Book for adoptive families dives into differences we dont discuss

Biblical Hebrew has no word for adoption. Modern Hebrew has chosen l'ametz, or "to strengthen."

The word comes from a verse in Psalm 80: "Be mindful of this vine…which Your right hand has planted, and the branch that You have made strong for Yourself." The choice of this word is meant to affirm the honor bestowed upon adoptive families.

It is from this perspective that Shelley Kapnek Rosenberg has written "Adoption and the Jewish Family: Contemporary Perspectives."

The Pennsylvania author hopes that by laying out every conceivable issue related to adoption she can strengthen relationships among the estimated 2.7 percent of Jewish families with adopted children. The author counts herself among them. She has two children, one of whom was adopted.

In her 298-page book, Rosenberg manages to include scores of adoptive families' personal stories and to cover an amazingly broad array of topics. Some of those include Jewish laws on adoption, Jewish identity issues, sibling relationships, open adoption, searching for birth parents, transcultural and transracial adoption, raising disabled children, adoption for singles or gays and lesbians, and rituals for celebrating adoption.

She does not shy away from sensitive topics in such sub-chapters as "I Don't Look Jewish," "But They Still Want to Celebrate Christmas" and "The Differences We Don't Discuss."

Jewish tradition is mixed when it comes to adoption. On the one hand, the Talmud makes numerous positive references to it. "Whoever raises a child in his home," it says for example, "it is as if he had begotten him."

At the same time, traditional Judaism also treats adoptees differently. A boy adopted into an Orthodox family of Kohanim or Levites cannot join his father and brothers on the bimah during the first two Torah blessings reserved for the priestly descendants. And under Jewish law, a Kohen cannot marry a woman who was adopted or converted as an adult.

Liberal Judaism isn't without its share of problems, though. The book points out that many Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis do not convert an adopted baby using the traditional immersion in a mikvah. As adults — generally at the time of marriage — some of these adoptees face the halachic problem of not technically being considered Jews, according to traditional Judaism.

Rosenberg's single most fascinating chapter, however, has nothing to do with controversy. "Ametz HaBrit, Adopting the Covenant" is dedicated to celebration. She adds new rituals to the traditions of circumcision, baby-naming and mikveh immersion.

Why special additions? Adoption, she explains, "marks the beginning of a new life for the adoptee, as someone other than who he or she would have been. It creates a new family by adding a member who is not biologically related. And it marks the end of the birth parents' roles as active parenting figures in a child's life.

"The power of an adoption ritual comes from acknowledging these changes."

Rosenberg includes numerous pieces of creative liturgy, such as this poem:

"We did not plant you, true/ But when the season is done/ When the alternate prayers/ For sun and rain are counted/ When the pain of weeding/ And the pride of watching are through/ We will hold you high/ A shining sheath/ Above the thousand seeds grown wild…/ Not by our planting/ But by heaven/ A new harvest/ A daughter/son to love."

Rosenberg even includes a reading for Jewish parents who are giving a child up for adoption.

Part of it states: "I…do knowingly and willingly and without reservation give my newborn son/daughter into the care of _____ …for the purpose of placing this child into an adoptive home and in order to fulfill the mitzvah of pikuah nefesh, preserving a life…May [the adoptive parents] raise him/her in the fear of God, in the study of the Torah, and with loving commitment, and for a life of good deeds. And let us say: Amen."

Rosenberg also deserves praise for including a long list of resources and organizations dedicated to adoptive families.

The book isn't without flaws. Rosenberg is an unabashed advocate of open adoption, in which birth parents continue some form of contact with the adoptee. She even proposes that preteens meet their birth parents.

Her position would be fine, except that she quotes only those who agree with her. And when any hint of negativity crops up regarding open adoption, she downplays or glosses over it.

One adoptive mother, for example, acknowledges that her son Josh is sometimes confused after visiting his birth parents. He misses them and wonders why he can't be with them. But this mother considers Josh's confusion a trade-off to prevent him from having a void in his life.

Rosenberg never mentions or finds a family in which open adoption didn't work. There has to be at least one out there.

In addition, Rosenberg tends to generalize to the point of undercutting her credibility. She continually harps on the "loss" that all adoptees supposedly feel. And according to her, any adoptee who doesn't feel this loss is in denial.

She also quotes "experts" who spout such nonsensical opinions as: "If someone even cancels a lunch date, adoptees may interpret it as an intentional rejection" or "Every adoptee has a place within them that tells them they're no good." Some adoptees also supposedly suffer from "lifelong intimacy issues" or "never feel like they belong." Well, so do a lot of non-adoptees.

Despite such flaws, Rosenberg has done a tremendous service for the Jewish community. The book is a must-read for all Jewish adults considering adoption, adoptive parents and adoptees who are old enough to understand the impact adoption has had on them.