They Too Are Chosen
A few days after Cindy Tannenbaum returned from Guatemala, she went grocery shopping in a Pikesville supermarket. Strapped into an infant seat in the shopping cart was the reason she and her husband, Bill, after years of childless heartache, had spent months on elaborate paper work, hired two lawyers and finally, flown down to that Central American country their 4-month-old adopted daughter, Lauren, a tiny bundle with dark eyes and spiky dark hair.
In one aisle, as she stopped to select items, Mrs. Tannenbaum, a vibrant woman with striking light-blue eyes, felt someone watching her. She turned to find a well-dressed matron staring at her, then at Lauren, then back to her. Finally, the woman spoke. "She's very dark," she said, referring to Lauren's skin color. "Her father must be dark."
"I motioned her over and whispered in her ear," Mrs. Tannenbaum recalled. "To tell the truth,' I said, 'I don't know who the father is."
The woman stalked off, insulted, but Mrs. Tannenbaum still gets satisfaction from the recollection. "She was fishing, so I hooked her a fish," Mrs. Tannenbaum said of an incident that happened 11 years ago.
Back then, foreign adoptions were more rare than they are now. Today, passers-by are much less likely to find a multi-cultural family a curiosity. Indeed, foreign adoptions are so widespread that in the Baltimore area alone, there are separate groups for people who have adopted from China and from Latin America.
"It used to take a special kind of person to adopt" a nonwhite child, said Myra Hettleman, director of Adoption alliances, a non-sectarian adoption program of Jewish Family Services, an agency of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
Not so now. The Jewish community contains so many racially and culturally diverse children that prospective adoptive parents are much more comfortable with the idea. "We've reached a critical mass," said Ms. Hettleman of the number of such children in the community.
Experts date the change in adoption patterns to the late- 1980s. Because of the scarcity of healthy, white American-born infants for domestic adoption and the fear of a birth parent
surfacing to-reclaim a child, foreign adoptions soared to 10,000 per year. That rate has stayed constant since then, according to Dr. Howard Altstein, an adoption expert at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
The children come not only from the usual sources in Eastern Europe, but also from countries in Asia and Latin America. "When one door closes, another opens," said Dr. Altstein. "Paraguay closes, the Philippines opens. The Philippines closes, another country opens."
The trend to foreign adoptions is national and applies to all people who want to adopt, not just Jews. But Jewish couples face two issues others don't.
One issue is a higher-than-average infertility rate. Experts estimate a national average of 15 percent of couples have infertility problems, defined as the inability to conceive a child after one year of trying. Susan Katz, chapter coordinator for Stars of David, a national organization for Jewish adoptive parents, puts the figure as high as 20 percent, or one in five couples, for American Jews.
Speaking at a national adoption workshop held in Towson last October, Ms. Katz attributed the higher rate to the tendency among Jewish couples to marry at a later age and to put off having children longer than the general population. .
The second issue Jewish couples face is conversion. Each of the denominations has different requirements.
One Latin American-Jewish teenager has problems in school because he looks different than his classmates. But he has found acceptance in his synagogue youth group.
A number of Chinese Jewish girls, preschool age now, will be looking for mates 15 years in the future. "The welcome mat is there institutionally," Louise Schnaier, Adoption Alliances' associate director, said of the local Jewish community. "Is it there individually? That varies."
"Judaism is far more liberal than Jews are," said Rabbi Michael Gold, of the Conservative Temple Beth Torah, in Tamarac, Fla. The father of three domestically adopted children, Rabbi Gold is the author of the highly regarded book, "And Hannah Wept: Infertility, Adoption and the Jewish Couple."
The University of Maryland's Dr. Altstein is in the midst of analyzing data from a national survey he conducted last year. In this groundbreaking study of international adoption
in the Jewish community, Dr. Altstein, a member of the independent Beth Am Congregation, plans to explore the community's response to these children.
In the 204 families surveyed, mostly well-educated and upper-middle class, there were 304 adopted children. Of that number, 186 children, about 60 percent, were foreign-born. The majority, almost 100 children, came from Latin America-specifically, the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and Colombia. The next largest category, with 42 children, was Korea, followed by China (13 children) and India (11 children). There were also 22 children adopted from East European countries like Poland, Rouiania and Ukraine who, because of racial similarities, Dr. Altstein classified as "inter-country." The rest of the 304 children were domestic adoptions.
Although Latin America accounted for most of the foreign-born children, that shouldn't be misinterpreted as a preference for that region over others.
Latin America is popular for two reasons, Dr. Altstein said. First, there are long-standing contacts between private adoption agencies and certain countries. Second, a "package" (an in-country lawyer
to handle the arrangements, travel and hotel accommodations, residency requirements, total cost) exists and is do-able. The same holds true for Korea.
Nationally, he saw no preference among the parents for dark-skinned vs. light-skinned children or for Asian, children vs. Latin American children.
In the Baltimore Jewish community, foreign adoption is certainly accepted. But for at least 80 percent of adoptive parents, that means a child from Eastern Europe, according to Adoption Alliances' Ms. Hettleman and Ms. Schnaier.
"They don't want to cross racial lines. They may not even think of it that way. They may just feel it's more consistent with their roots," said Ms. Schnaier.
If East European children aren't available, some of these parents might consider a racial adoption, but she added, "others definitely would not."
On the other hand, some parents whose first choice is domestic adoption are open to a foreign adoption should the circumstances be right. Others are turning to a few Texas agencies that specialize in Mexican-American children, in so-called "domestic-international" adoptions.
Like Dr. Altstein, Adoption Alliances staffers saw no preference for children from one country or region over another.
Instead, they say, parents weigh a number of factors, from cost and time to age of child at adoption and medical situation.
"Latin America is more expensive than Asia. It's quicker to adopt from Asia. China is accessible; people go as a group. But you get more family history from Latin America than China, where the kids are foundlings," Mrs. Hettleman said, listing some of the factors. Which factors are more important than others is an individual decision, including the belief by some that Asian children have an innate intelligence and that Latin American children have a Sephardic Jewish appearance.
But whatever their birth country or skin color, both Adoption Alliances staffers and Dr. Altstein found that the foreign-born children were welcomed with open arms. Not only were they accepted into their extended families but into their new parents' congregations as well.
However, the children are still too young to tell if that welcome will continue as they reach the teen years - a difficult enough period in life without the added trauma of a potential identity crisis.
"Here's a Guatemalan/Costa Rican/Chinese/Korean/Jewish kid and dating may be a problem because you get into the racial and ethnic differences. These lads have been raised Jewish and if they want to remain Jews, they have to date other Jewish people," said Dr. Altstein.
How the issue is resolved may well determine if they stay Jewish. But it's not all one-sided. The foreign-born children bring an enriching, broadening dimension to the Jewish community.
'"This is a new population, raised by very loving, committed parents; Dr. Altstein said. "We can't lose by accepting these children as they become adults.Korean Heritage
Janna Shumsky was called Jin Ah in her native Korea. The name means "good fortune to love." And that is precisely what Art and Kay Shumsky felt when they first held Janna, then 6 months old, at National Airport. The Shumskys adopted Janna after five years of struggling with infertility. The couple, then living in Roanoke, Va., was friends with another couple who had adopted an infant from Korea and had a positive experience.
"The domestic adoption route was more traditional, but also more circuitous," said Mr. Shumsky, 45, a medical supplies salesman. "We were anxious to start a family."
The Shumskys did consider how their foreign-born child would fit into Roanoke's small Jewish community. But they felt confident that she would be accepted, as had other adopted children.
"Obviously it's easier if your family looks more homogenous," said Mrs. Shumsky, 45, a former art teacher and now a stay-at home mom. "But that was not the most important thing to us. We wanted to be a family."
At 10 months old, Janna was converted to Judaism, immersed in Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia in lieu of a visit to a mikvah. Although some friends advised them to consider an Orthodox conversion, the Shumskys chose the Conservative route.
"We are not Orthodox," said Mrs. Shumsky. "We're Conservative and we wanted the conversion to reflect our traditions."
Janna, 11, now a sixth-grader at Krieger Schechter Day School, plans to affirm her conversion to Judaism at her bat mitzvah on Oct 30, 1999, at Chizuk Amuno congregation. "I'm used to it," she said. "Since I've been able to know what I'm doing, I've been Jewish."
As a preschooler in Richmond, Janna attended a Jewish school and loved the Jewish songs and customs. In her early school years, there was some teasing from other students, who commented about her Asian features.
"I learned to ignore it and then, everyone stopped doing it," Janna said.
The family, which moved to Owings Mills six years ago, grew to include Joel, 8, the Shumskys' "surprise" biological child. When Mrs. Shumsky, who always wanted three children, did not become pregnant again, the couple decided to adopt another child from Korea. That's when Elyse, now 2, came into their lives. Both Janna and Elyse were born in the seaport city of Pusan, south of Seoul, but they are not biological sisters.
"It was a big advantage for Janna," Mrs. Shumsky said. "It's probably not easy being an Asian Jew. Now she has a Korean sibling." The Shumskys are involved with other local families with foreign-born children. They also attend Korean festivals and have purchased hanbok, colorful traditional Korean dresses for both girls.
"We have always tried to expose Janna to her Korean origins," said Mrs. Shumsky. Janna occasionally asks questions about her foreign origin and about her birth mother. "I would like to know why she gave me up and I would like to meet her to say hi," Janna said. "But I also think about what would have happened to me if I didn't come to this family."Making The Conversion
Adoptees born non-Jewish face a less arduous halachic path of acceptance. The conversion of a foreign-born child is no different than the process required for the conversion of a non-Jewish adult. Adopting a child born to non-Jewish parents is actually a much simpler process than adopting a child whose birth mother is Jewish. "From a halachic point of view, it is easier to deal with the conversion of a non-Jew than a child with Jewish parents," said Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, assistant professor of rabbinics at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary.
A baby born to non-Jewish parents requires a formal conversion to Judaism. Jewish law states that three steps are necessary for conversion: a brit milah or ritual circumcision for boys, immersion in a kosher nikvah, ritual pool, for boys and girls (done in front of a beit din or rabbinic court made up of three rabois), and a re-affirmation of the conversion when the child is older. This latter step is traditionally done it the child's bar or bat mitzvah.
The branches of Judaism interpret these laws differently. In addition to the halachic (Jewish law) rules, many Orthodox rabbis also require the parents to commit to maintaining a kosher home, observing Shabat and providing a Jewish education for the child. Many Orthodox rabbis will not recognize non-Orhodox conversions and ask to see documentation about the conversion before allowing an adult who was adopted to join an Orthodox congregation or marry a more observant Jew.
Rabbi Diamond of JTS is disturbed by the idea that some Orthodox rabbis do not recognize conversions performed within the Conservative movement Conservative parents who seek out Orthodox conversions is a pre-emptive strike against problems for their children in adulthood may be addressing a situation that never occurs.
`The issues of making aliyah or marrying someone orthodox may not come up," he said. "And if they), the problem is not insurmountable. I had a woman in my congregation re-convert after falling in love with an Orthodox man. I'm not thrilled to see it done, but its been done. I understand the parents' concern, but I wouldn't say don't rely on Conservative conversion." A majority of Reconstructionist rabbis require immersion in a mikvah for the conversion an adopted child. Many also ask the child to affirm his or her Jewish identity later in life, according to Rabbi Barbara Rosman Penzer, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. A booklet published by the Committee on the Jewish Family of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Women of Reform Judaism, NFT'S National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods) spells t the conversion guidelines in the Reform movement: "For an infant born to a non-Jewish birth mother Reform does not require formal conversion of this and to Judaism if this child is to be raised as a Jew." However, certain decisions are left up to individual rabbis. Some Reform rabbis require the child given a Hebrew name and be raised in a Jewish home. Some do require the halachic conversion. Cultural Diversity
When Fran Ludman and her husband, Sheldon Laskin, chose a Hebrew name for their daughter, Erica, they named her for her paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather. Erica, who was born in China and adopted at 7 months, would be known in the House of Israel as Yisraela Chance.
Family and friends gathered at Erica's baby naming, at the Independent Beth Am Congregation on July 23, 1995. Her parents expressed their hopes for Erica's future and explained the connection between their infant daughter and the grandparents she had never met, both of whom were children of immigrants.
Ms. Ludman and Mr. Laskin, who married in 1983, did not plan to have children. In 1990, the couple changed their minds and began trying to conceive, a two-year-long effort that was unsuccessful. They then began investigating adoption.
Their first inclination was to adopt a Russian child. "We both come from Russian heritage and there would be similarities in our backgrounds" with a child from that country, Ms. Ludman said.
But a friend with a foreign born adopted child changed their mind.
"Our friend described the richness that cultural diversity can bring to a family," Ms. Ludman said of their decision to adopt a child from China.
Even so, the couple worried about how the Jewish community would react. Although their family and friends immediately welcomed the smiley, affectionate infant, for Mr. Laskin, a 46-year old attorney, the concerns have been ongoing.
"We haven't had a lot of trouble at this stage of her life," he said of his 3-year-old daughter. "But we have some concerns about when she gets older, such as dating."
Erica's parents have always been open with her about her adoption and have helped her to maintain a connection to her Chinese heritage. They have decorated their Milbrook home with art they purchased during their two-week trip to China for Erica's adoption. They also participate in the local chapter of Families with Children from China, which provides social and informational support for families who have adopted or are considering adopting a child from that country.
Erica readily announces that she is from Hefei, China, when asked about her birth. But she is also thoroughly enamored with the knowledge she acquires at the Reform Baltimore Hebrew Congregation's preschool. A bubbly, inquisitive child, she recently began identifying the color of her clothing in Hebrew when her mother dresses her.
Ms. Ludman and Mr. Laskin have taken pains to ensure that Erica is part of the Jewish community. Besides her baby naming at Beth Am, she was officially converted at the Conservative Beth El Congregation's mikvah, the only non-Orthodox nuk-vah in Baltimore County.
Her parents also plan to enroll her in a Jewish day school, and they hope that forming a close circle of Jewish friends will shelter her from whatever prejudice she might encounter in the future.
"That way, the children she associates with will view her as Jewish from the very beginning and it won't be an issue for them," Ms. Ludman, 46, a stay at-home mom, said of their school plans for Erica.
"I think more and more (youngsters) are becoming used to seeing kids from different cultures in the community and in their schools. If she has a big family of Jewish friends, it will give her an inner reserve against any prejudice she may have to deal with later." How To Get Started
Rules' expenses and parameters for adoption set by foreign nations.Bolivia:
Couples and, in some cases, singles may adopt. Parents should be between 25-55 for an infant to age 6. Families may have biological children. Both parents must travel to Bolivia and stay approximately four weeks to complete the legal process.
Estimated expenses: Foreign program fees to $9,000, depending on location
Travel and lodging: $3,000
Authentication and translation: $700.Bulgaria:
Couples or singles may apply, but should have no other children in the home. Children will be of mixed Bulgarian descent and generally over 1 year old. Escort may be possible but one parent should be willing to travel.
Estimated expenses: Foreign program fees- $8,500
Travel and lodging - $2,500
Authentication of documents-$500Chile:
Couples only, ages 25-40 preferred for infants, but there is flexibility. Preference is for couples with no birth children. Both parents must travel and stay two to three weeks.
Estimated expenses: Foreign program fee - $12,000-$15,000
Travel and lodging - $3,000
Authentication and translation - $600China:
Childless couples and single parents over age 35 may adopt. Available children are healthy female infants.
Restrictions are waived if parents are open to special needs children.
One parent requires travel of approximately one week
Estimated expenses: Foreign program fee- $8,000. (includes translations and authentications)
Travel and lodging: $3,500Columbia:
Couples can adopt, ages 25-35 years for children from infants to 3; children from 3 to 6 maybe placed with couples from 36-45 years of age.
Families with biological or adopted children may adopt. Parents must travel to Colombia, with one parent staying four to six weeks to complete the legal process.
Estimated expenses: Foreign program fee - $5,000-$7,500
Travel and lodging - $3,000
Authentication of documents - $250Guatemala:
Couples and singles between 28 and 50-plus can adopt. Families may have other children. Parents stay in Guatemala for three days to complete the adoption.
Estimated expenses: Foreign program fees -$12,500-$15,000
Travel and lodging (one parent) - $1,200
Authentication of documents - $200Hungary:
Couples and singles are eligible. Children are usually between ages 1 and 4. Maximum age difference between parents and child is 45 years. Children are of Hungarian/gypsydesoent Both parents travel and stay for 10 days. One parent stays 10 - 20 more days to complete the court process.
Estimated expenses: Foreign program fees -$6,800
Travel and lodging (first trip) - $2,800
Travel or escort (second trip) - $2,800
Authentication of documents - $700Mexico:
Couples and single women at least 25 years old can adopt. Parents must travel twice to Mexico - once to initiate the court process, usually takes two to three days; the second is four to five weeks later for about four to five days to bring the child home.
Estimated expenses: Foreign program fees - $12,500-$14,000
Foster care costs (required between child assignment and final adoption) - $150 per week
Travel and lodging - $1,200
Authentication and translation - $450Vietnam:
Couples and single women are eligible. Parents must be at least 20 years older than the child they plan to adopt. Children of all ages are available. One parent must travel and stay between three to four weeks; or, travel for one week and return to the United States and have child escorted to the United States in two to three weeks.
Estimated expenses: Foreign program fee - $8,000.
Travel and lodging - $4,000
Authentication and translation: $800Support and Acceptance
With his black hair and dark brown eyes, his swarthy complexion and the kippah he ordinarily wears, Alex Jacobson has been mistaken for a Sephardic Jew. Only the almond shape of his eyes bespeaks another heritage.
His parents, Debbie and Jake Jacobson, Park Heights area residents, say that prejudice has rarely been an issue for Alex, 14. From the moment they brought Alex home from Chile
as a month-old infant, they have found only support and acceptance from their family, their congregation (the Orthodox Beth Tfiloh), and the Jewish community. But in the summer, when the sun darkens his skin considerably, there has been an occasional incident and a few nosy questions, especially when Alex, now a tall sturdily built ninth grader at Beth Tfiloh Day School, was younger.
One of his classmates in kindergarten kept touching Alex's arm, apparently curious about his darker-than-hers skin color.
"I could tell he was upset," Debbie Jacobson, 41, the day school's upper school librarian, remembered of the situation, which stopped by itself after a few days. "That was the first time his difference came into play."
"People will ask us, `Where'd he get that tan?' " recounted Jake Jacobson, 43, a home improvement salesman. "They're curious, and that's usually the first question - the opener."
When Alex was a toddler, someone asked his father if Alex would "speak in Spanish when he started talking," Mr. Jacobson said, still amazed at the question. Someone else wanted to know if Alex displayed a natural talent for soccer, a popular sport in South America.
The Jacobsons chose foreign adoption for two reasons. At the time the wait for a domestic baby was years long. And, the controversial "Baby M" case, in which a surrogate birth mother sued for parental rights, was making headlines.
In a foreign adoption, there was less risk of complications from the birth mother, said Mrs. Jacobson, who has since had a "birth" child, Ari, 11.
The Jacobsons decided to adopt a child from South America and, specifically, from Brazil or Chile. The reason: Both of those countries have a high percentage of European immigrants, increasing the likelihood of receiving a light-skinned child.
The Jacobsons lead an Orthodox lifestyle, and they knew they'd be sending their child to an Orthodox day school. "We didn't want skin [color] to be an issue" in his environment, Mrs. Jacobson said.
In the same vein, Alex had both a bris and an Orthodox conversion in a mikvah. There can be no questions about the authenticity of the ceremony, Mr. Jacobson said.
Alex doesn't date yet, but he does socialize with girls his age, said Alex, who believes strongly in dating and marrying within the religion. "There has never been a problem."
Neither Alex nor his parents has ever made a secret of his foreign adoption or his birth background. In fact, they've gotten together with other adopted Chilean-born children, used it as a theme for his bar mitzvah and even, last year, took a family trip to Chile.
"I'm very open about it," Alex said of his Chilean heritage. "It doesn't bother me and if it bothers [someone else], that's their problem." 'Connected To Judaism'
It was late, about 11 p.m. Cindy and Bill Tannenbaum had gone to BWI Airport to pick up a visiting relative when they chanced upon an emotional scene. A plane from San Francisco had arrived with six Korean infants and their escorts, who delivered the babies into the waiting arms of their excited adoptive parents.
In that small corridor of the quiet, nearly deserted airport, filled with hugs and kisses and happy new relatives, Mrs. Tannenbaum remembered the scene vividly, `There was a wonderful feeling. We were seeing the start of these families."
The encounter was a turning point for the Tannenbaums, who, after years of childlessness, had begun thinking of adoption themselves. But 12 years ago, when they began the process in earnest, their choices were limited.
Their chances for a domestic adoption were, they were told, "zero to none," said Mr. Tannenbaum, 42, a sales representative. Foreign adoptions from Europe did not exist at the time. That left India, Korea or South America.
"The baby's appearance was not a consideration," Mrs. Tannenbaum, 39, an administrative assistant at a local college, said of their decision in favor of South America. "We just wanted a healthy baby."
and Korean adoptions, the babies were delivered to the adoptive parents in America. But "we wanted to experience first-hand the country of adoption," said Mrs. Tannenbaum of their stay in Guatemala, where they adopted their daughter, Lauren, at age 4 months. The Tannenbaums ended up adopting from Guatemala simply because they knew someone who had adopted two children from that country. "She told us about her experiences, she helped us through the bureaucratic situation," said Mrs. Tannenbaum, detailing the complicated, and expensive, legal procedure.
After the Tannenbaums received word that they had a daughter, they were sent a photograph of Lauren. Mr. Tannenbaum immediately had it reproduced and distributed to members of their extended families. Finally, they had their own emotional scene at the airport when they returned from Guatemala, baby in tow.
During her early years, the Tannenbaums made an effort to associate with other families with foreign-born adopted children. But as Lauren, now 11 and a sixth-grader at Deer Park Middle Magnet School, began making her own friends and developing her own interests, that has dwindled to an annual "special day" to celebrate her heritage.
"We might go to an Hispanic fair or a restaurant," Lauren said, describing typical activities. A slim, dark-haired child who has a talent for art, loves animals and pitches for the Reisterstown Rec youth softball league, Lauren regards Guatemala as 'just a place where I was born."
The Tannenbaums are members of the Conservative Beth Israel Congregation, where Lauren attends Hebrew school and belongs to the youth group. Lauren had an official Conservative conversion there at the age of 6. "We wanted her to understand what was happening," Mrs. Tannenbaum said, explaining the wait.
Lauren began attending Hebrew school at age 7, in first grade. "I feel connected to Judaism," she said.
Other than a one-time incident at a local grocery store, in which a stranger remarked on Lauren's skin color, the Tannenbaums emphasize that they have "never, ever" experienced any prejudice.
"Our friends think of us as the Tannenbaum family," Mrs. Tannenbaum said. 'They don't think of us as Cindy and Bill and their foreign adopted daughter, Lauren."
"When I tell my friends I was born in Guatemala," Lauren said, "they think it's neat. Others say they didn't know; they thought I had a tan."
Credits: Greenburg and Pash