November 6, 1997
Education Adopting a More Accepting Attitude
Debra has always known she's adopted. At the age of 6 months, shecame into the lives of a couple I'll call the Rubins, who welcomedher with open arms. Now a feisty fifth-grader, she has the run of ahousehold filled with music, pets and love. But as she approachespuberty, her parents see in Debra a growing anxiety about her placein the world. Says Debra's dad, "Her boldness masks deepinsecurities." She's forever demanding attention, company,reassurance.
Adolescence seems to have heightened Debra's fixation on herbiological origins. She asks probing questions about her birthparents. She wants to know whether her birth mother was Jewish, andwhether there are brothers and sisters somewhere. Such questions arepainful to the Rubins, who'd rather not spell out all they know aboutthe sad, sordid circumstances of Debra's birth. Their home life hasgotten tougher in other ways too. At times, Debra clings desperatelyto her mom and dad. At times, she rebels against them as thoughdefying them to prove they love her despite it all. Not unheard ofbehavior for an almost-teen, but the Rubins believe that there'ssomething more going on. In her dad's words, "She grasps the factthat she was abandoned, that somebody didn't want her."
To Dr. Stephanie Siegel, Debra's pattern is all too familiar. Asshe puts it, "The primary issues for all adoptive families are theissue of abandonment and the issue of separation and loss."
Siegel knows whereof she speaks: Three of her own four childrenare adopted. She is also a licensed marriage, family and childtherapist who has led support groups for adopted children andadoptive parents at Stephen S. Wise Temple for the past 18 years. Herwork has now evolved into the Stephen S. Wise Adoption SupportCenter, the first of its kind in the nation. It will be formallydedicated on Dec. 3 of this year.
The Adoption Support Center is not a child-placement agency but,rather, a resource for those whose lives have been touched byadoption, including adoptees' birth parents and adoptive families.Its services are open to the public in general, to Jews and non-Jewsalike. Siegel, who gratefully acknowledges Stephen S. Wise Temple's"openness and generosity" in allowing her to reach out to thecommunity as a whole, offers startling statistics about the uniquechallenges faced by the adopted and their families. These youngstersare eight times more likely than other children to have learningdisabilities; they are four times more apt to suffer full-onattention deficit disorder. Beyond this, 40 percent of the inmates ofpsychiatric hospitals and 40 percent of those in residentialtreatment centers, such as Vista Del Mar, are adopted. An informalsurvey by the Van Nuys juvenile placement department shows a highcorrelation between youthful lawbreakers and adopted kids.
This shouldn't imply that all adopted children are destined to runinto serious trouble. But, as the statistics indicate, thepossibility exists. Siegel sidesteps the question of whether someadoptees are doomed by their genetic inheritance to be out of stepwith the rest of society.
Instead, her focus is on the deep-seated anxieties felt by manyadoptees of all ages because they simply do not know who they are.Through counseling and group discussion, she helps the adopted andthose who love them deal with the emotional and practical concernsthat will crop up throughout their lives together. Add the fact that"for every adopted child, approximately 15 people are touched"(including grandparents, siblings and future spouses), and it's clearthat Siegel and her trainees have their work cut out for them.
When Jewish families adopt, Siegel insists that their problems areno different from anyone else's. She believes that issues relating toethnicity are largely confined to situations in which a child doesn'tresemble his or her parents, in which a youngster of Hispanic origin,for instance, comes to live in a light-skinned household.
The Rubins, however, feel otherwise. Their daughter, Debra, lookslike one of the family. She has her mother's fair complexion and herfather's stocky build. But with blue eyes and hair the color of cornsilk, she does not conform to most people's image of a Jewish child.When she joined the Rubin family, she underwent a mikvah conversionin her mother's arms, and she regularly attends religious school toprepare for a bat mitzvah. Still, congregants have the habit ofapproaching the Rubins at services and asking questions of which AnnLanders would not approve. Debra's mom speaks with vexation of"'little old ladies who lost their manners a while back." They'll patDebra on her golden head and say: "Oh, you're such a shiksa. Are youJewish?"
Fortunately, at this point, Debra doesn't know what a shiksa is.But her mom, who takes Judaism seriously, finds it hard to containher anger at such impertinence. She doesn't like hearing herdaughter's Jewish authenticity challenged, even in jest, and thewhole notion of "having a specific Jewish look" makes her blood boil.Ironically, Debra's dad was born in Israel, where he grew up withawareness that Jews come in many colors. Israelis who adopt, henotes, often look to Korea and Brazil, confident that their importedkids will blend comfortably into the ethnic mix.
In the United States, however, Jews who are adopted (as well asJews who are the products of mixed-race marriages) seem to beregarded with curiosity, and even suspicion. I know of threeAfrican-Americans, now grown up, who, through adoption in earlychildhood, became full-fledged members of a devoutly Jewish family.After all these years, they are still regarded by some in their homecongregation as outsiders. That's understandable, perhaps, but hardlyfair. Adopted children have a tough enough time dealing with themystery of their own identity. Who are we to tell them that theydon't belong to the Jewish people?
Beverly Gray writes about education from Santa Monica.
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