Building Jewish Families Through Adoption
This speech was given by Cantor Jodi Schechtman at the JFS Annual Meeting on May 25, 2010. Cantor Schechtman and her husband adopted their daughter through Adoption Choices, JFS’ adoption program. To learn more about Adoption Choices visit www.adoptionchoices.info.
Judaism has never been a missionary religion. In fact, traditional Judaism teaches that one seeking to convert to Judaism should be turned away 3 times before even being considered to begin the conversion process.
In November 2005, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, took a bold stance at our Biennial in Houston and made the following statement:
…it is a mitzvah to help a potential Jew become a Jew-by-choice. …the synagogue is not a neutral institution; it is committed to building a vibrant religious life for the Jewish people. …we want families to function as Jewish families, and while intermarried families can surely do this, we recognize the advantages of an intermarried family becoming a fully Jewish family, with two adult Jewish partners. Judaism does not denigrate those who find religious truth elsewhere; still, our synagogues emphasize the grandeur of Judaism and we joyfully extend membership in our covenantal community to all who are prepared to accept it.
— Rabbi Eric Yoffie, November 19, 2005
Asking someone you care about to consider conversion is simply an invitation. It is not coercion or pressure. It is an expression of valuing the individual and a desire to share a tradition that you consider precious.
And so I thought, why not apply this same kind of thinking to adoption? In this politically correct society in which we live, we are so careful to be sensitive to others that we often miss out on opportunities. We wait for people to come to us. Heterosexual couples struggling with the indignities and intrusion of infertility; single women aching to be mothers; same-sex couples worried about the ramifications of surrogacy; some of these people need to be invited into the amazing world of adoption. Again, like conversion, not coerced and not pressured, but exposed to the possibilities.
Sixteen years ago, having already experienced 5 miscarriages in two years, I had the misfortune of suffering from an ectopic pregnancy. Unbeknownst to me, it ruptured, and my husband, Gene, found me passed out on the floor of the bathroom. He rushed me to the local hospital where they diagnosed the problem and told me that I needed surgery. I asked to be transferred to Newton-Wellesley, where my own ob-gyn was affiliated, but the doctors told Gene that I had already been bleeding internally for 12 hours and that I would not make it to Newton-Wellesley. Either they operated on the spot, or I would die. Needless to say, Gene signed the forms and the doctors at Metrowest saved my life.
When I awoke from the surgery, my very first words were, “When can we try again?” The longing to be a mom and the ache from my empty arms superseded every ounce of rational thinking that I had. I could see nothing but how next to try to get pregnant again.
Luckily for me, my husband was able to think more clearly. As he sat at my bedside, he said, in no uncertain terms, “This is it. No more. I am not going to lose you over this. From here on in, we investigate adoption.”
Although I was certainly aware of the world of adoption, no one had ever really suggested it to me as a positive alternative to giving birth. Somehow, it seemed less than ideal, a last resort, if you will. Too cost prohibitive. Too uncertain. Too intrusive. Too much of a gamble. Gene and I proceeded cautiously into the process, but the more we learned, the more comfortable we became with the prospect of adoption.
The monthly adoption workshops at JFS were invaluable to us. The individual meetings with Dale Eldridge helped us solidify our own priorities and bring us even closer together as a couple as we entered into this adventure.
And of course, the end result was so much more than we could ever have imagined. We have shared the last 15 years with our daughter, Madison, who is by far, the most extraordinary young woman I have ever met, and I say that with complete impartiality. Had I only known that this would be the outcome, I would have skipped all the havoc that fertility drugs wreaked on my body and gone straight to China.
All kidding aside, I wish someone had presented me with a positive picture of adoption sooner. If Gene had not been so scared of losing me and so resolute in his decision, I might have continued trying to conceive until I was too old to be considered as an adoptive parent. Once we made our decision, many adoptive parents that we knew began sharing their success stories with us, but they were all so careful to not impose such a personal decision upon us that they erred, with all the best intentions, on the side of caution.
Here in the Temple Beth Am community, my family is a living example of a success story in the adoption world. Two years ago, when Madison, who was born in China, gave her devar Torah at her Bat Mitzvah, she had parashat Shemini. She struggled with the fact that Aaron’s two sons, Nadav & Avihu, were consumed by the flames when they pulled what was really a bad teenage prank. In her devar, Madison concluded that the punishment was so harsh, not because of what Nadav & Avihu did, but because of who their father was. She then tied that in to what it has been like growing up here as the cantor’s daughter and the extra burdens that come with that role. She said that there were times when she was younger that it bothered her a little, but now that she’s older, she appreciates the role and she also appreciates making her own way, independent of her parents. She said, and I quote, “I know that, at least at Temple Beth Am, I will always be associated with my mom. That’s probably because we look so much alike. But I’m fine with that.” Her sense of humor and her comfortability in her own skin always puts everyone around her at ease and make the subject of adoption approachable and acceptable.
Adoption may not be for everyone, and that’s fine. But it is such an extraordinary experience for those lucky enough to be touched by it, and yet we are still reticent to share it with others. I believe that the way to build up the adoption program is through outreach. When we meet people who may be candidates for adoption, we should not wait for them to come to us. We must reach out to them and let them know that this is not a lesser way to build a family. It’s ok to be the first to bring the subject of adoption up to them. And it’s also ok for them to reject it. But at least the door will be opened. The seeds will be planted.
In my family of origin, we spend a lot of time talking about how much my brother Russ looks like my Uncle Mitch, or how much my sister Nancy resembles my mom when she was younger. Well, I have a daughter who does not have my blonde hair or my blue eyes or my fair complexion. Instead, she has shiny black hair and gorgeous dark eyes, to match her beautiful golden-brown skin. She does not share any of my DNA. In fact, she does not even share my last name. But if you’ve ever met her, you know that she is my daughter. When she opens her mouth, she shares my inflections, my sense of humor and my outlook on life. She is just more self-confident, more grounded and kinder than I could ever be. She loves that she looks a little different than Gene and me. She wears a shirt that says, “Everyone loves an Asian girl”, but when asked her ethnicity, she’ll tell you Russian & Polish, since that’s what her parents are.
A quick story. Before Gene and I traveled to China to pick up our new baby, we discussed how she would be raised. I am a vegetarian, Gene is not, and I wanted to raise my daughter with the same ethical convictions that I have regarding eating meat. Gene had no problem with my choice, either ethically or nutritionally, but he was concerned about Madison growing up with yet another thing that makes her different. “She’s already Chinese, Jewish and adopted,” he said. “How many other ways do we want her to stand out from everyone else?”
He made a good point, but I firmly believed that the most important thing was to raise a child who feels good about herself, because kids, who can often be cruel, will always find something to pick on.
Cut to 13 years later. The first wave of girls who had been adopted from China were coming of age and the New York Times did a feature article about one of these girls becoming a Bat Mitzvah. I read the article with great interest, and then suggested to Madison (who would become a Bat Mitzvah later that year) that she read it, too. Here is the conversation that followed her reading the article:
Madison: Mommy, she’s really lucky.
Me: Why, sweetie?
Madison: Because she has two moms.
Me: That’s lovely. But I like men, and you have a dad. Isn’t that lucky, too?
Madison: Yes, but she’s Chinese, Jewish, adopted AND she has two moms. That makes her really special.
Me: Hmmm. Maybe she’s not a vegetarian?
Madison (smiling): Yeah, you’re right. Maybe we have the same number of things that make us special!
Gene and I were trying to be extra sensitive to Madison’s needs when decided whether or not to bring her up vegetarian, but in fact, what we thought might cause her to feel ostracized actually made her feel extra wonderful. Perhaps in our reticence to suggest adoption to families, we are losing out on opportunities for families to feel welcomed into this extraordinary world.
JFS and Temple Beth Am reside here in the same town and provide care and services to overlapping communities. It is my hope that, in the future, we can work together on a variety of projects, including adoption (which is obviously near and dear to my heart), caring for those in need and pooling our human resources to build a stronger and healthier community.
If you are interested in finding out if adoption may be a way for you to build your family, contact Dale Eldridge 508-875-3100 x15 or firstname.lastname@example.org.