Can We Adopt A Jewish Child?

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Although they are sometimes reluctant to raise it, the above question is on the minds of many Jewish, and part-Jewish couples, who are considering adoption. Some are puzzled to find it there, wondering why it feels important to them for the child they adopt to be Jewish. "After all," they say to themselves, "there are so many seemingly more pressing concerns in adoption: availability of children, health and legal issues. Why is Judaism a focal point?"

The answer to this second question is related to the answer to the first: few babies born to Jewish mothers are currently being placed for adoption. As a result, Jewish and part-Jewish couples wishing to adopt and to raise a Jewish child must carefully consider what it is that makes a person a Jew. While some regard conversion as a relatively simple means of making a person Jewish, others discover that adopting a child born to Christian parents prompts them to examine their personal, familial and communal assumptions and traditions for definitions of Judaism.

As professionals working with pre-adoptive couples and as adoptive mothers, ourselves, we have grappled both professionally and personally with these questions. In the past year, we began to talk together about our experiences and perceptions and to try to organize our thoughts about Judaism and Adoption. This if the first of two articles that we have written for Stars of David on this subject.

Why does it feel so important to Jews to have the child they adopt be Jewish? In exploring this question, we have found that it has many dimensions. They include:

GENERATIONAL CONTINUITY

Infertility involves countless losses. Among them are the lost of the experiences of pregnancy and childbirth, the loss of genetic continuity, the losses of self esteem and sexuality. However, for many people, the most profound loss is that of generational connections. When they examine their deepest feelings, they discover that it is this loss--the loss of the genealogical tie from one generation to another--that they cannot resolve.

In their struggle over the loss of generational connections, Jewish individuals and couples often remind themselves that they are part of a larger "family": the children of Israel, the descendants of Abraham. "If we can adopt a Jewish child," they reason, "then we will, in a sense, be carrying on the family line." Sadly, the knowledge and recognition that it is unlikely that they can adopt a child born into Judaism serves as a painful reminder of their inability to carry on a blood line. In the past, Jewish couples were more often able to adopt children of Jewish birth parents. This connection may have made adoption easier for all members of the triad.

Mark is a thirty-year-old man who was born to Jewish birth parents and placed for adoption with a Jewish family. When he was asked to write an autobiography for his college applications several years ago, he wrote about his adoption and his Judaism. In the essay, he spoke of feeling different as an adoptee and of struggling with these feelings early in his life. However, he then noted that his bar mitzvah, changed this for him--it was the pivotal event that gave him a lasting sense of belonging. He recalled the moment that this occurred: his grandfather handed the Torah to his father who then handed it to him. "It was at that moment that I knew that I was truly connected to generations of my family and that I could, with pride, carry on the family line."

KINSHIP

While some of the desire to adopt a Jewish-born child seems to be tied to feelings about historical continuity, another aspect of this longing is connected to the sense--in the present--that we are part of a larger family. Most of us have grown up with a strong awareness of who is Jewish and who is not. As a result, we feel a kinship with other Jews. When surrounded by Jewish people, this sense of kinship may not seem very important, but when we are alone, one of few Jews in a predominantly non-Jewish setting, it becomes more significant. So it is with adoptive and pre-adoptive parents: feeling isolated, by virtue of their infertility, they feel a need to belong.

Although adopting a Jewish-born child cannot erase the isolation caused by infertility, Jews who are prospective adoptive parents imagine that they would draw some comfort from kinship. How nice it might feel to know that the child's birth parents are "our kind." How comforting to feel that sense of familiarity with them and to be able to assume familiarity with your adopted child. Facing so many unknowns with adoption, Jews long for the "knowledge" that comes from kinship.

CONTROL

Adoption is, in many ways, a random process and prospective adoptive parents are understandably frightened by their lack of control. How terrifying to face such a giant leap of faith: to make a lifelong commitment to a total stranger. One way that people cope with their lack of control is to try to figure out ways to make the process feel more orderly, less random. The prospect of adopting a Jewish child offers prospective parents a feeling of reassurance: it will not be entirely random because the child will be Jewish. For many, this means that the child will not only be familiar, but will be intelligent, healthy, and generally have "good genes."

Adopting a child born to non Jews can generate the opposite feelings and fears: of randomness, of unfamiliarity, of "not-so-good genes." Although most people recognize that these feelings are largely irrational, they can feel very real and compelling, especially to those who have weathered the multiple losses of infertility.

REACTION OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY

"But you don't LOOK Jewish?"

Although Judaism is a religion and not a race, most American Jews have rather fixed ideas about who does and does not "look" Jewish. These ideas persist despite the fact that intermarriage and conversion have produced children born to Jewish parents who can be fair and blue-eyed, part Asian, Indian, or even part black. Nonetheless, in approaching adoption, prospective adoptive parents remain fearful that their child's Judaism will be challenged on the basis of how he/she looks. Most focus their concerns on skin tone and hair and eye color, defining a blond-haired, blue-eyed child as the child that will not look Jewish. Some express an interest in adopting from Latin or South American because "the child will be dark and could pass for Jewish."

Forming and maintaining a confident and solid identity is a challenge for all of us and an exceptional challenge for adoptees. Understandably, many struggle with questions of "Who am I?" "Where did I come from?" "How am I like and unlike my birth parents?" "How am I like and unlike my adoptive parents?"

We believe that it is partially in anticipation of these questions that pre-adoptive Jewish individuals and couples seek to adopt a Jewish-born child. They recognize the challenges inherent in being a Jew with Christian ancestry. They feel that their child's life would be simpler if he/she could be raised in his/her birth-religion.

The significance of having a basic, fundamental sense of a Jewish self was recently brought home in a family life education program at a local synagogue. The subject was Ethiopian Jewry and specifically, the immigration to Israel. At one point in the program, everyone was instructed to pretend that they were Ethiopian Jews entering Israel through passport control. One of the teachers, role playing as an immigration officer, made each person prove their Judaism. Although he seemed to be looking for knowledge of customs, traditions and history, as proof of Judaism, most of the adults and children responded as though Judaism was a birthright. One boy responded spontaneously, "I am Jewish because my parents are Jewish." A girl said she felt flustered being asked to prove she was Jewish, "I am a Jew because I simply am a Jew because I just am a Jew and always was a Jew."

Hearing about this experience, we thought about the irony and poignancy of these responses. The irony is that converts--whether converted in infancy following an adoption or in adulthood by choice-can provide a clear and reasoned answer to the question: "How can we know you are Jewish?" Theirs is not a "I am Jewish because I am Jewish because..." response. But therein lies the poignancy as well: their Judaism can never be assumed in the fundamental, unquestioning, without-a-doubt way that those of us who were born into Judaism experience it. They have BECOME Jewish and that can feel fundamentally different than simply BEING Jewish.

In our next article, we will look at the ways in which adopted children become Jewish and at the meaning that this process has for them and for their parents.

Credits: Ellen Sarasohn Glazer and Gail D. McNair

Visitor Comments (1)
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Larry - 2 months ago
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My mother was Hebrew. My father was scottish. As it turns out I am my mothers son. Of course I have many of my father's traits. I feel closer to my mother's people and am a great believer in Israel and support the Jewish people in several ways. I am more interested in helping a older Hebrew child, 12 to 16 who needs a home and education. #1
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