Jewish Adoption in America

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

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.

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 percent 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 5 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.

When Birth Parents are Jewish

Despite the positive Jewish attitudes toward adoption, Judaism’s emphasis on bloodlines and lineage brings a certain ambivalence to the discussion.

When an adopted child is born Jewish, the adoptive parents need to determine the child’s tribal affiliation: Kohen, Levite, or Yisrael. If, for example, a male child is born a Kohen, traditional Jewish law forbids him from marrying a divorcee, even if his adoptive parents are not Kohanim.

Patrilineal descent raises another point of contention. The denominations, of course, disagree about the Jewish legal status of a child whose birth father, but not mother, is Jewish.

When an adopted child has one or two Jewish birth parents, it is important to maintain proof, which can assist the child later in life, if he or she wishes to move to Israel or marry inside the Jewish community. Another serious potential problem in the case of Jewish birth parents is whether the child is — or is suspected to be — a mamzer.

A mamzer is an individual who is the product of an adulterous or incestuous union, and he or she is traditionally not allowed to marry a Jew of “legitimate” birth.

When Birth Parents are Not Jewish

A gentile child adopted by Jews does not automatically become Jewish upon completion of the secular legal process. He or she requires formal conversion to Judaism–with the methods varying by denomination. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis, for example, require tevilah (immersion in a mikveh, or ritual bath) in addition to brit milah (circumcision) for boys.

Since this conversion is performed on a minor, without his or her consent (the halachic terminology is ger katan), at bar or bat mitzvah age the child has the right to either confirm or deny the conversion. The attitude that it is permissible to convert a child without his or her initial knowledge and consent is based on the talmudic principle that “we can act to a person’s benefit without his permission” (Ketubbot, 11a).

Because most cases of adoption involve conversion, the divisive “Who is a Jew?” question is at the heart of the issue. Rabbi Michael Gold, an expert on Jewish family and sexuality issues, points out that the Jewishness of many children adopted by Jewish families continues to be questioned.

It is important to note, however, that racial issues do not–and should not–figure in this conversation. Regardless of social attitudes, if a black, Asian, or Native American child is converted properly, he or she is fully Jewish.

Other Issues in Adoption

Beyond religious considerations, social stigmas about adoption also exist. Some Jews expect other Jews to “look a certain way” or insist that a convert doesn’t have a “Jewish soul.” A further consideration in some Jewish communities is the issue of finding a shidduch (mate) for a person without identifiable yichus (lineage). Other Jews may be concerned that some adoptees will not fully identify with Judaism despite conversion.

Adoptive parents, birth parents who give up their children, and adoptive children face a host of challenges. In particular, the sense that they have been “abandoned” by their birth parents makes some adopted children feel confused about their identities, even if they were converted according to the requirements of their adoptive parents’ denomination.

Jewish family service agencies may offer home studies, support groups for adoptees and adoptive families, lectures, conferences, and other services.

Queen Esther may be the most famous adoptee in Jewish tradition, but she certainly wasn’t the last. And while the role of adoption may be different than it was in ancient times, adoption continues to shape Jewish families, and indeed, the very nature of the Jewish community.

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