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Conversions Emerging as Major Issue Facing Adoptive Jewish Parents

This article originally appeared in The New Jersey Jewish News and is reprinted by permission of the author. Visit www.NJJewishNews.com.

When Michal Fineman held a naming ceremony for her newly adopted seven-month-old daughter, the rabbi suggested she take her daughter to the mikvah, or ritual bath, to be converted to Judaism. "I got so angry," recalls Fineman, a resident of Madison and member of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Chatham. "She's my daughter, the daughter of a Jewish mother. Why should I have to convert her? Is she less my daughter because she didn't come into the world through my legs? I find that offensive. And at only seven months, she didn't have any religious convictions."

Her rabbi did not insist, and the baby did not go to the mikvah.

Adoption among Jewish parents is on the rise, according to Susan Katz, director of Stars of David, a nonprofit information and support network for Jewish and interfaith adoptive families headquartered in Chicago. In fact, she notes, "Jews adopt at a considerably higher rate than non-Jews and the number is rising." She attributes the rise in part to the fact that Jews are marrying later, according to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, and that, she says, creates more infertility, since infertility increases with age. (Numbers on adoption from the most recent population survey have not yet been released, and phone calls to the NJPS hotline were not returned.)

Some of the issues associated with adoption in previous generations--most notably the acceptance of adopted children into a community--have largely diminished; others, like the age-old bias against Jewish couples, remain in some pockets. New ones, however, particularly involving conversion, are now surfacing.

Most Jews who adopt must face the issue of conversion, since they overwhelmingly choose non-Jewish children. More and more, liberal Jews like Fineman are questioning the need to convert their adopted children to Judaism. That's because they no longer consider their rabbi as the mara d'atra, or judge of legal matters in their lives, according to Rabbi Amy Joy Small, current religious leader of Congregation Beth Hatikvah.

"For those who follow Halacha [Jewish law], conversion is not a question. But for those communities not organized around Halacha, the issue of conversion can be a major hot button."

In those communities, she explains, the rabbi has a pastoral rather than a legal role. And people take the attitude, she says, of "Who are you to tell me to do that? [People] feel themselves to be autonomous regarding religious decisions."

Small believes this area of Jewish law is changing, in part to keep up with the times. She has told her synagogue that Jewish practice regarding conversion and adoption "isn't what it was 10 years ago, and in 10 years it will not be the same as it is today."

But others disagree.

Rabbi Gerald Chirnomas of Adat Israel Congregation in Boonton has performed many conversion ceremonies and has never had anyone refuse to convert an adopted child whose birth mother was not Jewish, as long as the situation, he says, "is explained properly. Many people," he notes, "don't know the child has to be converted. It's a point that has to be stressed."

Chirnomas makes the consequences clear: If the child is not converted, no Conservative or Orthodox rabbi will preside over a bar or bat mitzvah or wedding ceremony. If the birth mother is Jewish, which he says is a rare occurrence, the adoptive parents must have "reliable proof." Chirnomas, who is also a mohel (ritual circumciser), requests a letter from a trustworthy source before he will perform the bris (circumcision ceremony) on an adoptive boy. "I can't emphasize to the parents how important [the letter] is. It's as important as the adoption papers. It has to do with the child's status."

The conversion ceremony itself is slightly different for boys and girls, according to Chirnomas. For a boy, it consists of a circumcision (or token circumcision), blessings, and immersion in the mikvah. For a girl, it involves the prescribed blessings and the mikvah, where the child can also be named.

For some couples, the conversion provides an intense moment of happiness and closure.

"It's a joyous ceremony," says Rabbi Michael Monson of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair. He has participated in "tons and tons" of conversion ceremonies, mostly as a member of the beit din, or court of Jewish law. "The sense of validation for parents is more than anything I've ever seen. The overwhelming outflow of emotion is touching," he adds.

Monson finds it "obvious" that a child whose biological mother is not Jewish must be converted. Further, he does not see how that halachic rule conflicts with the adoptive mother's conviction that she is the child's mother.

Katz of Stars of David notes that although no statistics on these issues have been compiled, she believes it is far more common for parents to worry about what kind of conversion their child will have than to consider whether to convert. Because Orthodox conversions are the only ones universally accepted, she says, "people get hung up on it and don't want to make a mistake." Orthodox rabbis will generally not agree to convert the child unless the parents commit to an Orthodox life-style.

Daniel Chesir-Teran of South Orange found himself in this predicament. He and his partner, Ian Chesir-Teran, wanted to convert their adopted baby according to the Orthodox tradition that Daniel had been raised in so that the Jewishness of their son, Eli, would never be questioned. But one after another, the Orthodox rabbis they spoke with expressed ambivalence about working with them because they are gay. Even the rabbi Daniel had grown up with in Brooklyn said, "In all my 25 years of converting people, I have never come across a gay family that wanted to do this." He never got back to the couple.

"Many rabbis didn't consider our home to be observant, even though, in fact, we are pretty observant," says Daniel, who observes both Shabbat and kashrut (Jewish dietary laws). The couple finally settled on a Conservative conversion and found the rabbis they spoke with "celebrated our family's decision." The conversion proceeded relatively smoothly from there.

Katz has a solution to the dilemma initially faced by the Chesir-Terans: The child can always choose to be converted again according to Orthodox tradition at any time in his or her life. Far more important from Katz's perspective is giving the child a Jewish education. "How parents educate a child and give them a Jewish life so that the child will choose to be Jewish, marry Jewish, and have a Jewish family is much more relevant and important."

The Chesir-Terans confronted a different issue early in their effort to adopt a baby, one that many rabbis and other experts interviewed for this article say no longer exists. It was not exactly anti-Semitism, but their experience offered an unexpected wakeup call. As they prepared the family profile the agency would share with birth mothers, their counselor flagged everything that might turn people off, according to Daniel Chesir-Teran. In the course of doing so, he relates, the counselor "discouraged us from making [our profile] look too Jewish. We wanted to use a photo of us wearing yarmulkes (head coverings) . . . t was the counselor's impression that people would be less likely to choose us if their children weren't going to have Christmas." They decided to include the photo anyway. Chesir-Teran wonders whether it was actually a factor during the year they waited. In a few instances, he recalls, when birth mothers were choosing between the Chesir-Terans and another gay family, the other family, not Jewish in each case, was chosen.

That experience is consistent with the policy of their adoption agency, Friends in Adoption, a nontraditional, not-for-profit, licensed adoption agency headquartered in Vermont. Counselors regularly discourage including information about religion in the profile, according to Dawn Smith-Pliner, agency founder and director. "We do not want people to have a prejudice against someone before meeting them. It's the same with age. You don't say, 'Hi, I'm 60, and I can't wait to be a parent.' More personal things are best dealt with in a phone conversation or a meeting so people don't jump to the wrong conclusion based on visuals."

Sheila Muster, director of adoption services at Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, agrees that the issue does arise outside the New York area. "If you go to the Midwest, you would try to play down Jewishness." For those interested in international adoption, however, she notes, "it's not an issue."

International adoptions actually reveal how far the community has come in accepting adopted children. As Muster says, "Go to any Hebrew school or temple and look around. The children fit in just fine. If the babies are Chinese or Korean, they won't be an oddity." Issues concerning fitting in do arise, she points out, as children hit their teenage years. "Some will want to go back to their country," she says, but cautions that issues about not fitting in are common among teenagers.

Some people argue that such issues could be avoided by simply adopting a Jewish baby. But Jewish parents are often urged by their rabbis to adopt non-Jewish children. As Monson explains, "In some ways, it's ideal to adopt a baby that isn't Jewish. What if the baby grows up and gets married and the spouse, in reality, is the person's cousin?"

According to Stephen Krausz, assistant director of the Jewish Children's Adoption Network, a not-for-profit Jewish adoption service headquartered in Denver, that is a philosophy that should have gone out of fashion with Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. "Before Roe v. Wade, there were a million babies out there. There was a lot of secrecy and you didn't know the mother. Now 99 percent of the people we deal with have some form of contact between the families and we do not have to worry about [adoptive children] marrying a sibling." JCAN handles about 100 adoptions per year. Most of their children, about 85 percent, have physical or emotional disabilities. They come from Hasidic families, unaffiliated Jews, and everything in between. But because rabbis often counsel people to adopt non-Jewish children, the agency sometimes faces an uphill battle placing the children. He believes that such advice is misguided at best, and, for the couple, "It's like asking the Amish what kind of car to buy," he concludes.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Rabbinic court involved in matters of Jewish law, including conversion and traditional divorce procedures. Derived from the Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's pertaining or according to 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. 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. Hebrew for "pious," commonly refers to a member of an Orthodox Jewish mystic movement founded in the 18th century in Eastern Europe by Baal Shem Tov that reacted against Talmudic learning and maintained that God's presence was in all of one's surroundings and that one should serve God in one's every deed and word. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "circumciser" (Yiddish term is "moyel"), the person who performs a ritual circumcision. The feminine form is "mohelet." Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."
Johanna Ginsberg

Johanna Ginsberg is a staff writer for The New Jersey Jewish News. She can be reached at jginsberg@njjewishnews.com.

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