Jewish Adoption in America

Ancient laws and modernity are brought together with the embrace of adoption in the Jewish community.

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Since ancient times, Judaism has valued and encouraged adoption. But most biblical and rabbinic references to the practice relate specifically to orphans, a paradigmatically vulnerable class of individuals for which the Bible mandates we protect and care.
 
The most famous example in the Bible, of course, is that of the orphaned Queen Esther, who was raised by her cousin Mordecai. The Talmud, however, illuminates--and approves of--more obscure cases as well. adoption family child baby
 
According to the book of Samuel (2 Samuel 6:23), King David's wife Michal never had children--yet later five sons are mentioned. To explain the discrepancy, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 19b) states that Michal's sister, Merav, actually gave birth to the children, but Michal raised them. The rabbis conclude: "Whoever brings up an orphan in his home is regarded, according to Scripture, as though the child had been born to him."
 
Interestingly, though, there was no Hebrew word for adoption until the 20th century, when Israeli lexicographers chose ametz, which comes from the same root as amatz, meaning strength or fortitude.

Trends in Adoption

Jewish Americans, like Americans in general, have various motivations for adopting children. Some couples adopt for altruistic reasons--to give homes to older children or children with disabilities.
 
Single people, as well as gay and lesbian individuals and couples, are more likely to try to adopt than in the past, as adoption agencies become more open in their policies. But the reason for most contemporary adoptions--Jewish and otherwise--is a married heterosexual couple's inability to have a child.
 
About 15% of all couples in the United States have some kind of infertility problem--defined as the inability to achieve or sustain pregnancy after one year of well-timed, unprotected sex. Adoption experts assume the infertility rate is higher among Jews, who tend to postpone marriage and childbirth.
 
Because of the emphasis Jews place on family, their relatively high socioeconomic status (adoption can get expensive), and this presumed higher rate of infertility, Jews are considered a population likely to pursue adoption.
 
In the 2000 National Jewish Population Study, just over five percent of Jewish households with children reported an adopted child residing in the home. According to the U.S. Census Bureau of 2000, the first U.S. Census to include "adopted son/daughter" as a category of relationship to the householder, adopted children make up two and a half percent of all children of all ages. This suggests that the rate of adoption in the Jewish community is about double that of the American population at large. 

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Barbara T. Blank

Barbara Trainin Blank is a freelance writer and editor.