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A Review of Adoption and the Jewish Family: Contemporary Perspectives

The increasing number of Jewish families choosing to adopt raises new issues both for those families as well as for the wider Jewish community. Unlike many other questions of family life that have been studied by experts in various fields over the course of several generations, the challenges of adoption involve a certain measure of uncharted territory.

Shelley Kapnek Rosenberg's Adoption and the Jewish Family reflects the absence of familiar psychological and emotional roadmaps. Although the book canvasses the views of social workers involved in Jewish adoptions, Ms. Rosenberg best captures the excitement and challenges of adoption for Jewish families by simply conveying the reactions of the parents and children who are in the midst of this experience. For example, a young man explains that there are no ground rules to apply to his relationship with his newfound biological mother, and that you simply have to "make it up as you go along."

Ms. Rosenberg begins her book appropriately by discussing the issue of converting a child adopted into a Jewish family. Even though she clearly writes from the perspective of liberal Judaism, Chapter I addresses "The Halacha of Adoption: What Jewish Law Says." Unlike all of the other highly subjective, personal and emotional issues presented by adoption, the issue of the conversion of an adopted child is governed by objective standards under Jewish law. The various branches of Judaism offer highly different conversion procedures, and the adoptive parents' selection of one of these different religious gateways may have "lifelong repercussions" for the children. Ms. Rosenberg notes that members of more traditional branches may not recognize conversions by the more liberal branches of Judaism. She writes that "the Orthodox and traditional Conservative movements do not accept other rabbis' authority in this area. The decision that adoptive parents make about conversion can have lifelong consequences for their children . . . It is devastating for an adopted person who has been raised as a Jew to be told the he or she 'isn't really Jewish.'" Chapter I thus presents perhaps the most concrete advice concerning the adoption of a child into a Jewish family.

The remainder of Adoption and the Jewish Family examines a wide range of issues, such as "Building Jewish Identity" (Chapter 3), "Roots and Branches: Searching for the Birth Family" (Chapter 4) and "Open Adoption" (Chapter 5). In many ways, these issues involve the very separate challenges of raising a Jewish child and raising an adopted child. For example, while an adopted child may need a reinforced sense of Jewish identity, particularly if he or she does not "look Jewish," the advice from an adopting Jewish parent on building Jewish identity includes the common sense admonition to "be who you are to the Nth degree . . . Your child will make choices of his or her own, but he or she can't do that unless you give them something solid." All conscientious Jewish parents should heed that advice, regardless of whether they are parents of biological children or adopted children. Ms. Rosenberg quotes an adopted child who explains that "I came from a Conservative home that practices Judaism, and I feel very affiliated and identify very much as a Jew . . . it didn't matter whether I was born Jewish or converted. I never questioned that identity." It seems that the challenges surrounding an adopted child's sense of Jewish identity may not be much different from the challenges that all Jewish parents currently face in seeking to instill in their children a sense of Jewish pride and Jewish identity.

A comforting theme subtly unfolds from Ms. Rosenberg's discussion of the twin issues of raising an adopted child in a Jewish family. Raising an adopted Jewish child does not compound either the challenge of raising a Jewish child or the challenge of raising an adopted child. It simply involves a combination of the same basic parenting skills that are necessary to raise an adopted child with a sense of well-being and to raise a Jewish child with a positive sense of Jewish self-identity. Of course, there is no magic formula for success in either field.

Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions.
Richard Shevitz

Richard Shevitz is a lawyer with the Indianapolis law firm of Cohen & Malad. He and his wife are active in the local Jewish community. They have two children, one of whom is adopted.

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