Debra A.W. Berger is married and a mom to a son and two daughters, one by adoption. She currently is a Jewish educator in New Jersey and is active in the adoption community. Debra was the former membership chair and editor of "Star Tracks," the quarterly newsletter of Stars of David, International, Inc., a Jewish adoption support group, and she writes for similar publications from time to time. You may reach her at DebraB7416@aol.com.
Does Adoption Make Us An Interfaith Family?
Some people think that when you adopt a child from a religion other than your own you then become an interfaith family. I feel that religious beliefs are formulated from the way you were raised or what you choose to follow and believe when you are older and emancipated.
We adopted our raven-haired, chipmunk-cheeked daughter from Guatemala when she was 4 months old. We named her Chloe' Lauryn America and also gave her a Hebrew name. The likelihood is she was not born Jewish. This was not a problem for me, my husband or our families. All who came to know and love her accepted her from day one and we do not consider ourselves an interfaith family. I would feel differently if she had been older when she joined our family and had memories of practicing another religion. My conscience wouldn't have let me take those memories from her, even if I could. They would have been a part of who she had become. However, at 4 months of age she was not yet aware of religion, Christmas or Hanukkah.
We belong to the Reform movement. Our temple's requirements for those born to non-Jewish mothers are for families to raise the child in the Jewish faith, give him or her a Hebrew name and visit the mikvah (ritual bath), where she could be officially converted. We were told the second and third requirement were optional. However, we opted for all three. Being one for ceremony, the three requirements felt right to me. However, they were not done at the same time.
From the beginning our daughter was raised Jewishly. She wasn't formally given a Hebrew name until she was a year old, even though I knew what it would be. We wanted to go to the mikvah around that time too; however I was told that we would have to totally submerge her three times! My little one had developed an ear infection and a fear of water. I couldn't see subjecting her to what she would view as trauma. So, due to circumstances beyond our control it took seven years for us to visit the mikvah. Chloe' and I slowly walked into the soothing warmth of the mikvah waters and together became “a Jewish family.” She didn't want to be naked in front of her father.
Just this past November we celebrated Chloe's Bat Mitzvah. It was a joyous time and we consider her to be as Jewish as she can be. Proudly, Chloe' wears her Jewish heart on her sleeve.
For the most part, it has been easy. However, I remember one winter when Chloe' tried her best to convince us to bring a Christmas tree into our home. Her rationale was she was half Jewish and half Christian; half Jewish from us (her father and me) and half Christian because of her birthmother. So she should be “allowed” a Christmas tree. I told her, “Religion is what you are raised. You've been raised as a Jew, so you are a Jew and Jews do not have Christmas trees.” Is this particularly an adoption issue? I guess so. However, I was not adopted and I remember wanting a Christmas tree, too. We were the only Jews in our neighborhood and I found it hard not to have Santa when it seemed as if everyone else did. I used whatever ammunition I could muster to convince my parents to let me have that tree! And they held fast to their religious convictions, as did I on that cold winter day.
Then there were the times when Chloe' adamantly told us that when she was older and married with kids, that she would not raise them in the Jewish faith. When we asked why, she said, “Being Jewish is boring. Other religions aren't boring. Besides I could have a tree if I wasn't Jewish.” And I remember hearing other kids tell their parents the same thing. I never looked at this as an adoption issue. I never asked her if it was, though I suppose it might be. Maybe deep down she feels that she was probably not born Jewish so why should she have to go to Hebrew school or be Jewish. I silently feared this might be true and I didn't want to face that issue. Is this the end of the dilemma? Maybe not.
On the flip side, I fondly remember riding home from Hebrew school engaged in a conversation about whether or not Moses was a gifted man. This question was posed to me by my then 8-year-old Chloe' , who surmised that anyone (Moses) who could convince groups of people that God sent down the Ten Commandments from the heavens for us to follow had to be gifted! Or how about listening to her plan to visit terminally ill children at the hospital “because it's a mitzvah, Mom!”
We do not deny our daughter's cultural heritage, as this is certainly a part of who she is. This will be the seventh year we attend a Latin American culture camp. We visit similar museums, and we eat Latin American foods, sometimes noting the similarity to Jewish foods--empanadas and knishes, anyone? The only thing we do not do is participate in festivals or holidays that have a Christian basis.
As parents we strive to give our kids a better world, something more than we had ourselves. Sending Chloe' to Hebrew school was one of the gifts I wanted for her. Unfortunately my parents could not give me and my three siblings this gift, so we're somewhat at a loss when it comes to carrying out certain Jewish obligations. This was very telling this past December when we found ourselves preparing to honor my mother's first yahrzeit (memorial anniversary). We were not planning anything formal, and it was just for our immediate family. The only one who could recite the Mourner's Kaddish (prayer) was, you guessed it, my Guatemalan baby! How proud my mother would have been of her granddaughter reciting Kaddish for her. How proud we all were.
It's safe to say Chloe' was probably the most proud of all. “I just performed my first mitzvah as a woman, Mom.” Is she Jewish? You bet!
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 "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.