Rabbi probes issues around non-Jewish adoption

As increasing numbers of American Jews adopt children of non-Jewish backgrounds and ethnicities, "our children are redefining who and what Jews are," according to Reform Rabbi Yoel Kahn.

The executive director of Stanford University Hillel Foundation, himself the adoptive father of a 7-year-old son, provided information, humor and counsel to more than 60 adoptive parents and would-be adoptive parents at a conference Sunday. The meeting in San Francisco was sponsored by Adoption Connection, a program of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services.

Because the overwhelming majority of babies and children available for adoption, domestically and internationally, are not born Jewish, many Jews who adopt need to decide whether to convert their children to Judaism.

Such adoptions are altering conceptions of the Jewish family.

"Some of the same Jews who are thrilled to learn that there was a thriving Jewish community in Kaifeng, China, in the 16th century are decidedly less comfortable encountering ethnic Chinese-American Jews in the late 20th century," said Kahn, referring to the huge increase in recent years of Americans adopting Chinese children.

Conversion is a big issue.

Jews adopting non-Jewish children do not necessarily need an Orthodox conversion for their child, said Kahn.

"Unless the child wants to marry in Israel, there are not issues in the United States about the nature of the conversion."

One mother in attendance said her 3-year-old son had a brit at 8 days old, and she felt offended that he still had to go through a conversion ritual while other biological children of Jewish parents didn't. Kahn asked her if the child had been given a Hebrew name at the brit, and was told "yes."

"Consider the matter done," Kahn told her. "Reform Judaism doesn't require a mikvah [ritual bath]. Enough! That's my ruling on it."

As for parents who definitely want an Orthodox conversion, Kahn cautioned that some Orthodox rabbis may want to know the parents' level of observance before they convert the child.

In a halachic conversion, boys must undergo both circumcision and mikvah immersion; for girls, immersion is required.

Although many Jewish parents feel a sense of urgency about conversion, Kahn told parents not to rush to ritual. For instance, he said, in adoptions that take months or years to legalize, it is best to do a welcoming ceremony first and delay the conversion rites until all legal issues are resolved.

When converting a baby or child, he said, parents may also wonder how to both welcome the child into the covenant of Judaism and respect the child's biological ethnic heritage. He suggested that parents include some element of the child's heritage in the Jewish ritual.

With that in mind, Kahn said the adoptive parents of a Chinese-born child included her Chinese name and a Chinese story in the conversion ceremony. She was also dressed in traditional Chinese clothing. "This Jewish child also must have her full identity recognized and named," he said.

Another important aspect of ritual is the binding of family, Kahn added. Conversion rituals can provide a way for extended family to deal with grief over the lack of biological children or hesitations they might have about the adoption of non-Jewish children. Inviting those family members to participate in the ritual of naming the child may help bond them to their new family member, he suggested.

"Judaism, Jewish community and Jewish tradition can support and nurture us," he said, "but these same powerful forces of culture, teaching, social order and memory can also undermine or block us."

Conversion decisions can be burdened by parents' fears about whether the Jewish world will really accept an adopted Jew. "Having resolved our own doubts, we suddenly learn that the contemporary upholders of the Jewish religious tradition insist that the Jewish identity of our adopted children may somehow be questionable for life," said Kahn, adding, "Vey iz mir." The audience nodded and chuckled.

Noting that "the Torah is filled with stories of adoptions," Kahn pointed out that adoption is nothing new in the Jewish community.

"I believe that adoption is the greatest of the mitzvot," he said. "Judaism's affirmation of the mitzvah of adoption is summarized in the Talmud's statement in Sanhedrin 19b — that whoever raises the child is considered the child's parent."

Kahn confessed he holds a "messianic hope…we will come to a place where our concept of what looks Jewish is expanded to accommodate all our children."