Ethical Dilemmas in Adoptive Parenting

April 1, 2014
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As a Jewish adoptive parent, how should I respond if my child wants a Christmas tree, in part because she sees it as a connection to her birth family? What if she later goes through a prolonged stage of wanting to wear a large rhinestone cross as part of her adolescent struggles with identity? What if, as an adoptive family, our celebration of the Lunar New Year, which we established when we adopted from China, makes some family members uncomfortable because it involves the “Kitchen God”? What if the child’s Hebrew school switches the class day to Sunday, which conflicts with the Chinese school the child has attended for years?

These dilemmas, drawn from our own experiences, are common for Jewish adoptive parents today. Indeed, they are becoming both more urgent and more prevalent. For much of the 20th century, the reigning paradigm for adoption was “matching” — that is, attempting to match children with prospective adoptive parents (by appearance, personality, intellectual ability, religion, and more) to create families that could pass as “natural.” Adoptive parents were then encouraged to raise their children as if they were “their own,” and adoptees who wanted information about or contact with their birth families were often seen as ungrateful.

In recent decades, adoption in the United States has been transformed. Not only has “matching” been supplanted by adoptions across every conceivable boundary of identity, but secrecy is giving way to openness, and adoptees’ curiosity about their origins is coming to be seen as natural and healthy. American Jews  today adopt children from around the world and from many ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds in the United States. Our families are thus increasingly “multi,” both in fact and in self-conception:  multiracial, multicultural, multiethnic, multinational, perhaps even multireligious.

This boundary crossing has prompted a new kind of ethical soul-searching for Jewish adoptive parents. Adoption experts today emphasize the need for adoptees and their families to engage actively with the adoptees’ birth heritage and/or family of origin. Yet the Jewish community, concerned about continuity and even long-term survival, often seems to be pulling in the opposite direction, sending forceful messages about the importance of inculcating a strong and exclusive Jewish identity in our children.

What, then, we ask ourselves as adoptive parents, are our ethical obligations to our children, to ourselves, and to our Jewish community? Many of us desire to instill in our children (the vast majority of whom are born to non-Jewish birth mothers) a sense of Jewish identity and comfort in the Jewish community, but we also wish to find ways to integrate their birth heritage into our lives and to provide strong role models and access to real people from their cultures of origin. How can we balance these sometimes-conflicting needs and desires? When push comes to shove, does one take priority over the other? And how do we, as parents, react when our children experiment in directions that do not feel comfortable to us, challenge the norms of our Jewish communities, or push us to re-evaluate our own sense of identity?

Many parents of children adopted transracially and/or transnationally address these dilemmas by listening to music, learning languages, traveling to their children’s places of origin, or eating traditional foods — all activities generally compatible with Jewish identity. Witness, for example, the prevalence of bat mitzvah celebrations for Jewish girls adopted from China that feature “kosher-style” Chinese cuisine.

Many adoptive parents of white American children, by contrast, simply do not believe that their children have a birth heritage different from their own. If they do acknowledge a different birth culture, they often associate it with elements of the broader American culture that are rooted in Christianity (for example, Christmas trees and Easter bunnies) and that, to many, seem distinctly irreconcilable with Jewish identity. In either case, full engagement with a child’s birth heritage is often challenging, and it may bring up fears about fostering identifications that could “compete” with the child’s Jewish identity.

There is no one-size-fits-all ethical response to these questions, any more than there is one way of being Jewish in the world today. As 21st-century Jewish adoptive parents, however, we do have one clear ethical responsibility to our children: to engage actively with these issues from the moment we first consider adoption through all the years of parenting. We know that we are not alone in addressing the challenges of crossing boundaries of race, nationality, culture, and religion in the creation of our families, as interfaith and interracial families can attest. But ethical parenting of adopted children, we believe, compels us to think deeply about the question of “otherness” — both the ways in which we try to erase it and the ways we recognize and even foster it.

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Jennifer Sartori and Jayne Guberman are co-directors of the Adoption and Jewish Identity Project. Guberman is an independent scholar and oral history consultant. Sartori is associate director of Jewish studies at Northeastern University. For a book, they are collecting stories of young adult adoptees raised in Jewish families. More info:

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