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Swimming lessons may not be high on every parent's list of appropriate activities for a three year old. But they were important to Lisa Ross. Shortly after she adopted Jane, she made sure to take the toddler to a local pool. Together, they practiced going underwater until Ross felt confident that Jane would be able to handle the big event her mother had planned: taking a ritual bath in a mikvah (Jewish ritual bath), according to Jewish law, to mark Jane's formal conversion to Judaism.
The experience turned out to be so powerful, said Ross, forty two, that it brought all the adults present--in addition to Ross and her partner, two rabbis and the head of the conversion program were there--to tears, and Jane "lit up like a lightbulb. She got it."
Jane now has a twenty-one-month-old sister, also adopted, whom Ross, a designer, and her partner also plan to convert.
About fifteen years ago, when Wayne Steinman, forty eight, and his partner Sal Iacullo, of Staten Island, brought four-month-old Hope with them to High Holy Day services at Congregation Bet Simchat Torah in New York's Greenwich Village, they opened the floodgates to parenthood for New York City's gay and lesbian community. One half of the first gay couple to openly adopt a baby in the city, Steinman recalled the reaction of friends in the congregation that day. "It was a 'Wow!' reaction. No one really thought about having grandchildren before," he said.
Welcome to the late twenty-first-century Gaybee Boom. And if what gays and lesbians have craved from the Jewish community has been acceptance, from the accounts of many such couples who have adopted babies, that embrace has been forthcoming--at least from Judaism's liberal sects. Attempts to reach professionals within Orthodoxy were unsuccessful, but if its voice on this subject has been silent, it has not been overtly negative. And, according to Rabbi Joel Roth, professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, the academic center of Conservative Judaism, Jewish law does not expressly forbid adoption by gays and lesbians anymore than it would object to placing a child with a family that desecrates the Sabbath. "It's a mitzvah to care for an orphan," explained Roth. Beyond that, the Talmud doesn't have knowledge of adoption, in the modern sense.
Indeed, for a number of single-sex couples, parenting has been the way back into a form of traditional Judaism from which they felt estranged. For others, it's been a natural extension of Jewish practice firmly ingrained either from childhood or through connections established as adults. Still others have carved out their own definitions of Judaism to fit what they believe is the best way to maintain a link with a religious and cultural identity they say they wish to pass on to their children. Finally, as with interfaith heterosexual couples, conflicts over which religion to favor are also prevalent for gay couples who don't share the same religious faith.
Consider Joel's story, which is not atypical. Responding to a reporter's e-mail inquiry, he wrote: "I guess my [son's] adoption really centers on the rediscovery of my Judaism. I felt very betrayed by my Conservative synagogue because I came out at an early age. After hearing the word 'abomination' [Biblical citation: (Leviticus 18:22)] once, I was outta there. When I was twenty five and I adopted my son, I was feeling more and more of a need to have my son raised Jewish. My home study was done by the Jewish Family Service in my hometown of Rochester. I have since enrolled him in a Jewish preschool and he will be going to a day school starting in September. Personally, I have started to go to the Jewish Federation to learn Hebrew. We have started going back to services . . . so because of Josh, I have started to reclaim my heritage."
At the same time, for rabbis--spiritual leaders of both so-called gay shuls and mainstream congregations--the traditional Jewish emphasis on family and commitment to community has provided an acceptable avenue to sanction loving relationships and alternative family constellations not found within the bounds of tradition. "The notion of a typical family doesn't exist around here. It's no longer used as a measure of family," said Rabbi Stuart Kelman whose ten-year-old Conservative congregation, Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, is known to be welcoming to gay families.
While gay couples seeking to adopt report great variation in how much organized Jewish support is available to them, depending on where they live, it is not uncommon in large urban centers such as New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco, for the local Jewish Family Services to be extremely accessible, conducting the legally required home studies and putting couples in touch with adoption agencies and legal resources that are open to gay placement. Ross, for example was able to turn to the Hebrew Free Loan Association of San Francisco for a loan to cover much of the expense entailed by her adoption.
On the whole, the gays and lesbians like Ross who are actively engaged in the Jewish community, either as Jewish professionals or lay leaders of synagogues or communal organizations, stress the importance of formally converting adopted children. Carolyn Pines, the administrator of a Conservative synagogue in Oakland, California, and her partner, Judy Schwartz, a social worker at the Jewish Family and Children's Services of San Francisco, described their life with their two daughters, Hannah, four and a half, and Emma, two and a half, as "revolving around Judaism." Hannah, whose birth mother was not Jewish, has already been converted, and Emma will also be converted, because although her birth mother was born Jewish, she was later baptized, said Pines. Active also in their Reform synagogue, Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco, Pines and Schwartz want to avoid any questions that may later arise surrounding the girls' Jewish identity. Each also "had beautiful naming ceremonies in our home," added Schwartz.
Not all, including Sh'ar Zahav's rabbi, agree that conversion is most pressing concern gay couples face when they adopt. "I don't believe in biological Judaism. It's not a helpful concept. [Therefore] I will support [a couple's desire to convert a child] but I don't require it" asserted Rabbi Jane Litman.
For Litman, the biggest challenge facing the organized Jewish community as it works to absorb what she perceives as an ever-growing population of children adopted by gay couples, is in education. "It's really important as Jews that when we give a first-rate Jewish education, to make clear that the family constellation, whatever it looks like, is affirmed as a Jewish way of living; that they are considered fully members of our community," she said. Because the available religious school curricular and teacher training materials don't yet reflect what Litman called "the realities of our population," she said that Sh'ar Zahav is working to develop these.
Her colleague, Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Temple Emanu-El, also in San Francisco, and the first openly gay rabbi to be hired by the 1,700-household Reform congregation, had another concern. It's critical, she said, that mainstream rabbinic authorities officially recognize the sanctity of gay unions, if not for the sake of the couples, then surely for the sake of their children, both adopted and biological. "As rabbis, we have to give them [the children] a legitimate identification as Jews from the beginning. If a couple feels comfortable and supported and welcome, then davka, their children will feel positive about the Jewish community and strongly identified. A congregation and community that can be accepting of gay couples will enable their children to feel warmth about their affiliation."
NOTE: Adoption is controlled by state law, and there is tremendous variation in how states and even counties view gay and lesbian adoption. According to Ora S. Prochovnick, a San Francisco lawyer specializing in gay/lesbian adoption, the Supreme Courts in Vermont, Massachusetts and New York and Appellate courts in Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Illinois and New Jersey have handed down decisions favoring gay adoption. Within Alabama, Alaska, California, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, parts of Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas and Washington, lower courts have handed down favorable rulings. Florida and New Hampshire prohibit lesbian/gay adoptions altogether and courts in Wisconsin and Colorado have rejected bids for second-parent adoptions (attempts by a lesbian to adopt her partner's biological child).
Although this list is far from comprehensive, reporting for this article turned up the following Jewish resources as good places for gay and lesbian Jews to start their research into the adoption process:
* Jewish Children's Adoption Network, Denver, CO. phone: (303) 573-8113
* Jewish Family and Children's Services in San Francisco and its agency, the Adoption Connection, phone (415) 861-6932
* Jewish Child Care Association in New York City
* Jewish Family & Children's Service and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston
* Our Family, News of the Bay Area Gay & Lesbian Family Group, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
* Keshet -- Jewish Activist Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals of Boston, phone: (617) 441-3038