What does a Jew look like? Woody Allen famously played with stereotypes in Hannah and Her Sisters, when his secular character imagined himself through others’ eyes, complete with a black hat and beard. Of course, there has never been one right answer to that question.
The American Jewish community has become ever more varied, as intermarriage, conversion (to Judaism), and transracial adoption — whether domestic or international (also called “transnational”) — have become increasingly common parts of the communal landscape. Considering that American Jews adopt at twice the national rate, adoption may be one of the most significant and under-addressed trends in contemporary American Jewish life. So, let’s examine some familial trends and consider whether we’re doing everything possible to welcome adoptees into the organized Jewish community.
As noted in my last column, there are many fewer Jewish babies available for adoption today than there were 40 or 50 years ago. Consequently, prospective parents typically look beyond the Jewish community for the children they are meant to love.
Jennifer Sartori and Jayne K. Guberman, the co-directors of the Adoption and Jewish Identity Project and adoptive parents themselves, found that in recent adoptions, about 70% of Jewish parents adopted transracially and 63% did so internationally. Specifically, of the children adopted by the respondents between 2000 and 2012, 34% were white, 32% were Asian or Asian-mixed, 17% were Latino or Latino-mixed, and 15% were black or black mixed (2% other). In sharp contrast, today only about 15% of adoptions in the broader American population are international and 40% of which are transracial.
AsYatom founder Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz observed, “In more liberal segments of the community, diversity has become welcome and expected.”
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE JEWISH?
Identity is fairly flexible in modern America. However, adopting a child from another background can prompt Jewish parents to think more about their own identities, as well as the values they want to transmit to their children. In a phone interview, Be’chol Lashon founder Diane Tobin recalled adopting her now-college-age African-American son and reflecting, “What does it mean to be Jewish? What does it mean to be black? I’m a convert. My father’s family was Jewish, my mother’s wasn’t, so in some ways I faced that as a convert — what kind of culture do I claim as my own?”
Jews are often described as an ethnic group. And because so many American Jews have European, or Ashkenazi roots, American Jewry can look like an insiders’ club.
During a phone interview, Jennifer Sartori recalled interviews with grown adoptees who describe encountering “Ashkenazi Privilege.” This Jewish variant of white privilege connotes Ashkenazi Jews never having their Jewishness questioned. By contrast, those who don’t “look Jewish”may have their appearance or authenticity as Jews questioned by Jews and non-Jews alike.
Religiously speaking, Judaism starts with accepting the Torah’s 613 commandments. In practice, it is a matter of head, heart, and deed.
Second Nurture founder Rabbi Susan Silverman notes, “Being Jewish isn’t a race. All kinds of people are Jewish. It’s not defined genetically.”
So, while Jewish heritage has traditionally been traced through one’s (birth) mother, both adoption and conversion grow the community by embracing Jews by choice. Notably, “Jewish law also allows those people converted as an infant or child to renounce the conversion when they reach maturity,” if there is a mismatch.
Jews are commanded “46 times in the Torah” to welcome converts into our presence, because it’s not an afterthought. It’s a foundational religious principle.
OPENNESS TO ALL CHILDREN
Rabbi Yanklowitz noted that some rabbis, especially in more traditional communities, would advise congregants to open their homes to Jewish children first and foremost, out of a sense of communal responsibility. However, that has never been universal guidance. In the past, prospective parents were sometimes urged to look outside the Jewish community or not to adopt at all, because of concerns about possible future incest in a world where closed adoptions were standard.
Familial origins are no longer a serious impediment, though. “Ninety-five percent of domestic adoptions [now] have some degree of openness,” according to Varda Makovsky, Director of Family and Post-adoption Services at the Barker Adoption Foundation, which serves families throughout the Washington, DC area.
Makovsky continued, “In this day and age, it’s impossible to guarantee a closed adoption, even if both parties want it. With the Internet and emerging genetic testing services, it will be impossible to maintain secrecy and anonymity. Every adoptive parent needs to be prepared for the fact that even if an adoption is closed, it may become open. I have seen this even internationally.”
Overseas adoption used to be relatively easy and straightforward, if expensive. Now, it’s both costly and complicated, because various governments, like Russia’s, have clamped down. While that may be sensible on a governmental level, it creates difficulties on a familial one.
Traditionally, conversion was the single biggest obstacle to adopting a non-Jewish child. Not only is conversion to Judaism purposely complicated, but standards vary across communities (Reform v. Orthodox). There are still “others [who] would consider the child Jewish by virtue of his/her adoptive parents’ Jewish identity and his/her upbringing.”
Open adoption is the new challenge. Adoptees have unprecedented access to their communities of origin. This is a plus, as “adoption experts today emphasize the need for adoptees and their families to engage actively with the adoptees’ birth heritage and/or family of origin.” However, that guidance also conflicts with Jewish communal concerns about assimilation, meaning “some adoptive families find themselves pressured . . . to prioritize Jewishness, or to incorporate at most only superficial aspects of an adoptee’s birth heritage.”
This communal preference is, of course, one element in a complex equation. How does the world, particularly the organized Jewish community, look to Jewish families with international or transracial adoptees?
In short, it completely varies. Some interviewees report feeling warmly welcomed, while others recall more mixed experiences. A great deal seemingly depends on the particular community — or communities — with which each family identifies.
Rabbi Susan Silverman, a Reform Jew from Boston whose family moved to Israel in 2006, exemplifies the former. She remarked, “We’ve been part of supportive, loving, adoring communities. Our boys [adopted from Ethiopia] are utterly adored by our whole community. . . . Everyone assumes there must be some racism or unacceptance, but overall, they’re just loved by all. In their lives in Israel, they say they have not experienced racism as they function out and about in society. ”
Tel J. Stern, a Modern Orthodox Jew from New York, who’s lived in Japan for 14 years, was similarly positive. Threeyears ago, while volunteering with an anti-human trafficking group in Thailand, Stern had two weeks to decide whether to adopt two young girls from the region and did so, believing it a mitzvah. Asked about his family’s experience, Stern messaged, “Our local Jewish community is very supportive, ecstatically welcoming, people cried (literally).”
A Conservative Jew in suburban Chicago, Rebecca Gruenspan reflected on her kindergartner, a domestically adopted boy of Mexican descent: “There’s no resistance at all in the Jewish community about his having brown skin. There’s a little more diversity in the Jewish community now. I don’t think [my son] understands he’s ever been anything but Jewish.”
Diane Tobin , a San Francisco-based Conservative Jew observed, “You look at my [undergraduate] son, and you think he’s different from you, but while he looks black, he went to day school and loves gefilte fish.” Tobin added, “He code switches— choosing to identify as Jewish or not in different settings. He’s not sensitive about it. . . . He knows people don’t always see him as Jewish, that’s a basic part of our work, so he’s very sensitized in a certain way. He knows he’s ‘a token’ and takes it for granted. He expects people to accept him. Most people want to, and he’s very skilled at bridging that gap.”
Other interviewees, like Amy Hecht, a cultural Jew in suburban New York, conveyed more mixed experiences. Hecht said,
“My daughter is eight. She came here from Nepal when she was a month shy of three, and I had her converted within a month of being home. I felt like if I was bringing her to the States, changing her name, and incorporating her into a new religion, she had the right to be fully vested in the community, that no one would challenge her. I want her to own everything; I don’t want anything to be borrowed. My wife and I deliberately looked for a Hebrew school that was diverse and inclusive of gay and lesbian families and Jews of color. It wasn’t hard to find. I had the choice of several. It was really terrific.”
However, Hecht elaborated, “racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia still exist, and here I am taking this small, brown, Jewish girl with lesbian parents and putting her into this culture and community. So, I try to be really sensitive about what it’s like for her to move through the world.”
Deborah Mottsman Rosen also sees room for improvement. A Conservative Jew in the Washington, DC, area, Rosen works to build Jewish identity in adopted children after adopting her now-teenage son from Guatemala. She commented, “Some of the kids feel a little rejected because the community assumes everyone looks alike, and we don’t. Synagogues and organizations think that by doing nothing, that’s okay. It doesn’t achieve the goal.” Rosen encourages Jewish leaders to talk more regularly about adoption, observing “people have multiple identities.”
Lindsey Newman, a 29-year-old biracial adoptee, who grew up Conservative in Manhattan, concurs. Speaking by phone from San Francisco, where she now lives, Newman shared, “In many parts of my life, I have dual identities or intricate, complex identities. Within my Jewish identity, I feel very at home in the mainstream Jewish institutional world. At times, I also feel like I’m apart from that and have a very singular identity.” As an adult, Newman purposely seeks out Jewish spaces with more Jews of color because “I can’t separate my identities. My Jewish identity informs my black identity; my black identity informs my Jewish identity.” Both remain vitally important to Newman, who believes the Jewish community would benefit from speaking more openly and regularly about race in a Jewish context.
Like Newman, today’s adoptees will likely grow up with multifaceted identities. But ideally, Jewish adoptees will always feel comfortable identifying as Jews.
As American Jews debate how to best ensure Jewish continuity, we must recognize that adoptees from other cultures are a growing part of that portrait. We should also consider whether we are doing everything we can to welcome Jewish adoptees, because they are not strangers. As Sister Sledge’s classic Bar Mitzvah party anthem reminds us, “We are family.”
Written by: Melissa Langsam Braunstein