Ritual brings families together, say parents of adopted children

When Jewish parents adopt, chances are overwhelming that the child they will adopt will be born to a non-Jewish mother. As a result, many Jewish adoptive parents face interfaith and interracial issues.

But Jewish ritual in the home unifies a family in a way nothing else can, said two Jewish mothers of adopted children who also happen to be adoption professionals.

Celebrating "all holidays and Shabbos have been unifying things," said Gail Steinberg, director of PACT, an Adoption Alliance, which is an interracial agency. "My children will continue the rituals because it means a family."

Lynne Fingerman, co-director of Adoption Connection, a program of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services agreed. "We realized that rituals and traditions are really important for kids," she said.

The two addressed more than 60 adoptive parents and would-be adoptive parents earlier this month at a San Francisco. conference on adoption and the Jewish family.

Steinberg adopted her four children who are now adults and have made her a grandmother twice. Her oldest daughter is Korean, one son is biracial and the other is white. Her younger daughter is African-American. She and her husband raised all their children Jewish.

When her oldest daughter was an adult, she told Steinberg about a recurring dream in which her mother took her someplace and tried to drown her.

"I realized," Steinberg said, "she was describing the experience of going to the mikvah," a ritual bath for conversion to Judaism.

Steinberg recalled taking her child to a mikvah in Ohio. "There was hostility in the air" toward the Korean child, she said. As she was instructed to hold her screaming daughter, age 3-1/2, under water three times, "I did it, thinking, `What am I doing to my child?'"

She said, "We wanted her to be identified as Jewish as possible." Yet, as her non-white children grew, Steinberg realized, "People see them first by color and second, if ever, as Jews."

In one Jewish congregation, she said, her African-American daughter was treated as if "you're here only because you're part of your family."

These disappointments showed Steinberg the "need to educate the Jewish community to accept our [adopted, non-white] children." Today, she warned her listeners, "For kids who are not white, the primary identification of others to them is based on their packaging…These kids can have [Judaism] as their identity, but the rest of the world will not see them that way."

To those in her audience who are raising non-white children in Judaism, she said, "My best message to you is that your child is having a different experience than you are, most likely."

In contrast to the bad news, Steinberg said all her children were married by the same rabbi, one married another Jew and her grandchildren are Jewish.

Fingerman has two teens — a biological son, 19, and an adopted daughter, 15. Before adopting her daughter at birth from non-Jewish birthparents, she had been rejected previously by an evangelical Christian birthmother who did not want to relinquish her baby to a Jew.

"I was terrified the next birthmom would reject us," she said. When Fingerman rushed to a Catholic hospital to pick up the newborn who was to become her daughter, she felt uneasy as the nurse suggested naming the baby Christina and asked, "What faith are you?"

But the adoption went through, and her daughter had a conversion ceremony with an Orthodox rabbi. Fingerman decided, "I wanted her to be seen as Jewish in every way." Still, she wondered if her baby would grow up identifying with Jewish heritage all the way back to Exodus, the way she had.

After more than six years of Jewish day school, before her bat mitzvah, her daughter announced: "You know I'm not really Jewish. I'm Christian."

Fingerman countered, "You inherit ethnicity, not religion." After much discussion, her daughter said: "Mom, my soul is Jewish, but my body is Christian."

Then came a family trip to Israel. "Being in Israel had an incredible effect on her," said Fingerman. "Suddenly her favorite classes became Jewish studies. Now she wants to be in the Israeli army." Unlike her parents, Fingerman's daughter has decided to keep kosher and has even rejected her former skimpy outfits for more modest dress. "My daughter is very Jewish — she can't wait to make her 16-year-old trip to Israel."

But Fingerman acknowledged that teens are changeable. "And next year I may have a very different story to tell you."