Jewish Adoption

The Obstacles Aren't What You Think. Plus...Some Jewish Solutions.

My neighbor recently returned from Romania with her newly adopted daughter. Amidst all the joy of baby-naming (they kept the toddler’s Romanian name as a middle name and gave her a new first name), Margo* could not help complaining bitterly that she’d had to wait nine months for paperwork to be completed, including a home study and background check, and that the adoption itself cost nearly $10,000. Margo’s ambivalent crankiness is not uncommon. It might have been useful for her to keep in mind that the best interests of her child were being served by a thorough background check, and that even with no fertility problems, conception takes three to six months, on average. Add in a nine-month pregnancy and that brings to 15 months the time biological parents have to wait. And prenatal care plus hospital bills for an uncomplicated delivery just about match the cost of an adoption.

No due date

The difference for Margo is that she and many other adopters have already paid a king’s ransom for failed attempts at such state-of-the-art fertility treatments as in vitro fertilization. Medical insurance rarely covers either these treatments or the adoption itself. The adoptive families have also been enduring—sometimes for years—a monthly emotional roller coaster of rising hopes for parenthood, followed by dashed dreams.

During the adoption process, prospective parents live with the strain of an uncertain wait. A lot of them describe the wait as stretching out without a clear end in sight, sometimes until the last couple of days. Unlike a pregnancy, adoptions do not come with a due date.

Add to these tensions the fact that close to 50% of birth mothers change their minds and either keep the baby or have a relative become guardian, according to Karen Rispoli, former coordinator of adoption services at Jewish Family Services in New Brunswick, New Jersey. She explains that while some attorneys hedge on figures or artificially deflate that figure to only 25%, she prefers to prepare prospective parents by being honest from the outset. She encourages parents to “expect at least one set of plans to fall through, and remember that it’s not a dead end; you will find a child.”

Ilene Schwartz, an adoptive mother of two and one of the national board members of Stars of David, a Jewish adoptive parents support network, agrees. “Most couples who stick with it do find a child. It may not be the child they planned on originally, but it turns out to be the child they love.”

Nevertheless, the whole infertility-then-adoption ordeal can leave adopters in what Joyce Pavao, director of a Massachusetts adoption agency and herself an adoptee, calls “a very fragile, needy state.” She admits that “it becomes easy for adopters and for their social workers to focus on their needs to the exclusion of anyone else’s.”

Jewish Adoption Ethics

I guess this is where I had better lay all my cards on the table. I am an adoptee, not an adoptive parent. I am the mother of three biological children, but I endured an achingly long four-year wait between the birth of my first and second daughters. Because of that time, I can imagine, at least in part, some of what adoptive parents go through. Nevertheless, I think there are some inaccurate interpretations of the adoption data and unrealistic expectations about the time and money investments of adoption. Inaccurate figures have made would-be parents so fearful of never finding a baby that they completely ignore “the best interest of the child” as long as they can buy a baby faster, cheaper and newer.

When I recently interviewed prospective adoptive parents about what they consider ethical behavior in an adoption, they focused typically on how others treated them: on whether the attorney charged a fair fee and made sure the birth father had agreed to the adoption (so he wouldn’t create complications later), on whether the birth mother changed her mind or not, on whether a foreign government or agency expedited their case quickly or not. Certainly these demands would parallel fair business practices in any exchange of goods or activities for payment. But adoption is not just any business exchange. It is holy enough, and complicated enough, that there should be a body of halakhah advising adoption facilitators, the adoptee, the birth parents and the adoptive parents on how they should treat each other.

As one of the five thousand babies adopted in the state of New Jersey in 1963, I know firsthand how important it is to safeguard “the best interests of the child.”

In my case, my birth mother, who is a Jew, contacted me five years ago through the private adoption agency that had placed me with my parents as an infant. She says the agency assured her that I had been placed with an observant Jewish family. Instead I was placed with an unaffiliated interfaith couple. I love my parents very much, but I wish I had had more information about my background (my Jewish background, my medical background and my family background) before this. I have it now, through my own slow “return” to the Judaism I never knew, and through conversations with my birth parents. (I met my biological father two years ago.)

Dr. Randy Severson, agency psychologist and administrator at the Cradle of Hope Agency in Texas for 12 years, has counseled thousands of prospective parents and tens of thousands of people individually or in groups who have been touched by adoption. He says, “I’ve never worked with a prospective couple that didn’t find a baby if they really wanted to. Begin with that. The child is already born in your heart, so despite your desperation, begin even during the adoption process to act as an advocate for your child. Your ethical responsibility is to be a force for good. The two main ways you can manifest that are, first, don’t let your child be treated as a commodity, even if you feel it speeds up the adoption process; second, don’t cut your child off from other people who love him or her, don’t put yourself against the birth family, because as the advocate of your child you want your child to have access to his or her cultural history.”

You might ask, “Will the child know the difference if the adoption story she/he is told is the true one?” No, but in adulthood they may. For example, in Scotland, where adoption records have been open since 1938, over 20% of adult adoptees have chosen to search for their biological parents. But elsewhere, under the conditions of independent adoption, recording and preserving an adoptee’s original birth certificate (with the biological parent’s name on it), and an accurate family and medical history, are much more difficult.

Advocacy implies concrete actions like asking questions about where your money goes and where the baby comes from. Make sure that the birth mother in a private adoption gets real counseling, not just bullying from your lawyer, so that her decision is the result of genuine informed consent. Gail*, an adoption counselor for New Jersey’s Children’s Aid and Adoption Services, reports getting an urgent message from a newly delivered birth mother at Glover* General Hospital. An adoption attorney had elicited from someone on the hospital staff the names of all the single mothers on the maternity floor, and he was visiting them unannounced and uninvited with briefcase in hand. He was “counseling” them to give up their babies because they “wouldn’t be able to handle it out there alone.”

Adult adoptees’ rights groups representing birth mothers are battling state-by-state with the Academy of Adoption Attorneys over this. They feel the Academy is essentially fighting to open new business markets, and that adoption attorneys face a conflict of interest such that they cannot provide impartial counseling to birth mothers when it may jeopardize the adoption—which for the attorney is a potential source of income.

If you are an adoptive parent and you make promises to a birth mother, keep them, whether they are big things like maintaining an open adoption or “small” things like sending annual pictures of the child she gave you. (Who knows—with growing sophistication in DNA-typing or some other kind of technology it may be possible in the future for any adopted person to find his or her birth mother anywhere and to hear the birth mother’s version of the adoption procedures; you do not want to do anything now that could come back to haunt you.)

Kathy Marangos, an adoption attorney in New Jersey and an adoptee herself, suggests, “Think long and hard about your motivation before changing an older child’s first name, and make sure you have their genuine agreement.”

“Gather as much medical and family information as you can, even in an overseas adoption,” suggests Jane Nast, an adoptive mother of two and the legislative director of the American Adoption Congress in Washington, D.C. “Please, don’t think it’s not important, because you can’t predict the future. Gather what you can now so you can provide in the best interests of your child.”

Jewish children need homes

This leads me to the most astonishing news you are likely to hear amidst the swirl of adoption facts and figures: most adoptable Jewish children and infants do not find Jewish homes, according to Stephen Krausz, co-founder with his wife, Vicki, of the Colorado-based Jewish Children’s Adoption Network (JCAN).

“At adoption conferences we often have Christian parents come up to us and introduce their cute Jewish child and say, ‘Look, he was Jewish.’ Unless a Jewish birth mother becomes proactive by deciding to use a Jewish agency or to choose the adoptive parents of her child through private adoption, a child who is born Jewish and placed for adoption is not guaranteed a Jewish home. It is simply not a top priority for social workers at non-Jewish adoption agencies. The Jewish community has not created the kind of pressure that the African-American community has through the Organization of Black Social Workers or that the American Indian Nations have through passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 to ensure that black and tribal children remain within their communities when possible.”

One persistent statistic that has been recycled over and over in the Jewish press (and it is always unattributed) is that for every adoptable infant there are 40 waiting couples. Tom Kaplan*, an adoptive father of two pre-schoolers, puts the figure “40 waiting couples” into better perspective when he explains that he and his wife “must have put our names on over 30 agency waiting lists before we found our kids, so, yeah, you may have 40 couples on a list for each baby but I can guarantee you that none of those couples is on just one list.”

The Krauszes suspect that the small size and interconnectedness of the Jewish community may actually work to its disadvantage when it comes to adoption: Jewish birth mothers who want to safeguard their own privacy may hesitate to go to a Jewish agency where they may be known. In fact most of the Jewish children that are referred by agencies to the JCAN are referred by non-Jewish agencies. Stephen Krausz believes that Jewish agencies have not sought out Jewish children actively enough. When he contacted New Jersey’s Division of Youth and Family Services, for example, to try and convince them to consider a child’s Jewish heritage in determining placement, he was told, “We have no Jewish children.” He wondered how that could be. In Colorado, which only has one-eighth the Jewish population of New Jersey, he finds at least ten adoptable Jewish children a year. “Shouldn’t there be 180 Jewish children a year available in New Jersey alone?”

The majority of the “healthy” children that are listed by the Jewish Children’s Adoption Network are bi-racial Jews. They are more likely than white babies to be placed for adoption by their Jewish birth families and, at the same time, less likely to be adopted by other Jews, according to the Krauszes. Yes, the Jewish community is guilty of that ecumenical bogeyman: racism.

Racism and Jewish diversity

Obviously, a community’s racism affects any non-Caucasian adopted child whether she is a Jew by birth or by conversion. One rule of thumb that JFS has suggested is that if you find a congregation that is welcoming to Jews-by-choice and interfaith couples, you will have found one that holds more enlightened views on adoptions, including transracial ones. Karen Rispoli, whose ten-year old daughter is from Korea, chose to affiliate with a congregation where “she wouldn’t have to choose between identities as a Korean-American-Jewish-adoptee.”

Dr. Howard Altstein, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland, is currently beginning a survey of transracial adoptions in the Jewish community and believes that Jewish parents, being a minority themselves, may be able to bring extra sensitivity to handling the needs of adopted children whose race makes them a minority in the U.S.

A suggestion adoption counselors make to all parents who adopt transracially is that they should think of themselves as a “multi-racial” family. It’s a subtle but important distinction from thinking of yourself as a white couple with non-white children. If you begin to think of yourself as part of a multiracial unit you are more likely to buy a house in an integrated neighborhood and have family friends of various backgrounds, all of which will be easier on your child.

Jewish educators act in the best interests of the child when they also emphasize that the family called the Jewish people is in fact “multi-racial.” In other words, stress that Judaism is a religion, not a race, and kehillot, Jewish communities, come in many colors, including black Jews from Ethiopia and African-Americans who have chosen Judaism.

Other folk cultures have always enriched the celebration of Judaism, and your child’s birth heritage can help do that, too. For example, the harvest festival of China, Korea and Vietnam, which is called the Mid-autumn Festival, coincides with the Jewish Festival of Sukkoth two years out of every three (because both are based on similar lunar calendars). That makes it a natural opportunity to include the sweet moon cakes and storytelling of an East Asian adoptee’s heritage as part of your Sukkoth celebration. There are books that survey the Jewish history of almost every country of the world, including China and India, and these may help adoptive parents meld their child’s birth culture with their own.

Jewish Adoption Rituals

There are Jewish rituals that recognize and welcome adoption itself as a part of the life cycle. Jewish tradition already has blessings to celebrate new occasions, circumcisions, and conversions. The Reform movement’s Gates of Mitzvah includes services similar to baby-namings that are designed to honor the adoption either of an infant or an older child. Many new parents choose to expand and personalize their ceremony, using lines from the Talmud that validate adoptive parenthood or Psalm 80, which gave us the modern Hebrew word for adoption, ametz. The original meaning was “to graft or to strengthen,” which suggests a very organic image of adoption.

But Jewish tradition does not cover all the life cycle events involved in adoption. Bobbie and Laurie Baron created a special service “for accepting the loss of our dream of having a biological child” (in Rabbi Debra Orenstein’s anthology, Lifecycles, Volume 1). It closes with a havdalah ceremony that separates the dark time of their focusing on infertility treatments to the light time in the future in which they may either choose to remain childless, but still a family, or to adopt.

Reunion between birth parents and adult adoptees has not commonly been marked by ritual. For the past three years, a group of several dozen adoptive parents, birth parents and adult adoptees have celebrated an “adoption seder” I wrote with guidance from Rabbi Donald Rossoff of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, New Jersey. It draws on the lifelong relationship between Moses and his adoptive Egyptian mother, who chose to join his Hebrew birth family when the Children of Israel crossed the Red Sea and left Egypt.

One of the “four questions” we ask at the adoption seder is: “Why is it that the adoptive mother of Moses chose to follow her adopted son?” The answer I give is found in Deuteronomy (10:16 and 30:6). These passages contrast Moses to Abraham. Where Abraham bound the Jewish community through the blood-tie of circumcision, Moses the Adopteee taught the Israelites a new kind of bond, literally “circumcision”—or more poetically, “opening”—of the heart. Moses and his Egyptian mother were not bound by blood but by a mutual opening of the heart. The Jewish community may need to re-experience an “opening of the heart” for the largest group of Jewish children who are waiting to be adopted. These children have been labeled “special needs.”

Of the “special needs” children listed by JCAN, about a third have “emotional problems” like attachment disorder and are older, or have suffered neglect or abuse. Another 25%-30% of the “special needs” children have Down syndrome. The remaining third tend to be newborns with birth defects ranging from cystic fibrosis to something more minor like cleft palate or club foot.

JCAN gets about 1,000 phone inquiries a year, but only 20% of their application forms are returned to them, because JCAN explains up front in their literature that over 85% of the Jewish children they help are “special needs.” The label alone scares away most adopters. Krausz argues that many of the children Jews adopt from overseas have the same “special needs” as these Jewish children but that these just have not yet been diagnosed.

That view was elaborated on by Elsa Weinstein, a pre-adoption workshop organizer for British Columbia’s Ministry of Family and Children, and the mother of one adopted son and one biological son, who said, “Overseas they’re just as likely to have attachment disorders or fetal alcohol syndrome, but because the kids don’t have a [recorded] history, it’s easier for prospective parents to fantasize.” 

*Names marked with an asterisk are pseudonyms.

Michele Kriegman is a freelance writer at work on a book called Orphans, Adoptees & Test-Tube Babies.

For more information about how to purchase a copy of Michele Kriegman’s Adoption Haggadag, please contact LILITH by phone at (212) 757-0818, by fax at (212) 757-5705 or by e-mail at