, it’s really like a death.”

Judith and Stuart Deglin, associate members of Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich, Connecticut, adopted two Cambodian children were killed by a drunk driver. They found their support group outside the organized Jewish community––among adoptive parents who, having suffered their own kinds of bereavement and mourning, could truly understand.

“We could not see ourselves childless,” Judith says. “You just can’t go from what we had to nothing. [But] you’re never replacing, you’re just rebuilding.”

The primary Jewish adoption information and support group appears to be stars of David International, Inc., headquartered in Northbrook, Illinois. Michael Tejeda, a member of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek, California, joined its East Bay chapter with his wife shortly after they adopted their daughter Elena in July 1989.

Although the adoption-process stories of the 18 families in the chapter wary, Tejeda says, the problems, particularly when the children are younger, remain the same ––“how to acculturate and raise their kids as good Jews.” Often the parents and extended families have to overcome their own prejudices against conversion. Grandparents, for example, might be more able initially to accept an adopted child as a member of the family than as a Jewish member of the family

Generally, helping people become accepting of adoption is not a matter of warding off malice but of countering insensitivity. Holly Rosenberg, principal of the Skokie Solomon Schechter Day school in Illinois, says her first-grade students learn about adoption, including the proper terms to use when speaking of it, through a brief puppet show that’s part of their education about many different kinds of families.

Rosenberg, who has an adopted daughter, remembers the fifth-grade family life education class during which the rabbi taught “be fruitful and multiply and that’s how you become a family.” A brief conversation together after class was all it took for him to realize that, by tweaking his language a little, he could show more understanding.

“I don’t question anyone’s good will” in wanting to be accepting of adoption within the Jewish community, says Ametz’s Rosenfeld, who belongs to Congregation Ansche Chese in New York City, but it’s “still a novelty when a family doesn’t look the same.”

Adoption gives Jewish adoptive families “more things to contend with” in the same way that American Jews have more issues that non-Jewish Americans especially issues of identity, she says. This can intensify with adopted children around the time of their b’nai mitzvah, as they grapple with the meaning of Judaism in their lives maybe toying with the idea “this is not who I really am.” The tricky part is sorting out such potentially hurtful thoughts from normal adolescent rebellion.

Efforts are being made in some places to publicly celebrate adoption in a ritual context and to honor the cultures adopted children have come from, incorporating elements of those cultures into the community’s religious life. Rosenfeld says that at her synagogue, Chinese gongs are used by some at Purim instead of groggers, and she’s heard elsewhere of bat mitzvah parties with piñatas.

What’s important to realize is that, under all the cultural trappings, Torah is what needs to be passed on through the generations to ensure Jewish survival. Says Rosenfeld, “The kinship is with the Jewish people, not with bagels and lox.”

Elaine Kahn is freelance writer currently residing in New Jersey.

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