Why every Jewish org should take up the cause of child welfare 

If we pay attention to the Hebrew Bible, we’re hit with constant reminders to care for the yatom, the vulnerable child. We’re told: “Uphold the rights of the vulnerable child” (Isaiah 1:17), “You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless” (Deuteronomy 24:17), and “You [communal leaders] shall not ill-treat any widow or vulnerable child” (Exodus 22:21). And this is just a tiny sample. 

Why, then, don’t we place child welfare more front and center in Jewish communal life? Even if our communities do a decent job of supporting those who need food or clothes, we ignore children in need of a family. This is a real shanda

It was these thoughts and more that prompted me to start YATOM, an organization dedicated to improving the welfare of vulnerable children. Since 2018, we’ve developed several pathways to this goal. We help potential foster parents and those looking to adopt overcome the barriers in their way, offering financial support to those who need it, expert guidance to those who don’t know the steps involved in the process, and a peer community so foster parents and adoptive parents don’t feel so alone in this crucial yet challenging undertaking. We also support those who are already foster or adoptive parents by providing microgrants. Caring for vulnerable children is a long-haul endeavor, and we want to prevent burnout. 

I also regularly encounter individuals who don’t know what a great option foster-parenting or adopting might be for them. Family has always been a Jewish value, and, in addition to having biological children, foster-parenting or adopting is a beautiful way to build a family. For those who are having fertility challenges, are single or are beyond child-bearing age, being a foster or adoptive parent can be an amazing opportunity. 

Fertility remains a sensitive issue in the Jewish community, and one that many of us resist talking about. Furthermore, there is still some stigma around adoption in the Jewish community. There is a fraught history of Christians intentionally adopting Jewish children for evangelical purposes, and even Jews being prevented from adopting as parents in the U.S. Thinking of adoption as an act with a religious basis can make us uncomfortable. 

Finally, we like to think that caring for vulnerable children is not a Jewish problem. Most foster kids won’t be Jewish, so it’s only natural that we’d want to focus our attention on more particularistic causes. We should remember that 1.) There are plenty of Jewish kids at risk. Even if we can’t easily locate Jewish foster kids in the U.S. system, abuse and neglect is present in all communities and we should be looking for ways to proactively help at-risk and vulnerable children; and 2.) The call to care for the vulnerable child is a universal one. In Israel, there are fewer than 4,000 children in foster homes and about 11,500 at-risk children living in boarding schools. In America, there are hundreds of thousands of children in need in foster care, and we have a duty to them whether they’re Jewish or not. 

YATOM is here to tell Jewish funders and community leaders, and the world, that taking care of the vulnerable child is in fact an essential part of Judaism. The whole Jewish community is called to do its part. YATOM is supporting at-risk and traumatized children around Israel and also Jewish and non-Jewish children around the United States. We need a Jewish renaissance, indeed a spiritual revolution of a sort, to ensure that no child is left behind anywhere on the planet.

With the holidays of Purim and Passover coming up, we should remember that our own Queen Esther was an orphan, and that Moses was “adopted” by Pharaoh’s daughter after spotted him afloat in the river, in peril as a result of her father’s policies. It’s tempting to ignore the pain of others because maybe they’re not in our immediate family, or our broader Jewish family — but that is specifically why taking care of the vulnerable child is such a critical need. Those without that essential support system are the ones to which we have the greatest responsibility of all. 

At YATOM, we seek to inspire the American Jewish community to do its part in caring for the yatom. Foster-parenting is an extraordinary undertaking, but we also need advocates, volunteers and donors in addition to those who can foster and adopt. We’d like to see a world in which every agency in Jewish life is doing something to support vulnerable children, in whatever way it can, be it with camping, day schools, youth groups, bar/bat mitzvah programs — we want people to get creative. The Dave Thomas Foundation and The Annie E. Casey Foundation are examples of funders supporting child welfare nationally, but we need foundations to support the Jewish community in doing our part to address this national crisis. The directive to care for the vulnerable child is ubiquitous in our religious texts, so it should no longer be a niche issue. It is something we must all figure out how to do. 

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the founder of YATOM: The Jewish Foster & Adoption Network.