Jewish Families and International Adoption
Blending adopted children's ethnic heritage with Jewish culture can be a challenge and a blessing
This article originally appeared on www.InterfaithFamily.com and is reprinted with permission. For more resources designed for interfaith families exploring Jewish life, visit www.InterfaithFamily.com.
Virtually any adopting Jewish parent will raise a child who was not born Jewish. It is extraordinarily rare for a Jewish child to be relinquished for adoption. Like more than 24,000 other Americans, Jewish prospective parents often turn to international adoption as a means of building or adding to their family. At one time this was an unusual concept, but no longer.
Adoptive parents feel that it is the ties of love that make a family, not the ties of blood. In addition to love, successful adoptive parents give much thought to sensitively guiding their child and dealing with issues of difference. Thoughtful decisions and unconditional commitment are two common features of skilled parenting. Although there is not one right way to do it, important themes emerge.
Recognizing Their Heritage
Adoption professionals encourage parents who adopt internationally to involve their children in cultural awareness programs by the time a child is 5 or 6 so that comfort and pride in that heritage will be internalized early and will be a positive part of his or her identity.
This is what Evan Hershenson and his wife Lisa, both of whom are heavily involved in Jewish life, try to do while raising their two Chinese daughters. Evan tutors and teaches Jewish education while Lisa is a cantor. Whenever possible they bring both Jewish life and Chinese culture into their home. The family attends Chinese cultural events specially designed for children adopted from China. Recently, their 6- and 3-year-old daughters were converted at a mikvah followed by a naming ceremony. They know many other Jewish families with Chinese children and not long ago attended the Bat Mitzvah of a Chinese adoptee.
Dealing with a Double Minority
When their Korean children were young, Laura Stevens worried about both their racial and Jewish minority status. She encouraged them to have friends from various Asian backgrounds so they would feel comfortable with their racial identity. At the same time, they attended Sunday school and temple services. Now grown, Laura says that her young adult children see themselves as being "Jewish, American and Korean." Her son, Max, attends a college which does not have a large minority population. Max joined a Jewish fraternity because it is where he is most comfortable.
Leah Bloom, 24, is a Korean adoptee who describes how she sees herself this way: "On the outside I look Asian, but inside I feel Jewish." Raised in an observant home, she regularly attended a Conservative synagogue. She wants to keep the values she learned growing up and someday hopes to marry and raise her children Jewish, but she knows there is a challenge ahead because her preference is to date Asian men. In her experience, Caucasian men treat her as if she is "exotic" rather than who she feels she really is. She is confident that she will find a way to deal with the identity issues ahead. Thoughtful and well grounded, she leads a busy life and is about to start graduate school.
Teaching Jewish Values
In addition to instilling pride in their birth culture, adoptive parents want to instill values in their children.
Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby is Jewish while his wife Laura grew up in a Protestant home attending church regularly. She converted to Judiasm while dating Jeff. Now married for more than 10 years, they are raising one biological child and one adopted from Guatemala. Religion is a cornerstone in their family life. They keep a kosher home and strictly observe the Sabbath. They have discovered adopted children of all nationalities in their community and at their synagogue. Their 3-year-old son, Micah, knows that his dad is from Ohio, his mom is from New York, his 9-year-old brother was born in Boston and he was born in Guatemala. Like big brother Caleb, in a few years Micah will attend a Jewish parochial school.
Although not Jewish like his wife, Tim Cavicchi says that before they got married, he and his wife talked about how they would raise children. They felt that it was important for children to have a religion when growing up rather than be expected to choose one as an adult and possibly "end up with nothing." For them, Judaism was more symbolic of things they most valued, like a close family life. So, even though he does not practice a religion himself, Tim regularly drives his sons to Hebrew school and feels good about the commitment they have made to raise them and their 3-year-old Korean sister in the Jewish faith.
Raised by a Christian mother and Jewish father who were both low-key in terms of religious practice, Jenny Rothenberg is an adult Asian adoptee who says that her parents emphasized "humanity, giving back to the community and being a good person." Adopted at 5, she has always felt comfortable about her background. Neither religion nor adoption has been a focal point of her life. She hasn't had any negative experiences and feels that it is her actions that matter, not her background: "I can't imagine growing up with any other set of parents," she says. "They dried my tears, guided me and made me who I am today."
Adopted or biological, this is the kind of tribute all parents hope to have some day from the child that they have raised. Creating a family through the magical process of adoption is certainly worth celebrating.