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Heart & Soul
A foundational belief of Judaism is that being Jewish is a birthright. A Jewish person is born into his or her faith. While religion per se is generally a choice, a specific set of beliefs and rules adopted by any individual, Judaism doesn’t work that way. Other than for the unique exception of a convert (unique in that the Torah sees the convert’s soul as one that was always meant to be fully Jewish), we don’t choose to be Jewish. We just are. It doesn’t matter if one believes it or even if they do it. They are still, and will always be, one hundred percent Jewish.

What happens then, when a Jewish couple adopts a child who isn’t born of a Jewish mother? Judaism teaches that G-d created us all, Jews and Gentiles, the way we are supposed to be and again, except in the extreme case of conversion, He usually gets it right the first time. As such, when it comes to adoption, Jewish parents have a unique dilemma on top of everything else they go through in the adoption process. Should they do anything to change the status of their non-Jewish child?

How should the couple think of religion for their adopted child? Should they convert the child to match their own religion? Do they have an obligation to do so? In contrast, when Christian families took in Jewish children during the holocaust, undoubtedly saving their lives, did that make it okay for them to baptize them as well?

The underlying question is: do we acquire the rights to a person’s soul when saving his or her life?

Hilton and Suzanne Rubin, a Jewish couple living in Richmond, VA, adopted 1 year old Darryn, an adorable boy from non-Jewish lineage in Kazakhstan, in November 2007. The Rubins were told by several rabbis that they could take their time in figuring out the best religious path for the family and wait until Darryn was 13 to convert him to Judaism. But the Rubins wanted to be proactive. They wanted to bring up their child in the same religion as them because Judaism is very important to them. “Adopting a child forces a parent to make early decisions,” says Suzanne. Decisions like which synagogue, religious school, extracurricular activities, kindergarten, secular school, and kind of social life he would have and they would have as a family.

In March 2008, Darryn was indeed officially converted to Judaism and the Rubin family and their friends held a huge simcha in his honor to commemorate three milestones: his adoption, his joining the Jewish people through conversion, and his becoming a U.S. citizen. A lot to celebrate at one year old!

Another factor in Hilton and Suzanne’s decision to convert their son was the possibility that they could have a biological child in the future. That child would of course be Jewish because his mother is and they wanted Darryn to share the same religion as this child.

How does a parent make decisions about another’s, in this case the child’s, soul? Hilton shares, “I can only imagine that in every situation, the parents have done the best they could under their own circumstances. We may look at other parents’ belief and think of them as misguided or misdirected, but I’ll leave it to G-d to see the overall picture and evaluate any mistakes that adoptive parents may make. The process of integrating an orphan into a new family is difficult enough.”

Judaism is a religion that comes through birth, but what if G-d brings a Gentile child to a Jewish family through adoption? Is it somehow meant to be that this child should live a Jewish life? Ronnie Glick* feels so strongly that it was G-d’s will that brought her precious son David to her Jewish family when she and her husband adopted him in 2000. “Our son’s birth, how he came to be a member of our family and the joy of our lives, was clearly the work of Hashem and nothing short of a miracle. The fact that this particular child was brought to our family, a Jewish family, we take with great responsibility.”

Her son David, who was not born from a biologically Jewish mother, was converted at birth, but when he reaches bar mitzvah age, the conversion process will be repeated. “It was my husband and I who made the decision for him as an infant, but the decision should really be his when he is of an age to make it and when he will become responsible for the mitzvot.”

Like the Rubin family, the Glick family also uses the word “simcha” to describe the conversion. And also like the Rubin family, the Glick family needed to consider how the inherent religion of biological children would affect the religion of an adopted child. Both families wanted the siblings to grow up in the same religion. Judaism is extremely important to both families.

While Ronnie Glick believes an older adopted child should not be converted because that child will already have grown up in a specific religion, she feels that ultimately, the adoptive parent has to go with his or her heart. “Is it my right to convert the child? Or is it that Hashem placed this child with me, a Jew? Is that an accident or bashert, meant to be? I wanted a Jewish family, but ultimately my kids, like all kids, are going to choose their own paths as adults. In the end I’m going to be happy I raised them Jewish.”

“An adopted child is not from your genes, but from your heart,” says Ellen Greenfield*, a Jewish parent who adopted a child 40 years ago. “It’s your baby so you do have the right to make decisions about the child’s religion. If the child is going to live in the parents’ house, you have to be the same religion. How else is the parent going to teach them? You teach them what you know.”
Ellen and her husband Robert knew their adopted daughter had been born from a biologically Jewish woman, so they never had to struggle with the question of to convert or not. But their daughter Kim has some strong opinions about the matter.

“What if by chance, it wasn’t a Jewish family who adopted me, but a Christian one? Would it be right if they converted and baptized me? I say no. What would happen to my Jewish soul? How would I ever have the opportunity to live a Jewish life? Christian parents might have thought that to convert me would be the best route because I’d fit into their family mode. It would be easier when it came to holidays and their daily rituals, and would give those parents a sense of doing their parental duty, raising me the way they think is best. But, if G-d had me be born from a Jewish woman, doesn’t G-d want me to be Jewish?”

Identity is often a sensitive issue with adoptees. In some cases as with the Rubins, the adopted child comes with significant portions of their heritage. Darryn came to the Rubins with his original name and facts about his culture and original religion. The Rubins plan to honor this part of their child’s identity while giving him a Jewish upbringing solidified through conversion.

But what happens when an adopted child grows up not knowing anything about his or her history? Bruce Abrams* says, “Their identity, by default, is shaped by their adoptive parents. Religion is a big part of this. If the parent converts the child, they are giving the child an identity, which can be a precious gift. It gives the child direction, a match and connection with the parents and siblings, structure to life, clarity and purpose of a known spiritual path. Sometimes this is the only identity an adoptee has and religion becomes hugely significant.

“I think if a parent doesn’t convert their child to match their religion, it puts more pressure on the child to figure things out by himself. That could be hard if the adoptee already feels lost and confused when it comes to identity. Conversion to one religion or the other gives a clear path and direction for the child’s identity.”

Leigh Martinez of Richmond disagrees. Leigh, both an adoptee and an adoptive parent, believes conversion is not necessary. She was never converted when her Jewish parents adopted her. “Conversion implies you have to change. With me, there was nothing to change. I was living as a bona fide member of a Jewish family in an active Jewish lifestyle. Conversion is really a ceremony for everyone else, not the child. Yet, it is important from the standpoint of societal acceptance and will give greater acceptance later.”

Just this past March, Leigh Martinez and her husband Joel, adopted two healthy boys from Guatemala: Paxton, age 17 months, and Dario, 14 months. The cheerful smiling boys came from two different foster families in Guatemala, a country whose government policies have just closed the door to international adoption. The Martinezes, with their daughters Mackenzie and Karissa, welcomed Paxton and Dario just in the nick of time.

As a teen, Leigh was very active in Jewish youth groups and the Jewish value of social action resonated deeply in her. Her desire to adopt children stems in part from the Jewish belief that whoever saves a life is as if he saves the world. “It’s an opportunity to give back. What was given to me, I can now give to someone else.”

Leigh and Joel will raise Pax and Dario in the Jewish religion and though the boys will not have a formal conversion, they will have a naming celebration with family and friends.

“Everyone makes their own choices when they’re older. It has nothing to do with adoption. Every person in the world decides the path they go in as adults. There is no choice to give. They find it themselves.”

For now, Paxton and Dario are enjoying being kids. Their favorite things to do are playing in the bathtub, playing with their dogs, and Paxton loves pushing his pretend lawn mower.

For those contemplating adoption, Leigh says encouragingly, “It is an opportunity to save a life and enrich your own. It’s a community process. Everyone’s waiting with you for that special day. Everyone’s anticipating the homecoming together and shares in the whole process together.

“Even more than that,” Leigh adds, “To adopt a child requires a leap of faith!” The good news is, “For those who make that leap of faith, what you put in, you get a lot more back!”

-Alex Rothstein

Copyright 2007. Virginia Jewish Life Magazine.