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Transforming a Community (part 3): Multiracial Adoptions Change the Face and Color of Jewish Life

His mom was a little worried about sending Ari Wolff, 8, to overnight camp for the first time this summer.

She had the usual concerns: Will he be homesick? At a Reform movement camp in California, will he be too far from their home in Honolulu?

But she also had one more: Will children tell him he’s not Jewish, because he is black?

Ari is one of a growing number of children from African-American, Latino, Asian and mixed-race backgrounds being adopted by Jewish parents, including film royalty Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw.

Almost unheard of 15 years ago, transracial adoptions are, quite literally, changing the complexion of the Jewish community today.

No one knows just how many Jewish children from other ethnic backgrounds there are.

In past years, most were born in Korea, Vietnam and Latin America. Americans continue to adopt children from those places but today the former Soviet Union and China are the leading birth countries in international adoptions, experts say, providing 4,500 and 4,000 children a year, respectively.

And while domestic adoptions of children from black and Hispanic backgrounds were first seen in significant numbers in the early 1970s, according to adoption counselor Abby Ruder, they seem to be increasingly popular among Jewish parents today.

“I don’t know that institutional attitudes have changed all that much, but on the grass-roots level there are many more people who are drawn to the idea of being in a multiracial family and are willing to embrace the complexities of what that means,” says Ruder, a family therapist in the Philadelphia suburb of Wyndmoor, Pa.

With her partner, Ruder is the adoptive parent of Eliza, a 12-year-old who is bi-racial and African-American.

The 1990 National Jewish Population Study found that 6.5 percent of all respondents were non-white, according to Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, located in San Francisco.

Four percent of the 1990 study’s core population — meaning Jewish by birth or conversion — was black or Hispanic, Tobin said, which equaled about 220,000 people.

It is now possible that through adoption, adult conversion and intermarriage, the percentage of non-white Jews is as high as 10 percent.

An adoption professional estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of the children being adopted by Jewish families are Hispanic or non-white.

“These children are gradually changing the face and color of what people think is Jewish life,” Tobin says.

The personal experience of Tobin and his wife, Diane, led them to initiate the Ethnic and Racial Diversity Study of the Jewish Community, which recently got under way and is being partially funded by Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation.

The Tobins were married a few years ago when they were in their mid-40s. From previous marriages they have, between them, five biological adult and teen-age children.

Being parents “is what we enjoy most,” says Tobin, and it was something they wanted to share. After briefly trying to conceive, Diane realized that it wasn’t likely to happen, given her age.

When they decided to adopt, an application asked them what racial categories they would consider. After checking off the entire list they reached the last box — black — and they couldn’t bring themselves to leave that one unchecked.

Six months later they became parents to Jonah, who is now a toddler.

“People have been very supportive” of their decision, Tobin says, though “both white people and black people are curious about why somebody would do this.”

Problems of race in America become quite real for Jews who adopt children of color.

“I know that when one of my children who is white goes across the street to the store he will be treated differently than my son who is black,” Tobin says. “He will be a minority within a minority wherever he goes — as a black being raised in a white family, as a black within the Jewish community.”

As layered an emotional and spiritual process adoption is for anyone, it is all the more so for those who adopt children from different ethnic backgrounds.

“It’s hard for some people to see us as a family because people are used to families looking alike,” says Jana Wolff, a ghostwriter for business executives and author of “Secret Thoughts of an Adoptive Mother.”

“Our parents had some anxiety asking if we were making things hard for that child, and his and our lives are more complicated as a result of being transracially adopted.

“We’ve increased the ways in which Ari stands out,” Wolff said. “He’s different by being adopted, by being Jewish, by living in Hawaii, by having a Hebrew name. And it’s very hard to think you’ve contributed to making things difficult for your child.”

Some adoptive parents consciously decide against adopting a child from a different ethnic background.

Rabbi Simkha Weintraub and his wife, Simba Rosenberg, had already adopted Adin, who is white, when they pursued finding a second child.

They were offered a non-white baby whom, after what was “a wrenching experience for us,” they decided to turn down. Soon after that they found their daughter, Meirav, who is now 4.

“We didn’t want to put Adin in the position of having to answer questions about his sister or brother every time they went to the playground,” says Weintraub, who is a couples therapist and rabbinic director of the National Center for Jewish Healing and of the New York Jewish Board of Family & Children’s Services.

“We have never hidden the fact of their adoption but we didn’t want to impose a neon sign on them, either,” he says.

Jewish parents who adopt children from different ethnic backgrounds say that they have to be very conscious of how decisions they make will impact their child’s racial identity.

For Ruder, it has meant arranging daily experiences for her daughter where she isn’t in the minority.

“We live in an interracial community, have her in an interracial school and have built strong friendships with other people of color,” Ruder says. “I want her to be able to be bicultural.”

The Ashkenazi/white focus of the American Jewish community also poses a real challenge for these parents.

“It has been painful for Eliza as well as us that the Jewish community in this country is so Caucasian, while world Jewry is very multiracial,” Ruder says. “We’re just beginning to find a way to talk about being inclusive racially in the American Jewish community.

Ruder recalls her daughter wanting to be Esther at Purim a couple of years ago. “All of a sudden she didn’t want to go to the Megillah reading because she said, Esther was white. I said no, she was Persian, and she decided if Esther was a person of color that she could be her.”

Ruder had a long talk with her teacher about the need to validate Eliza’s identity. “In the great majority of books in Jewish education, everybody’s white. I can’t tell you how many hours we’ve spent coloring the pictures in.”

The big test of how accepting of racial diversity the Jewish community is, agree Jewish parents of children of color, will be when it is time for their kids to date and marry.

“That’s when push comes to shove,” says the father of an 8-year-old daughter of black and Hispanic origin, who asked not to be named.

“Even people who say they feel very supported by their synagogues and communities are saying, `But will those people want their children to marry mine?'” says Diane Tobin, project director for the study on ethnic and racial diversity in the Jewish community.

In the meantime, Jewish parents have found ways to meld their children’s racial heritage with their Jewishness.

Many focus on the struggles of African-Americans and other ethnic groups during the Passover seder.

Wolff, with her husband and son, last year created “Kwaanzukkah,” a meld of Chanukah and the African-American cultural holiday Kwaanza.

It went over so well that her son and their friends have asked that they make the holiday an annual tradition.

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