Changing the Face of American Judaism

Increasingly, Jewish couples are adopting non-white babies

BY: Debra Nussbaum Cohen

 

Ari Wolff's mom was worried about sending her 8-year-old to overnight camp for the first time last summer.

She had the usual concerns: Would he be homesick? At a Reform Jewish camp in California, would he be too far from their home in Honolulu?

But she also had one more: Would children tell him he wasn't Jewish because he is black?

Ari, now 9, is one of a growing number of children from African-American, Latino, Asian, and mixed-race backgrounds being adopted by Jewish parents. Nearly unheard of 15 years ago, trans-racial adoptions are today, quite literally, changing the face of the Jewish community.

No one knows just how many Jewish children come from other ethnic backgrounds.

In years past, most were born in Korea, Vietnam, and Latin America. Americans--of all religions and ethnicities--continue to adopt children from those countries, but today, experts say, the former Soviet Union and China are the leading birth countries in international adoptions and are the source of 4,500 and 4,000 children, respectively.

And while domestic adoptions of children from black and Hispanic backgrounds were first seen in significant numbers in the early 1970s, they seem to be increasingly popular among Jewish parents today.

The 1990 National Jewish Population Study--the last completed "census" of American Jewry--found that 6.5% of all respondents were nonwhite, said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, based in San Francisco.

Four percent of the study's "core population"--meaning Jews by birth or conversion--were black or Hispanic, he said, which equaled about 220,000 people.

A decade after the study, it's now possible that through adoption, adult conversion, and intermarriage, the percentage of nonwhite Jews in America is as high as 10%, Tobin said.

One adoption professional estimated that between 15% and 20% of the children currently being adopted into Jewish families are Hispanic or nonwhite.

"These children are gradually changing the face and color of what people think is Jewish life," Tobin said.

The personal experience of Tobin and his wife, Diane Tobin, led them to start the Ethnic and Racial Diversity Study of the Jewish Community, which got underway a year ago and is now concluding the first phase of research, interviews, and questionnaires surveying 500 families.

All the respondents were hungry for ongoing contact "with people like themselves," said Diane Tobin, who is directing the study. In response, the project has also turned into a network, with periodic meetings and speakers.

The Tobins were married a few years ago when they were in their mid-40s and have, between them, five children from previous marriages. They soon realized they weren't likely to conceive, given Diane's age. Six months after they decided to adopt, Jonah, who is now a toddler and is African-American, arrived.

"People have been very supportive" of their decision, Gary Tobin said, though "both white people and black people are curious about why somebody would want to do this."

Issues of race become part of Jews' everyday lives when they adopt children of color.

There's a good chance that Jonah will be treated differently than white children will, said Tobin. "He will be a minority within a minority wherever he goes, as a black being raised in a white family, as a black within the Jewish community."

Tobin isn't alone in being concerned about his child's experience as a black child in a white family. The National Association of Black Social Workers has, for the past two decades, promoted the view that black children should be placed with black parents.

Continued on page 2: »

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