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Jewish Journal

The Adoption Challenge

Facing a dearth of available Caucasian infants, Jewish families are taking home more Asian children

by Naomi Pfefferman

October 22, 1998 | 8:00 pm

Ellen Sloan met her husband-to-be, Will Hoffman, at an Ivy League cocktail party on Nov. 13, 1992. Sloan, then 36 and never married, attended the party because "I had heard it was a good place to meet smart guys," she says, with a laugh.

She was a successful financial planner with an MBA from USC; he was a 44-year-old attorney with a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Each had postponed marriage and family in favor of education and career. So when they wed, in May 1994, "our biological clocks were ticking," Sloan says. "Starting a family was our priority."

But even after spending $30,000 on grueling infertility procedures, the children did not come. The determined, prospective parents then set their sights on adoption, though not without trepidation. "My friends had two American children placed with them, who were later taken away by the birth mothers," Sloan says. "Emotionally, I knew we couldn't handle that."

Thus, the couple decided early on to adopt a foreign-born orphan; they chose China because that country consistently provides healthy babies in a timely fashion. The parents-to-be flew to the southeastern Chinese province of Guang Dong in October 1996. They made their way to the orphanage in Jiang Men, where, in the clean, spartan lobby, a petite 7-month-old baby, wearing oversized pink fuzzy pajamas, was placed in Ellen's arms. Her name was Jiang Xiao Gui, or Little Precious from Jiang Men. At the Jewish baby-naming ceremony back in Santa Monica, the parents renamed her Katy, or Chaya in Hebrew, amid prayers in Chinese and Hebrew. Sloan is now co-chair of the Los Angeles branch of Families With Children From China.

Sloan and Hoffman are part of a new trend among Jewish and interfaith couples in Los Angeles and around the country: Facing a dearth of Caucasian infants available for adoption, families are choosing children of color, both here and abroad. Though there are no formal statistics about the number of cross-cultural adoptions, either in the Jewish or general communities, the phenomenon is real, sources say.

At the University of Judaism's mikvah over the past three years, at least a dozen Chinese babies have been converted to Judaism, says Rabbi Edward Tenenbaum, chair of the Conservative movement's local conversion beit din. The group, Pact, An Adoption Alliance, for adoptive families of children of color, has "a Jewish contingent of about 20 percent," says co-founder Beth Hall. The Stephen S. Wise Temple Adoption Support Center, meanwhile, is starting two new groups, one for parents of foreign-born orphans, the other for parents of Asian and black children.

The cross-cultural adoption trend effectively began with the influx of Korean orphans into this country after the Korean War -- though the numbers remained relatively small until the late-1980s, when the paucity of white infants forced prospective parents to look elsewhere.

Today, Jews transracially adopt at about the same rate as the general population, sources say. Dr. Howard Altstein, an adoption expert at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, recently conducted a groundbreaking study of 204 Jewish families. More than half of the adopted children were foreign-born, mostly from China, Korea and Latin America. Like Sloan and Hoffman, most of the parents were well-educated and upper-middle-class.

When Jewish couples adopt a child who is black or Asian, the baby is most often Chinese, paralleling the national trend, sources say. Both Jewish and non-Jewish Caucasians are more likely to select an Asian child than an African-American orphan, a response to the higher level of racism against blacks in society.

"The first thing a number of Jewish couples ask is, 'Can we adopt a child from Israel?'" says Jindal, the intercountry adoption worker for Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services, a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Jindal informs the prospective parents that Israel does not allow foreign adoptions. A number also inquire about Eastern Europe, particularly Russia, because many Jewish families have roots there; many reconsider when they learn that the children are older and can in some cases suffer from attachment disorder or developmental delays because of the substandard orphanages. For many, China is more attractive than Latin America because the system is less expensive and less complicated.

Once the choice is made about where to adopt, and the $15,000 to $20,000 is paid for the process, come even more difficult questions of identity and acceptance. Color differences between parents and adopted children "brings up, time and again, that this is not your biological child," says Dr. Lina Kaplan, who runs the Stephen S. Wise group for parents of foreign-born orphans.

"The racial difference is right there in your face, both literally and metaphorically. The concept of whether or not to disclose to your child that he or she is adopted is not even an issue. And you will have to deal, in an ongoing fashion, with the public, community response to your family."

How do parents help the child forge a Jewish identity? The first step is converting him or her to Judaism, says Rabbi Elliot Dorff, of the University of Judaism. "Being Jewish is not a matter of race."

According to Jewish law, male children must be ritually circumcised, and both genders immersed in the mikvah. Upon reaching bar or bat mitzvah age, the child may decline the conversion.

After the conversion, the challenge is in helping with the formation of a cohesive self-identity by incorporating elements of his or her birth culture into Jewish family life, experts say.

Prospective parents should begin educating themselves about their child's culture before they even retain custody, Kaplan suggests. Read books about Latin American history, for example, or Chinese folk tales, he says. Live in a racially diverse area; hire a Latino pediatrician; find mentors who are the same race as your child, says Gail Steinberg, a Pact co-founder and the mother of three children of color.

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