Building a Family, Joining a Tribe

Written by Anis Modi on . Posted in Features

A look at fostering and adoption in the Jewish community.

According to the National Council for Adoption, a nonprofit that works together with different federal agencies to advocate for adoption and the foster care system, adoptions in the U.S. have fallen from 133,737 in 2007 to 110,373 in 2014, the last year for which national statistics are available. This was due to a number of factors, most notably a drastic decline in international adoptions, which were a significant driver of adoptions in the past.

While there has been a decline in adoptions, there has also been an increase in the number of children going through the public foster care system, and a growing number of them are waiting to find a new home with an adoptive family.

Karla Azachi, an event organizer from Potomac, Maryland, said there were a number of factors behind her family’s decision to become a foster family. Her father and his siblings were Holocaust survivors. One of her aunts arrived in England thanks to the Kindertransport, and another aunt was raised with a foster family who she’s still in touch with.

After her husband Jake survived an illness, the Azachis decided to “give back to Hashem” by becoming a foster family, she said. The process to become eligible to foster is a long one, involving interviews, house inspections, and financial reviews. For the Azachis, this took about a year to complete — but then two weeks later, the family got the first call from the Montgomery County Child Welfare Services.

The Azachis had two biological children when they first became foster parents, and they fostered more than a dozen children over the course of a decade. Some were in the foster care system because they had been neglected – the leading cause of children being sent to foster care– while others were victims of sexual abuse.

Azachi said the most challenging thing as a foster parent was working with the agencies. “They’re upfront: ‘This is not an adoption agency, you’re here to foster,’ and we understand that,” she said. “But there’s very little communication. You’re sort of a glorified babysitter.”

The stated mission of child welfare systems is family reunification. As such, these systems are geared toward returning children to their biological parents or extended families once the issues that brought them to foster care have been resolved.

After caring for many others, her family found the two children they would ultimately adopt, said Azachi: “Some have stayed for a night, some have stayed for a weekend, and eventually two stayed forever.”

Today, the Azachi family has four children: twins Hannah and Danielle, who are 15, 8-year-old Shai, and 4-year-old Kobe.

Adoption and Jewish Law

Since federal data collection does not include religious affiliation, it is difficult to tell how many U.S. adoptions involved the Jewish community. Several interviewees described an environment in which the issue exists but is seldom discussed.

“In order to facilitate increased adoption within the Jewish community, we have to validate it as a choice,” said Erica Pelman, founder and executive director of In Shifra’s Arms (ISA). “We have to send the message that placing a baby for adoption can be an appropriate, holy, and beautiful choice, not a shameful one.” (ISA does not provide adoption services, but they do connect clients with the appropriate agencies if the client chooses to pursue adoption.)

Traditionally, adopting a Jewish child is problematic if the lineage of the child is unknown, as is the case in a closed adoption. Jewish practice across denominations allows for the conversion of adopted children under the age of bar or bat mitzvah by their new families. According to one local Modern Orthodox rabbi, an Orthodox beit din (Jewish rabbinical court) would likely require the family’s commitment that the child will go to a Jewish day school, keep kosher, and observe Shabbat, while other denominations might focus primarily on the conversion ritual. A child adopted from unknown origins must also go through a conversion to be considered Jewish.

According to the writings of Rav Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), a widely-accepted modern decisor of questions of Jewish law, children must be told of their conversion by the time they reach bar or bat mitzvah age. No longer a minor in the eyes of Halacha (Jewish law) at that age, an adopted child is given the option to reject the conversion because it happened without consent. Should the child do so, he or she would be rendered a non-Jew according to Halacha; but if the child confirms he or she accepts the conversion, the halachic status as a Jew is binding and cannot be rejected later on.

More Difficult for Jews?

A few weeks before the start of National Adoption Month in November, one Rockville, Maryland, couple had an unusually negative experience during a call with the parent of a prospective adoptive child.

The pre-match call is a standard step in the open adoption process. The biological parent and the prospective adoptive family talk on the phone to get a sense of the match’s potential.

Prior to this pre-match call, Jennifer and Stewart Latwin asked their adoption agent whether their religion would be an issue and were reassured that it shouldn’t be, said Jennifer.

The initial connection with the mother was good and things were going well, she recalled, but then 15 minutes into the call, the mother said she’s Pentecostal “and wants her child to grow up believing in Jesus.”

“The moment she heard we were Jewish she hung up on us,” she said.

The Latwins met in college and have been married for two years. Jennifer is an environmental economist, and Stewart is a naval officer. They were both exposed to the idea of adoption earlier in their lives through friends and family that adopted children or had been adopted themselves.

The Latwins chose to pursue adoption rather than fostering because they did not want their first experience of caring for a child to end in it being taken away from them, as is usually the case when serving as foster parents. They also chose to explore the option of private adoption, rather than to work through public agencies like the Azachis. While public agencies require families to foster children before they are eligible to adopt, there are dozens of national licensed private agencies which allow parents to start looking into adoption options right away.

The Latwins have had a number of close calls since they started the search for a child to raise as their own. The couple were not offended by the abrupt end to last month’s pre-match call, “but more shocked and frustrated,” said Jennifer. While no agency or biological parent has told them outright that their Jewish identity is a problem, they feel that it might add an additional obstacle to an already taxing process.

Azachi said she doesn’t know if it was ever mentioned to biological parents that her family was Jewish, but that it has “never been an obstacle” for her family.

The Latwins also pointed out that some of the largest national adoption agencies, such as Bethany Christian Services, are geared specifically toward the Christian population and that there aren’t any similar Jewish organizations.

“The Jewish world is very organized around other issues,” said Jennifer. “This isn’t to criticize anyone – we’re just surprised and concerned about the lack of organization nationally. The most effective way [to hear about opportunities] is still word of mouth.”

When it comes to adoption and foster care, many familiar with the issue say that the Jewish community can – and should – do more.

Second Nurture:
Many Support the Few

Rabbi Susan Silverman is the founder of Second Nurture, an organization that aims to encourage foster care and adoption by building a communal support network around families who decide to adopt. By presenting adoption in a Jewish context and providing support for adoptive families, Rabbi Silverman thinks communities can transform the process of adoption from one of hardship to an enlightening and empowering experience.

“Many consider adopting, but haven’t done it because they’re concerned about how difficult it’s going to be,” Rabbi Silverman said. “We aim to create a community that’s going to support you in bringing children into your homes.”

Second Nurture currently operates pilot programs in Los Angeles and Columbus, Ohio, and there are nascent plans to have a program operate from DC’s Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue.

“It’s great to talk about adoption, but we need to bring it up a few notches, not just in theory but in practice,” said Rabbi Silverman. “As a community, we can do a lot to support and give courage to people who are adopting.”

 By Anis Modi


 Anis Modi is a staff writer for Kol HaBirah.