The newest young Jews
“Edward Hershberg helps Susie Nieh, 13, during the rehearsal for her dual Bat Mitzvah the next day. Susie Neih and Edward Hershberg’s daughter Susannah have been studying for over three years preparing for their Bat Mitzvah.
Adoptees from other lands, many from China, add a layer onto what it means to “look Jewish” in America
Heads bent over Hebrew texts, silky skullcaps facing about 220 friends, relatives and congregants, Susannah Hershberg and Susie Nieh complete their lilting chants with an enthusiastic high-five and relieved giggles.
The girls, both 13, have just wrapped up a reading from the Torah, arguably the toughest part of becoming a bat mitzvah –the Jewish rite of passage signifying entrance to adulthood –during their recent Saturday morning ritual at Congregation Neveh Shalom in Southwest Portland.
Holding a joint ceremony, called a b’not mitzvah, was unusual itself. Not so unusual these days, in Portland and nationwide, is for adopted children of Chinese heritage –as Susannah and Susie are –to be raised Jewish.
Now some of those children, mainly girls, adopted after China opened its doors to international adoptions in 1994 are taking part in the Jewish coming-of-age ceremonies.
Figures on the number of Chinese children adopted into U.S. families and raised Jewish are hard to come by, according to Patricia Y.C.E. Lin, with the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.
Overall, of the thousands of children adopted abroad by U.S. citizens, the largest number are from China, according to 2007 U.S. State Department figures.
As international adoptions have increased, Jews reflect that social trend, said Gary Tobin of the Institute for Jewish Community Research in San Francisco.
Rabbi Daniel Isaak, Neveh Shalom’s senior rabbi, who presided over Susannah and Susie’s b’not mitzvah, says increasing numbers of international adoptees are being raised as Jews.
Other places popular for adoptions among people of all faiths are South Korea, Vietnam, Russia, Ethiopia and South American nations.
It’s not uncommon for adoptees to be raised in their parents’ faith. Yet as more nonwhites comfortably call themselves Jews, the changing face of the religion still elicits uncertain responses, such as, “You look (or don’t look) Jewish.”
One friend, Oona Murphy, 13, at Susannah and Susie’s service sheepishly admitted it looked “a little bit unusual” to observe Jewish girls of Chinese descent in traditional garb –the tallit, or fringed prayer shawl, and kippah, or skullcap –reading Hebrew effortlessly.
Susannah and Susie were born as Shi-ting and Shu-qun, respectively, in China. They were adopted as infants.
Susannah said friends may ask about her ethnicity but don’t question her religion.
“Lots of people don’t know I’m, like, Chinese,” said Susannah, wearing her straight black hair past her shoulders, powder-blue Nike shorts and a purple T-shirt on a recent day at home in Washington County’s Cedar Hills area.
She and Susie laughed knowingly. “They think I’m Cambodian or Hawaiian,” said Susannah, an incoming eighth-grader at the International School of Beaverton.
Ethnic labels don’t faze her or Susie.
Although Susannah and Susie attend different schools, they’ve been friends for most of their lives. As third-graders, they began talking about the possibility of doing a b’not mitzvah.
Both families say they chose to give their youngest children a multicultural upbringing, of which Judaism is a part.
“I view us as citizens of the world, and that’s how I wanted to raise my kids,” said Jill Poris, Susannah’s mother, an ethnomusicologist who is married to Ed Hershberg, 55, an Intel engineering manager.
Poris is not Jewish, but her husband is. They have two grown biological children.
Susie’s father, Sidney Nieh, is originally from Shanghai. Nieh, 66, a retired engineering manager, and his wife, Carol, 61, have three adult biological children.
Like Susannah and Susie, Julia Staimer, 12, of Beaverton also feels at home in synagogue. Julia, who attends school with Susannah, is a member of Havurah Shalom in Northwest Portland, which also has a number of internationally adopted children of member parents.
Julia’s parents, Alisa Blum and Marc Staimer, both Jewish, adopted Julia and her younger sister, Gina, from China.
Julia has begun intense study for becoming a bat mitzvah next July. Her mother notes that of the nine young teens in Julia’s Hebrew classes, three are adopted –two from abroad.
“I think it’s pretty cool that I’m Jewish,” Julia said. “Because a bunch of people are Christian, so it’s kinda unique to be Jewish.”
Lin, the Berkeley researcher, noted that for young, nonwhite Jews still living at home, practicing Judaism is comfortable.
“Of course you associate with your parents,” Lin said.
But once that child –adopted or not –lives independently, it’s different, she said.
Lin, 38, who was born to Taiwanese parents and converted to Judaism, said fellow Jews meeting her still flinch when she says she’s Jewish.
She believes as an adult, a nonwhite Jew must “re-prove” a Jewish identity.
Groups such as the Institute for Jewish and Community Research and area synagogues want to avert Lin’s prediction.
Once, a mother asked if her adopted Latino child would be welcome at Neveh Shalom. “It was a perfectly logical question,” Rabbi Isaak said, “and I was embarrassed she had to ask it.”
Julia Staimer’s recent family trip to China, however, made her realize how progressive the United States is. The family of white parents and Chinese daughters attracted gawkers.
“Over there, it’s different,” Julia said. “Over here, it’s normal.”