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On Adopting Children from a Different Religion and Culture: My Experiences with Eric and Christopher

I don't know who was more nervous the first night we were together--Eric or me. We had one month to get to know each other before he came to live with me. After about two weeks of brief visits, Eric, who was almost eight years old, had his first overnight at my house. I read him a book and suggested we say a prayer together. He asked me to say it alone. I made one up quickly and to signal the end said, "Amen." Eric quickly corrected me and said I should have said, "In Jesus' name, Amen." I looked at him, smiled, and said, "In this house we just say Amen." "Okay," he said.

I am a Jewish single woman who decided to become a mother through adoption. Anticipating that there would be more non-Jewish children available for adoption than Jewish children, and that older children would come exposed to a specific religion, I knew that religion would be an area that needed to be addressed. My children (I later adopted Eric's younger brother Christopher) had been Christian for seven and six years respectively when they came to live with me. I wanted to respect their heritage and mine. This presented a challenge.

In addition to the issue of religion, both boys are part Native American--Blackfeet and Cherokee (although I cannot get either tribe to claim them because I cannot get a long and comprehensive history for them). I believe that all of one's heritage is important, so I asked a friend who was strongly connected to Native American culture to take my children to a special ceremony where they were given Native American names.

We have an open adoption (ongoing contact with birth parents), and right after Eric was adopted his birth mother asked if he was attending church. I said that I was raising him as a Jew because I had a Jewish home, and would provide him with a grounding in the religion and values that were part of my home and family. When he grew up he could choose, as we all can, whatever religion he wants. I explained that I could support him in any religion as long as it was not a group that focused on hurting people in any way. She said she understood and that was okay. Eric was relieved to hear this.

As a young Jewish child growing up in a predominantly Christian community, I received presents from Santa Claus and candy from the Easter Bunny. And yet, I am quite clear about my Judaism. As a parent, I knew I wanted to make Judaism attractive--especially as an alternative to Christmas. The first year we celebrated Hanukkah, in addition to buying Eric one major gift, I bought him several little toys so Judaism would not feel like deprivation. I remember hearing him tell a friend who saw his presents all over the living room, "I got all these presents for Hanukkah," and his friend saying, "Wow, are you lucky!" Eric also got something from Santa Claus although it paled in comparison to his Hanukkah gifts. At Easter, I put together a basket from the Easter Bunny for him. When he came downstairs and saw the basket, he exclaimed, "The Easter Bunny didn't forget about me this year!"

Every Friday night at dinner, we do a Shabbat ceremony. Eric lights the candles and I sing the blessing. I chant the Kiddush (blessing over wine) and sing the Ha-motzi (blessing over bread). I always bless Eric. Rather than the traditional Hebrew blessing, I create my own, adding different elements to it each week. I put my hands on his head and hold him close and say, "Dear God, please bless Eric and help him grow up to be a man who is kind to other people, cares about animals, and takes good care of the earth, Amen. " I then lean over and kiss him. On the night he received his Hebrew name in a special ceremony in the synagogue, my father gave Eric a Kiddush cup and he surprised all of us by chanting the short version of the Kiddush all by himself.

The first time Eric and I went to the synagogue to speak to one of the rabbis about a Hebrew name, we went into the sanctuary and the rabbi asked Eric to run up and down the aisles to get the feel of the place. This was all new and strange for Eric, and yet it helped him feel more connected. My synagogue, Temple Israel in Boston, was warm and welcoming and Eric soon felt accepted and at home here. In fact, the first time we went to Friday services, the rabbi invited Eric up to the bimah to open the ark. He was grinning from ear to ear and I think I was, too. Even though Eric had some behavior problems in public school, the synagogue found a way to successfully integrate him into the religious school and youth program. To this day, my older son feels totally comfortable talking with any member of the staff, including the senior rabbi.

Eric 's biological brother Christopher joined us two years later. He had spent the previous three-and-a-half years living with a Catholic foster family. One day, as we were driving down the street, Chris said, "Look, Mom, it's God's mother." My initial response, "Who?" reflected the foreignness of this concept to my frame of reference. One day Christopher noticed that no other child at the synagogue had his name. I explained why this was probably true and also stated that he had a truly fine name that did not need to be changed. Chris talks about being Christian before coming to live with me and seems to be more conflicted. I try to respond casually and tell him, as I told Eric, that he can make a choice about his religion when he is an adult.

About three years ago, my sons were re-united with two other birth siblings who had been adopted by a Catholic family living geographically close to us. Chris decided that when he is an adult, "We [the brothers and sister] will live together the way we should have in the first place. We will all be Catholic, but don't worry, Mom. I will send my children to Hebrew school." After becoming a Bar Mitzvah, Chris wondered about becoming either a rabbi or someone who cleans the synagogue when he grows up. A rabbinic friend said, "Those two jobs could be interchangeable!"

During the children's Bar Mitzvah training, I would give my undivided attention to them each night as they practiced. Recently, Eric asked me if he could be Confirmed. He said his Bar Mitzvah experience was one of the most important accomplishments in his life, and if he was Jewish he wanted to do it all.

My children are now fourteen and eighteen years old. They have let go of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and identify as Jews. Judaism is only a part of who they are, but it has given them a spiritual base, values, and a community to which they belong.

Some of the principles I've held:

1. Everyone's heritage and life experience are important and should be respected.

2. All the experiences my children brought to our family are part of who they are and who they will be.

3. All facets of my children's heritage and life experience are acceptable.

4. Just because children are adopted does not mean that they have to break ties with everyone and everything they ever knew.

5. Judaism to me is as much a way of living as it is a religion.

6. If I am casual about my children's feelings toward religion, it will not become a major focal point of struggle.

7. If I belong to a synagogue where I feel comfortable and connected, my children will feel that way as well.

8. If part of my being involved with their Jewish education means that my children will be able to have more face-to-face time with me, the value of synagogue-related life will increase.

9. Bar Mitzvah decisions are totally up to the kids--when they discover the party and gift aspects it will probably be very appealing.

10. If they choose to live their adult lives in another religion, I am prepared to accept that.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat 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." Hebrew for "brings forth" or "expels," the first unique or identifying word of the blessing over bread ("...brings forth bread from the earth"). Some say this blessing over bread, others recite it as a catch-all before a meal. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. 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.
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. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. A cabinet- or cupboard-like structure that houses the Torah(s) in a synagogue.
Cheryl A. Lieberman

Cheryl A. Lieberman, Ph.D. is founder and president of Cornerstone Consulting Group based in Cambridge, Mass. She specializes in real-time change management, performance-based executive coaching, customized staff training and development, and high-performance team building. Dr. Lieberman and Rhea K. Bufferd, LICSW, have a book titled Creating Ceremonies: Innovative Ways to Meet Adoption Challenges that will be published this fall by Zeig, Tucker & Co. (ZeigTucker@aol.com).

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