When altFem first asked to write about adoption in the Jewish community, I had no idea how massive a topic it would be, how many people would come forward to share their personal stories, nor what a rich — and complex — story this would become.
For obvious reasons, adoption is an intensely personal subject with highly varied experiences, depending in large part on whether one is a birth parent, adoptive parent, or adoptee. Within the Jewish community, experiences also vary greatly depending on one’s family and the nature of one’s own religious community; some are more welcoming to newcomers than others.
This article reflects my survey of the American Jewish adoption landscape. I found no Jewish birth mothers to interview, although I heard from one grown adoptee who had been raised Jewish. Beyond that, I have attempted to capture the experiences of parents who adopted as couples or single mothers, those who affiliate with the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox communities, as well as the religiously unaffiliated. And as might be expected, the emerging narrative offers a portrait with some shared details and others that are truly unique to a particular family.
In some ways, adoption is a tricky subject. For while it’s clear that adoption has biblical roots, is supported by the Gemara (Jewish Oral Law), and is actively practiced by contemporary Jews, it’s not widely discussed. Why? “Mainly it’s not talked about a lot because it comes from a place of pain — infertility,” Rabbi Susan Silverman, who founded Second Nurture to encourage more adoption, explained over FaceTime from Israel.
Deborah Mottsman Rosen, who created a project to build Jewish identity in adopted children in the Washington, DC area after adopting a son from Guatemala, reflected on the adoption triad, “the theme is they’ve all lost something. The child lost his birth identity and birth family. The birth parents have suffered the greatest loss, having given up their children. For the adoptive parents, there’s some reason they came to adoption that probably also involves some loss.”
Infertility was indeed the primary motivation for adopting among several of my interviewees. Each parent I spoke to had her own unique story. Most adopted after IVF had failed. For other parents though, adoption can be the preferred Plan B.
As varied as the individual stories were, they were all connected. As Rebecca Gruenspan, a Chicago-area domestic adoption consultant and adoptive mother explained, “When people come to me, the number one thing is they dream of being parents, they’re overwhelmed, and they don’t know where to start.”
Rabbi Silverman, who adopted two sons from Ethiopia, is representative of the second group of adoptive parents I encountered – those who already had biological children but welcomed expanding their families through fostering or adoption, often because they had seen their parents do the same. Through her non-profit work, Silverman now builds on her own experience: “The paradigm of adoption has been that it’s a way for adults to become parents. It is urgent that we turn that paradigm on its head and see adoption as a away for children to get permanent, loving families.”
ADOPTION IN JEWISH TRADITION
Parenthood may be a universal desire, but it’s central to Jewish adulthood. Among the Torah’s 613 Commandments, the first is “Pru urvu,” to be fruitful and multiply.
According to Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, a foster father who recently founded the organization Yatom to promote fostering and adoption among Jewish adults, “For someone struggling with infertility, or who is a single parent, or for whatever reason wasn’t able to have a biological child, it’s a direct fulfillment of the commandment. For those who are able, this can’t replace the mitzvah (commandment), but it’s a supplemental fulfillment of the mitzvah.”
Adds Stephen Krausz, an adoptive father and co-founder of the Jewish Children’s Adoption Network (JCAN), which acts as a matchmaker between prospective parents and Jewish children in need of adoptive homes, “Rashi says that if you teach a child, it’s as if you gave birth to them. From a Halakhic (Jewish legal) perspective, if you raise a kid, it’s your kid.”
Several interviewees mentioned the issue of stigma in relation to both infertility and adoption. There is a sense it has decreased but has not disappeared entirely.
It’s a shame that we – in the Jewish, or larger American communities – don’t discuss infertility and adoption more often and more openly. Not only can sharing personal pain can be healing, but adoption also has a noble lineage in Jewish tradition. To cite just two examples: before leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt, Moses was adopted and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. And before saving her people from destruction, Queen Esther was orphaned and raised by her cousin Mordechai.
American Jews should also be speaking more about adoption because relatively speaking, we choose it frequently. According to an article in the Fall 2014 issue of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service by Jennifer Sartori and Jayne K. Guberman, “American Jews adopt at approximately twice the rate of non-Jews; in 2000, about 5% of Jewish households with children had an adopted child in the home, compared with 2.5% of American households overall.”
While Jews adopt at relatively high rates, Sartori and Guberman documented that adoptees’ demographics have changed over time: “Through the 1970s, white Jewish parents generally adopted white American newborns . . . many of their children had at least one Jewish birth parent: 36% had a Jewish birth mother, while 15% had a Jewish birth father.” The 36% with Jewish birth mothers is significant because according to Jewish law, anyone with a Jewish mother is Jewish. (Only the Reform movement accepts patrilineal descent.)
Those figures are noticeably different today. According to Sartori and Guberman, “In the early 2000s, only 4% of the adopted children had a Jewish birth mother and 3% had a Jewish birth father.”
This reflects an overall decline in the number of Jewish birth mothers. While no one I interviewed had specifically studied this phenomenon, several conjectures were offered, including: the widespread acceptance of abortion, particularly among non-Orthodox Jews (about 90% of American Jewry), American society’s increased acceptance of single motherhood, and decreased stigma surrounding children with special needs.
JCAN’s Krausz observed, “we were easily getting over 100 kids a year when we started [26 years ago]. It used to be a lot of babies with Down Syndrome. That’s not happening now . . . We now deal with two to four dozen kids a year.” Siggy Berger, who works with Heart to Heart, a Crown Heights-based organization that finds homes for Jewish children with special needs and an adoptive mother herself, noted, “I used to place 12 babies a year. In the past two years, I’ve placed two. Education for families with special needs kids is getting much better. It’s not a shanda (scandal) like it was 15 or 20 years ago.”
These changes also mean that many Jewish social service agencies have shifted resources toward other programmatic needs. There are still some that work in this area though, like Philadelphia’s Open Arms Adoption Network, which is affiliated with the local Jewish Family and Children’s Services agency but serves the whole community. Robyn and her husband chose Open Arms because “it was the [agency] they were most comfortable with. [Open Arms] was very focused on counseling and making sure the birth moms were making the right decisions.”
In south Florida, Jewish prospective parents can work with JAFCO. According to Rebecca Salus, an Operations Specialist there, they “were established in 1992 to identify, recruit, and approve Jewish foster and adoptive families, so that Jewish children in the foster system wouldn’t have to give up that piece of their identity. There was an unmet need in the community, and there’s an ongoing need for [what we do].”
There may long be a need for what organizations like JAFCO, Second Nurture, and Yatom seek to do. According to Rabbi Silverman, “there are [currently] 400,000 kids in the foster care system, one-quarter of whom can now be adopted, and between 8 and 12 million kids in orphanages internationally.”
If Rabbis Silverman and Yanklowitz have their way, more Jewish adults will open their hearts and their homes to these children. Says Rabbi Yanklowitz of his new project to encourage more fostering and adoption of vulnerable children of all backgrounds, “There’s a mitzvah in the Torah to care for vulnerable children. This is a calling to the broader Jewish community to step up. We think the Jewish community will be enhanced by participating.”
What began as a simple Facebook query about adoption within the Jewish community has become an amazing journey, educating me about infertility, as well as the Jewish community’s response to primary and secondary infertility, the nation’s troubled foster care and family court systems, the challenges related to multi-racial and international adoption, and communal leaders who are actively encouraging more adoption within the Jewish community. I look forward to addressing more of these topics at length in future columns.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein, a former U.S. Department of State speechwriter, is now an independent writer in Washington, DC and columnist for AltFem. She shares her writing at melissabraunstein.com.
Photo credit: Kiran Foster