By Jayne K. Guberman and Jennifer Sartori
About ten years ago, it became increasingly clear to us – both Jewish adoptive mothers, Jayne to a daughter adopted in a domestic, same-race adoption, then in her late teens, and Jenny to a then-toddler adopted from China – that Jewish adoptees face a unique set of circumstances. We knew from first-hand experience that many Jewish adoptees grapple with complex identity issues. We knew also that their parents, in addition to finding great joy in their families, can feel isolated and alone as they strive to support their children in their identity journeys.
Some of the challenges faced by Jewish adoptees are common to all adoptees, involving grief, loss, and juggling of birth and adoptive heritages. Others, however, are specific to the Jewish community, rooted in common assumptions about what a Jew looks like, “Jewish” abilities, and what makes someone authentically Jewish, as well as communal concerns about Jewish continuity.
Searching for resources for ourselves and our children, we realized that virtually none existed. In fact, despite the fact that American Jews today adopt at about twice the rate of the general population, very little was known about the real-life experiences of Jewish adoptees and their families. We created the Adoption & Jewish Identity Project (AJIP) to address this void.
Over the past decade, we have surveyed and spoken to hundreds of adult Jewish adoptees and Jewish adoptive parents. It is clear from their stories that Jewish adoptees – the vast majority of whom were not born to Jewish birth parents – regularly find their identity and authenticity as Jews questioned, even though the Jewish people have always incorporated members of other communities and been racially and ethnically diverse. Similarly, it is clear that although adoptees’ interest in their birth families and heritages is normal and healthy, most Jewish communal professionals and community members lack awareness of the complexities of adoptive identity.
“I get that all the time. What are you?” one international adoptee of Latina/indigenous background told us. Other adoptees of color recounted stories of showing up at Hillel only to be told that the Asian-American (or Latinx or African-American) group met down the hall. And such stories of marginalization are by no means limited to adoptees of color. One white adoptee told us of being asked if her “cute, button nose” was a bat mitzvah gift; a blond, blue-eyed adoptee wrote of being uncertain how to respond when he was asked at his Solomon Schechter Day School – which he characterized as “the most homogenous soup you can imagine” – why he looked different. Other adoptees and adoptive parents reported push-back from rabbis, communal professionals, and extended family when they wanted to explore adoptees’ birth heritages, out of fear it would “compete” with their Jewish identities.
AJIP began as a research project, and we’re currently hard at work on a book that examines Jewish adoption in its full complexity. But the countless hours we’ve spent with adoptees and their families have convinced us of the need for much more far-reaching change than a book alone can provoke. The American Jewish community in general needs to become more sensitive to the experiences of Jewish adoptees. In particular, rabbis, educators, youth leaders – indeed all Jewish communal professionals – should learn about the unique issues adoptees face, about how the ways they talk about Jewish history and ancestry can be alienating to those not born into Jewish families, and how their own and others’ often-unconscious assumptions about Jewish identity can have negative consequences for many Jewish adoptees. And prospective Jewish adoptive parents need to learn in advance not only about the love and joy involved in creating a family through adoption but also about the challenges their children – and they themselves – may face.
As a first step, we have developed a new resource called “12 Things Jewish Adoptees and Their Families Wish Their Communities Knew,” created with the assistance of AJIP’s Advisory Board (consisting half of adoptees, half of adoptive parents). An accompanying User Guide offers suggestions for how to use “12 Things” in a variety of settings.
Among the things Jewish adoptees would like their communities to know:
- They don’t arrive in their families as “blank slates”; they come from someone and somewhere.
- Their families and cultures of origin may have a place in their Jewish lives.
- For many of them not born to Jewish parents, their non-Jewish backgrounds are an important part of their Jewish stories.
And among the things their parents would like their communities to know:
- Their families are complicated, but they are also normal.
- Their families tend to feel most comfortable in Jewish communities that allow them to come as they are.
- There’s no “one size fits all” approach to adoption.
Learn more about these and other important aspects of Jewish adoption by visiting the AJIP website and downloading “12 Things” and the User Guide. In years to come, we plan to create a wide range of materials and services – from support networks for adoptees and their families, to curricula and trainings for educators and other leaders, to resources for adoptive and prospective adoptive parents.
American Jews today are engaged in important conversations about making the Jewish world more inclusive, but adoption has been missing from this communal agenda. We invite you to join us in working to create a Jewish community where adoptees and their families can bring their whole selves and feel fully at home.
Jayne K. Guberman, PhD, and Jennifer Sartori, PhD, are Co-Directors of the Adoption & Jewish Identity Project, which supports Jewish adoptees and their families in creating healthy personal, family, and communal identities and advocates for an inclusive Jewish community that is fully welcoming to adoptees. They are also working on a book about identity formation among adoptees in the American Jewish community, based on extensive research with adult Jewish adoptees and Jewish adoptive parents.