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International adoptions changing face of U.S. Judaism

c. 2010 Religion News Service
WASHINGTON (RNS) Like so many Jewish women, Anne Suissa pursued her education and career with gusto, earning degrees from Cornell and MIT and going on to manage 27 people at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Suissa always knew she wanted marriage and family, but by the time she had found her husband and began trying to have a child, she was in her late 30s. Doctors told her the fertility treatments she had begun would not likely succeed.
Today, the Suissas are parents of two children from Guatemala, both of whom they converted to Judaism. Though their lives are full and rewarding, Suissa still wishes someone had encouraged her to start a family earlier.
In Jewish families, it’s “education, education, education,” she said. “But nobody told me that college might be a good time to meet a nice Jewish boy.”
The general track of Suissa’s life is not unusual among Jewish American women. As a group, they’re highly educated — a fact demographers say contributes to their relatively low fertility rates.
Still longing to be mothers, they often adopt, and frequently, their children are of Latino, Asian or African descent. And that, in turn, is slowly changing the face of American Judaism.
Those who study American Jewish families can’t point to formal surveys to document the trend, but clergy and congregants say they are noticing more of these children.
“People don’t blink when they see these kids in synagogue today,” said Susan Abramson, the rabbi at Temple Shalom Emeth, a Reform synagogue in Burlington, Mass.
A generation ago, when Abramson co-founded Stars of David, the first national group of Jewish adoptive families, the idea of bringing children of color into their congregations was daunting for many parents. They wondered how children who didn’t share the same Jewish ancestry would be accepted.
But the phenomenon is now a point of pride within many Jewish communities, and their presence reflects the varied complexions of Jews globally, from the Middle East to North Africa to India.
“Judaism is a religion, not a race, and we are enriched by the diversity these kids bring,” said Jenna Greenberg, the associate cantor at Washington’s Adas Israel Conservative synagogue, who recently presided over the baby-naming ceremonies for two girls from Guatemala.
But if the idea of an increasingly diverse community is embraced by American Jews, a key reason for it is not: the relatively low fertility rate.
The number of childless Jewish women in their early 30s is 54 percent, compared to 28 percent for American women in general, according to the most recent National Jewish Population Survey.
The survey also shows about 5 percent of American Jewish households with children include adopted children, compared to the national rate of 3.7 percent. But unlike Americans in general, the survey notes, Jewish Americans are not having enough children to replace themselves.
Fertility specialists and demographers say there’s no medical reason for the difference, but rather point to Jewish women pursuing education and careers, which pushes marriage and children later in life.
The lower fertility rate, which came to light decades ago, is described by some rabbis as ironic, in that one of American Jews’ most cherished values — education — is undermining another — family.
Paul and Joanna Tumarkin of Tucson, Ariz., married in 1994, the same year Joanna earned a doctorate in ecology. Then in her mid-30s, she discovered early into fertility treatments that chances of conceiving a child were poor. The couple turned to China, where they adopted two girls.
Adopting two orphans in need of a home, she and her husband said, would be a personal expression of “tikkun olam,” or the Jewish responsibility to help heal the world.
Their girls, Ann, 10, and Lyle, 7, were converted to Judaism as babies and are now enrolled in Hebrew school. “It’s an outward expression of how the Jewish community is changing,” said Paul Tumarkin, who counts “two or three other families” in their synagogue who have adopted children from abroad.
The Tumarkins, like other multiracial Jewish families, say they wouldn’t have wanted their lives to turn out any other way, and now view their struggles with infertility as a step on the path toward adoption.
But some, like Suissa, nevertheless question whether a delayed marriage and childrearing is what they want for their own Jewish daughters.
“I tell younger women that there is more than one prize in life,” said Suissa. Get educated, she said, but keep your eyes on what else you want.
For several decades, Jewish leaders have warned of a demographic crisis in American Jewry caused by low fertility rates and intermarriage rates that hover around 50 percent. But even those who caution against an alarmist response to demographic trends say there is a case to be made for earlier weddings and babies.
Sylvia Barack Fishman, a professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University, encourages women who want families to be mindful of their fertility, understanding that fertility rates drop precipitously for women in their late 30s, and that assisted reproductive technology does not always work.
Jewish women may want to pursue family earlier not just to boost the Jewish population, she said, but also for themselves.
“Jewish women are likely to say they want more than one child. But they’re not having them,” she said. “As a feminist, I’m saying that women are wanting what they are not getting.”
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, who leads Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in suburban Bethesda, Md., cautioned that advising anyone to procreate earlier to solve a real or perceived demographic crisis is likely to backfire.
“Jewish feminists have noted since the 1970’s how inappropriate it is to place the burden of Jewish peoplehood on the reproductive organs of half of today’s Jews,” said Dobb.
Dobb and his wife grappled with infertility before they adopted two children, one African-American and the other of mixed race. Rejecting the “mantra of Jewish procreation,” he said there are other ways to strengthen and build the Jewish community.
“Adoption,” he said, “is an answer for every household lucky enough to embrace it.”

  • nnmns

    This is a responsible approach. Educating women is vital for their and the nation’s welfare. Having a child to fill its head with a particular religion is not beneficial for anyone but religious leaders. And there are a lot of children who need good homes.

  • cknuck

    There are many interesting aspects to this information. One is to think the educational process is creating infertility, although it makes sense it is amazing. I love the fact that these wonderful people are adopting and they fulfill “tikkun olam,” or the Jewish responsibility to help heal the world,” love that. At the same time the danger of the reduced population is alarming especially while the Muslim population is increasing so rapidly and homosexuality becomes such a powerful trend.

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  • Julie Foxx

    As an adoptee and an adoptive mother, I take issue at the idea that adoption is “tikkun olam”. Who is healed in adoption? Certainly not the birth mother who lost a child. Certainly not the child who lost his/her heritage and birth family. The only people who are healed in the adoption are the adoptive parents. They are given the gift and blessing of a child but in order to receive that gift, there must be loss and that loss is too often tossed under the carpet.
    As far, we have not been able to find a synagogue where we feel comfortable as a family. Our son is from Guatemala and I’d really like to find a diverse shul but so far we haven’t found a place where we are comfortable. Hopefully, one day we will.

  • cknuck

    I’m sorry Julie, one never really knows the truth from all perspectives until people speak up. Thanks for your truth.

  • pagansister

    Without adoption, I might not have had my mother, as she was adopted at the age of 7, by a father who gave her up( her mother left and remarried someone else)because he felt he couldn’t provide what a girl needed. Her adopted mother and father were wonderful and she was raised with lots of love and stability—and married the son of her adopted mother’s best friend (my father). Knowing my mother’s situation, I would say that not all mothers who give up their children are sorry they did, so they don’t always “lose a child”. They would have had to want that child to begin with.
    Pushing education for women is admirable, but apparently it is not helping reproduction for many Jewish women. It is possible to have both an edcation AND children—many women do it all the time. My Mother had a Masters’ degree(and yes she worked outside the home too) and my Dad a PhD. So as I said it can be done—children and family. Guess they will just have to figure that out. Meanwhile, as nnmns said—many children are getting good homes.

  • Julie

    Pagan – because your mother’s parents made an adoption plan in her best interest doesn’t mean they didn’t feel loss. My birth mother abandoned me as well. I know she feels loss (based on the random, rambling letters I get from time to time). While I want absolutely nothing to do with her, I still feel loss. I’ve lost a mother who bore me and should have loved and cared for me, not abuse me and abandon me. I lost half my medical history and half my birth family. While I want nothing to do with this woman, I feel loss.
    My son’s first mother made a very difficult decision to place him for adoption. Just because that decision was the right decision for her, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t miss him and feel loss. Are there parents out there who make an adoption plan and not feel loss? I’m sure there are, but I think they are the exception, not the rule.

  • pagansister

    Julie, I don’t disagree with you, I’m sure that many birth mothers do feel loss. I’m also sure that some feel total relief. Personally I can’t put myself in your place so I won’t pretend to know what you feel, but I really can understand HOW you’d feel that way. Your son is indeed a lucky boy to have you for a mother! I hope you find a synagogue that you feel comfortable in attending soon.
    Hope you’ve had a good day.

  • pagansister

    Julie, I meant to mention, my Mother’s father did visit her for a few months after her adoption—with permission from her adopted parents. However it became too difficult for him to see her and then leave her (and probably for her too—as she never talked about it) so the visits stopped. She had an older brother who was not put up for adoption, her father kept him. As I mentioned above, he felt he couldn’t raise a girl and give her what she should have. Later in life my Mom and her brother managed to get back in touch with each other and stayed in touch until he died. So, in my Mom’s case, her father did miss her—but did what her felt was best for her.

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