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Transforming a Community (part 1): Today’s Adoptions Force New Thinking in Jewish Community

Adoption — it’s an ancient practice mentioned often in the Torah. But with modern developments, adoption is transforming the Jewish community.

A growing number of children from different ethnic backgrounds are becoming part of American Jewish families, some of whom are urging a re-evaluation of what it means to look — and be — Jewish.

Gay and lesbian couples seem to be adopting children more than ever before – – and are increasingly open, during the process, about their sexual orientations.

More intermarried Jews are adopting, too. One-quarter of those contacting Stars of David, a national support group and information resource network for Jewish adoptive families, are interfaith couples, according to its officials.

As the number of adoptions increase, liberal Jews are increasingly seeking access to mikvahs, the ritual baths in which children are immersed as part of most conversions to Judaism.

And that, in part, is prompting a growing number of Conservative and Reform synagogues to build them.

Adoption has become an increasingly common fact of life in the Jewish community and attitudes toward it have changed markedly in the last two decades.

What was once a process cloaked in near-secrecy is now a topic explored openly in the dozens of Jewish adoption support groups around North America.

Positive adoption stories are threaded throughout the Torah, though arrangements were generally informal, rather than legal.

Moses was rescued from death by the Pharaoh’s family, raised as a non-Jew only to become the redeemer of his people from slavery.

Mordechai raised his niece, Esther, and the Talmud documents the positive views of adoption voiced by ancient rabbinic commentators.

But the contemporary reality isn’t always as simple as the biblical stories sometimes seem, and modern attitudes do not always measure up to Jewish tradition’s ideals.

According to Shelley Kapnek Rosenberg, an adoptive parent, the attitude at first is, “This is wonderful,” that it’s a mitzvah to adopt and to form a Jewish family. “Everybody is really thrilled for you.

“On the other hand there is a very subtle questioning, holding back, wondering if this child is as good, can you really love a child who isn’t yours biologically,” says Kapnek Rosenberg, author of the book, “Adoption and the Jewish Family: Contemporary Perspectives.”

Experts say that Jews delay childbearing at least as much — and perhaps more – – than other Americans.

Between 15 and 20 percent of American Jews are thought to face fertility problems. A growing number are choosing adoption.

No one knows exactly how many children have been adopted by American Jews, but the best estimates to date come from the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, which found that more than 3 percent of children in Jewish homes — some 60,000 individuals — had been adopted.

Thirteen percent of Jewish couples who were thinking of having children were considering adoption, according to the study, and more than 165,000 Jewish couples had sought help with adoption.

Those numbers are now a decade old, and they are expected to increase when new data is compiled for the National Jewish Population Study 2000.

One-quarter of those adopted were born abroad, a percentage that experts say is rising.

In each case, adoption — domestic or international; closed, in which birth and adoptive families don’t meet, or open, in which they do have contact — is spiritually, psychologically and practically complex.

Most couples adopt only after years of painful and expensive battles against infertility. Many find that they encounter ambivalence — within themselves and from their families and communities.

For Jews in particular, it is often difficult “to let go of the biological dream,” says Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, a couples therapist, rabbinic director of the New York Jewish Board of Family & Children’s Services and father of two adopted children.

“Some people who are very secular and non-observant suddenly find themselves having the most cloistered and even chauvinistic ideas of what it is to be Jewish.”

Yet while the road to adoption is mined with painful experiences, the result for most is joyful.

Many find support and encouragement in their Jewish communities.

Rabbi Joseph Schonberger and his wife were living in Bangor, Maine, 10 years ago when they brought home from Honduras the eldest of their three adopted children.

“The whole community met us at the airport with balloons late at night,” recalls Schonberger, a Conservative rabbi who now leads Temple El Emeth in Youngstown, Ohio. “They couldn’t have been more supportive.”

Others, however, encounter subtle questioning.

Says Kapnek Rosenberg: “In the Jewish community there’s a subtle attitude of `Does this child come from good stock?’ There’s a subtle undercurrent of wondering.”

There is also a vague sense of tribal connection among Jews, leading some to try to find Jewish babies to adopt, though few are available.

“It’s an inherent bias among Jews. They like to stick with their own kind,” says Susan Katz, a director of Stars of David.

Finding a baby to adopt is an arduous process. There are an estimated 40 couples for each white infant available domestically, which prompts many to go abroad to Russia, China or Latin America.

Jews sometimes encounter greater difficulties because birth parents, given the choice of whom to place their baby with, often prefer Christians.

There is also some anti-Jewish bias at some domestic adoption agencies.

“There are a lot of Christian agencies which are not friendly toward Jews adopting and have religious restrictions, though Jews may not realize it” going into the process, says Schonberger.

The struggle to adopt is compounded by a lack of formal Jewish communal support, say some Jewish adoptive parents.

There are support groups for Jewish parents, and some Jewish family service organizations provide home studies, which are prerequisites for adoption.

But there is little financial support available and few Jewish agencies that help find children for placement.

Each adoption costs an average of $25,000, and hopeful parents-to-be often drain their savings accounts, borrow from relatives and take out second and third mortgages on their houses in their pursuit of a child.

“We’re still paying our loans off,” though the youngest of their two children was adopted four years ago, says Weintraub, who believes that if the Jewish community, which values children, “really wanted to help, it would at least provide interest-free loans” to aid with expenses.

Katz of Stars of David says that attitudes about adoption have changed dramatically since she brought home her oldest son, Michael, 25 years ago.

“In those days, there were no adoption support groups and certainly none that addressed the needs and concerns of Jews.

“It was really very painful to have no one to help us, and to be groping around blindly for what to do and to have no one to share the experience with,” says Katz.

That led her to start the Chicago section of Stars of David, which now has 35 chapters around North America and responds to hundreds of inquiries a year.

All told, when it comes to how the Jewish community deals with adoption, says Kapnek Rosenberg, “we’ve come a long way but have a way to go.”

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