How Jews blend three cultures with Asian adoptions

When Rabbi Miriam Senturia decided to adopt a child, her obvious route was through China.

"At a certain point, it didn't make sense to wait until I had found a partner to be a mom," said the 43-year-old Mill Valley resident. "And as a feminist, it was very poignant for me that the majority of babies available for adoption in China were girls."

In addition, China's adoption policy favors older parents, who are often disqualified from U.S. adoptions.

Senturia's journey to motherhood was completed last winter when she adopted a baby girl, Eliana Xiu Liang whose name means "beautiful and bright".

"My daughter received such a warm, wonderful welcome at [Tiburon's Conservative Congregation] Kol Shofar and in the Jewish community at large," she said. "It was just overwhelming."

Senturia's experience is becoming more and more prevalent in the Jewish community. Similar tales have been told by adoptive mothers Gail Steinberg of Petaluma, Marlene Saks of San Franciso and Sharon Kaufman of Washington, D.C.

With visas issued for 11,904 children over the last three years, China ranks second only to the former Soviet Union among countries favored for international adoptions.

Although no exact statistics are available on the number of Asian children adopted by Jewish parents, that number has been rapidly increasing — with single Jewish mothers being prominent among them.

Susan Katz, director of Stars of David, a Chicago-based Jewish adoption agency, reported that overseas adoption has increased significantly, fueled by the increased acceptability of single motherhood and the paucity of white infants available for adoption in this country.

"The rumor on the Internet is that there are 40 couples vying for every healthy white child," Katz said.

Conversely, Jews interested in domestic adoptions of babies of other races also face significant stumbling blocks, according to Katz. African-American and Latino social workers' associations have taken strong stands against transracial adoptions.

Well-publicized stories about U.S. birth mothers who change their minds and reclaim the child also lead some adoptive parents to choose the international route, according to Cindy Klein, co-director of Redwood City's Adopt International.

In China, by contrast, adoption is immediate and final, whereas in California birth mothers have up to 90 days to waive termination rights (unless they sign a waiver). Nonetheless, Klein said, such cases constitute less than 2 percent of all adoptions in the state.

"The good thing about adopting domestically is that you get a newborn baby, with information about the birth mother and father, and you can have control over issues such as gender and age.

"In China, on the other hand, the process is immediate, costs roughly the same — about $10,000 to $20,000 — and the children are almost always girls." Many of these girls have been brought to orphanages.

However, Eliana Xiu, Senturia's daughter, was found in a cardboard box outside a department store in Gao Ming.

"I grapple with issues surrounding her birth all the time," said Senturia, who was formerly with the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. "And when she eventually asks, I'll tell her that her parent must have loved her very much, because they wrote her birth date on the box. "My guess is that the birth mother nursed her for the first month, and wanted to care for her, but just didn't have the financial resources to do so."

Senturia said her daughter's upbringing in a Jewish environment has been eased by similarities in Chinese and Jewish cultures. The rabbi cited priorities placed on education, family and respect for elders.

However, others say the process of adopting a child from another culture requires some serious soul-searching. That was the experience of Petaluma's Steinberg, one of the pioneers in adopting a child from Asia. She has co-written "Inside Transracial Adoption."

"Adopting transracially requires a completely different frame of reference," said Steinberg, who adopted daughter Shira from Korea in 1962.

"We think that we're a match for each other on the inside, but that doesn't mean everyone will feel that way," said Steinberg, who is also the mother of two adopted children of African-American heritage and one of European-American ancestry.

Steinberg's adoption of Shira was the first international adoption for the Jewish Family and Children's Services of Dayton, Ohio. At the time "it was impossible to adopt Jewish children, and no agencies would take us because of anti-Semitism. So our only option was to look overseas," she said.

"I only wish that someone could have imparted information about adopting internationally to us," recalled Steinberg, who now works as the co-director of San Francisco's PACT, a nonprofit organization that provides services to families adopting children of color.

"But those were different times, and we were operating by the seat of our pants without a road map. It was really breaking new ground in a way."

Steinberg, whose children still live nearby and gather each year for the major Jewish holidays, ticked off some of the prerequisites to adopting Asian children. Adoptive parents should be comfortable with the attention of strangers, and have an ethnically diverse circle of friends and a familiarity with the child's native culture.

And one more thing, added Klein of Adopt International — a Jewish family adopting a Chinese baby in America instantly adopts three cultures.

Klein, who was raised in an Orthodox family and who is the "proud auntie to 1,200 adopted children over the past 10 years," said the adoptive family will become Jewish-Chinese-American.

"It's not just the baby's identity that will shift but the entire family's as well," said Klein. "It's really incumbent on the parents to immerse themselves in Chinese culture, and form a bridge to that child's heritage.

"On the other hand, they also have to instill Jewish and American values in that child."

That paradigm describes the household of Kaufman, executive director of Washington's Joint Council on International Children's Services.

Kaufman, the mother of 4-year-old Rebecca Joy Chufang ("clear and beautiful" in Mandarin), is raising her daughter to have a working knowledge of at least three languages.

"I said the Sh'ma at her bedside in China," said Kaufman, "and to this day that song will still be able to lull her to sleep."

Kaufman, who married and divorced earlier in life, was resigned to the "grief of not having children" when she read an article in the New York Times about people adopting from China.

"It just hit me in my kishkes [guts]," said Kaufman, "and I knew right then and there that I would be going to China."

It was three years ago that Kaufman's instinct became reality, when her daughter went through a naming ceremony at D.C's Reform Temple Sinai.

"I was so excited to bring my daughter into the Jewish community that when I shouted out the blessings you could have heard it in the next county."

Rebecca attends Jewish day school, takes Mandarin lessons and has a large group of Chinese-American and Jewish friends.

Both mother and daughter participate in Chinese and Jewish cultural events throughout the year, because "it's extremely important that Rebecca be comfortable in both of her heritages," said Kaufman.

That reasoning is why Kira Saks attends San Francisco's Chinese-American International School. She also attended preschool at Reform Congregation Emanu-El.

Marlene and Michael Saks adopted Kira, who is 5, after numerous attempts at conception had failed.

Although Marlene Saks and her husband had been drawn to the possibility of adopting from China several years before Kira became a part of their family, not everyone was sold on the idea.

"My mother went nuts when we told her that we were adopting," said Saks. "And then, when we told her that we were adopting from China…well, she kind of lost it."

But her mother quickly found whatever it was she had lost upon being introduced to her new grandchild.

"She sings to Kira in Yiddish now," said Saks, laughing. "And she kvetches that I'm not sending her enough pictures."

The San Francisco resident said her daughter has blended into the Jewish community quite smoothly, and that "she gets more funny looks when she wears weird sunglasses than she does in temple."

Regarding the diverse cultural heritages of their daughter, Saks said she and her husband intend to honor their daughter's Chinese heritage without losing site of the family's Jewish roots.

"We celebrate Chinese culture — the food, the language and the culture — but Kira is Jewish and she will grow up with a strong sense of Jewish culture."

Kira will also be a skilled linguist, if all goes according to plan. "We'd like her to be familiar with English, Hebrew, Mandarin and Spanish," said Saks, half-jokingly, adding that Spanish would be an invaluable skill to possess for California residents during the upcoming decades.

"On the other hand, she is only 5, so we can probably hold off a bit," admitted Saks with a small chuckle.

When asked if she feared her daughter would face discrimination in either the Jewish community or the Chinese community, Saks was nonplussed.

"You could look at a glass being half-empty or half-full," said Saks. "Some ancient traditions may be lost when the two worlds come together but new ones can be born or woven together.

"I happen to think that it's a good thing, and it's also the way the world is going."

Adopt International's Klein agreed, saying that transracial adoption not only benefits the Jewish community but provides a service to adopted children everywhere.

"There's a saying in the adoption world," said Klein. "Adoption is a private issue, but it shouldn't be a secret. And when couples adopt children from another race, they can't hide the fact that their child is adopted.

"It really underscores the fact that adoption is a good thing, not a bad thing."