The Mitzvah Of Adoption, Orphans In Russia And The Baal Shem Tov


A Chabad family in Nepal recently made a great public Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) by adopting a starving child. While definitions for these terms vary, what is clear is that there are millions of orphans around the world and we must all do our part.

What recently happened in Russia was shameful, with wicked legislators denying the more than 700,000 waiting orphans from potential adoption to the United States due to petty political considerations.

Adoption today, especially on an inter-country basis, is undergoing tremendous change. Jewish law has always defined an orphan as one who has lost one parent and thus they recite the kaddish yatom, the orphan’s memorial prayer, (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 29:19). In the industrialized world, we define an orphan as a child without either of his or her parents. However, especially due to the AIDS epidemic, millions of children in Africa and other areas have lost at least one parent and have been plunged into deep poverty. As a result, UNICEF now defines an orphan as someone who has lost one or both parents. It estimates that in 2005 there were more than 132 million orphans in the mostly non-industrialized areas of Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean. (Of these, 13 million had lost both parents). UNICEF promotes international adoption in accordance with the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-country Adoptions. Only eighty nations have ratified this Convention, which is designed to safeguard the interests of the children and ensure transparency for both the children and prospective adoptive parents from different countries.

Unfortunately, due to changing regulations, suspensions of adoptions, the use of surrogates, and the recession’s effect on the ability of couples to afford the adoption process, the recent trend has been to decrease adoptions. The number has decreased from 45,000 in 2004 to 25,000 in 2011. After scandals involving the selling of children, the United States suspended adoptions from Vietnam and Guatemala (although Vietnam ratified the Hague Convention in 2012, so adoptions from there may shortly resume). In Haiti, where many poor parents bring children to orphanages when they cannot afford to support them, the ambiguity surrounding which children are actually orphans has muddled the picture dramatically. A government survey revealed that about 80 percent of the 30,000 orphans had one living relative (which qualifies most as UNICEF orphans), and as a result some orphanages have been closed.

Recently, a crisis was manufactured in Russia over adoptions by American citizens. In 2009, Sergey Magnitsky, a whistleblower and anti-corruption lawyer, was imprisoned, and then died in a pre-trial detention facility in Russia. In reaction, the Magnitsky Act was passed in the European Union in 2011 and in Congress in late 2012. The act prevents about 60 Russian officials (those believed to be implicated in Magnitsky’s death) from obtaining visas to the United States and European Union, and freezes their assets. In retaliation, Russia passed a resolution banning all adoptions of Russian children by American citizens as of January 1, 2013, cynically named the Dima Yakovlev law, after a 2-year-old Russian child who died after being locked in a hot car by his parents in America for 9 hours. In statements to the foreign press, Russian President Vladimir Putin justified the law as an “adequate” response to the Magnitsky Act, and further denounced America for criticizing Russia for ill-treatment of prisoners while torturing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. In a January interview with CNN, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev justified the bans by claiming that Russia had adequate resources to care for all its orphans, and then added: “…we know of a lot of cases when children adopted by American parents died or were tortured or lost their health in the U.S.”

This was an obvious appeal to Russian chauvinism at the expense of the welfare of thousands of children. Russia claims that 19 adopted children have died in America, but they neglect to mention that more than 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by Americans. Unfortunately, while the U.S. State Department estimated that about 50 American couples would be able to adopt Russian children (as their papers had been approved by Russian courts before the new law took effect), the remainder of the 1,000 couples awaiting adoption are without legal recourse. We hope that Russia reverses course and stops playing politics in the near future.

Orphans around the world who are not adopted undoubtedly suffer social isolation and miserable treatment in underfunded institutions that often lead to increased risk for disease and malnutrition. In the United States, studies have revealed that orphans who are not adopted have an average IQ 20 points lower than those raised in foster homes, and fewer than a quarter have a high school diploma. Of those who “age out” of foster care, nearly 60 percent of males are convicted of a crime, fewer than half were employed, and half were substance abusers. Clearly, adoption offers benefits to the orphan, the adopted parents, and society as a whole.

The Chofetz Chaim, in Ahavat Chesed, tells a tale that illustrates the power of adoption.

A childless couple came for help to the Baal Shem Tov. They accompanied him to a distant vil­lage, where he asked each child’s name. Nearly all the boys were called Moshe, and nearly all the girls were Devorah Leah. The Baal Shem Tov explained why with this story:

A village couple—Moshe and Devorah Leah—were childless. In passing by the beit midrash (study house) one day, Moshe heard a passage: when one teaches a child Torah, it is as if he gave birth to the child. Moshe proposed an idea to his wife. There was no reliable Torah education for the village children; rebbes would teach whatever they wanted, leading to confusion and more harm than good. Therefore, Moshe proposed that they set up a proper system for Torah study.  They found the best melamdim (teachers) and paid them well, kept them supplied, and offered this to every village child.

Since every child was “their” child, the couple provided other needs. For some families, they helped with household expenses, weddings, and anything else a child required. Before long, the town recognized the beautiful generation emerging thanks to this couple. In the children’s love of Torah, refinement, and intelligence, they outshone the chil­dren of their region.

As Moshe and his wife grew older, they wrote a will leaving money to their relatives, setting up a home for the poor and donating the rest of their estate to maintain the children’s education. When they died, the town’s great affection and high esteem for Moshe and Devorah Leah manifested in a special way. Almost every child born in those years was named after these “honorary grandpar­ents,” who with endless love and concern brought the town’s children into a life of Torah and mitzvot.

“Now, let me ask you,” said the Baal Shem Tov, “Was this couple childless, or did they have more children than anyone else?”

Let us take this message to heart and remember the millions of needy children in the world whose lives we can make better through adoption.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!”