Be'chol Lashon
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Love Is Colorblind


Everett Cohen, Atlanta Jewish Times, December 8, 2000
Jews are increasingly adopting children from other cultures. Will our community welcome them?

David and Fea Raizes seem like average 5-year-old Jewish children like average 5-year-olds, period. David is a rambunctious tyke, gleefully fleeing his 12-year-old brother, Tradd, as the two horse around in the Raizes' North Fulton home; he runs to his mother, Beth, when he wants to be hugged, and clutches her tightly and lovingly. Fea is quieter, shyer, but her face breaks out in a great big smile when she's happy, and she calls for Tradd or 15-year-old Carrie when she's trying to attract their attention.

But David and Fea are not your average Jewish children. For one thing, there's the accent with which they speak: it has a French Creole lilt, so Fea's calls for Tradd are light-tongued, with an extra syllable: "Trad-da, Trad-da." There's also their ancestry. Both David and Fea were adopted by their parents, Elliot and Beth Raizes.

Finally, there is their color. The two children are black Africans and hail from Sierra Leone.

David and Fea are part of a trend. More Jewish parents in Atlanta, and around the United States, are adopting children. And of those who adopt, more are selecting children of a different race and from a different country.

"I'm seeing more and more of this," says Judy Golden, adoption supervisor for Cradle of Love Adoption Services, an independent adoption program under the auspices of Jewish Family and Career Services (JF&CS;). "We used to do five or 10 [home studies, a prerequisite for adoption] a year. Last year, we did 25, and we'll do 30 to 35 this year."

Though some Jewish families adopt from countries where there's a Jewish heritage, most notably Russia, Golden has helped families adopt from China, Korea, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Guatemala.

Lori Abramson, director of the Heart to Heart International Adoption Program ø a nonsectarian international program at Lutheran Ministries of Georgia (LMG) ø agrees.

"We'll do 80-plus adoptions overseas this year," says Abramson, herself a Jewish parent of an adopted child from Russia. At LMG, the international adoptions are about equal between Russia/Eastern Europe and Asian children, she says.

In many ways, the fact that Jewish families are adopting children of different races and backgrounds is a positive sign. In a community traditionally conscious of lineage, adoption used to carry a terrible stigma, and adopting a child of another race was almost unheard of.

But recently, Jewish families across the nation, who like the Raizes have the capacity to love any child, are growing increasingly colorblind. While one explanation may be that American Jews, like the rest of the country, have been positively affected by a decade of campaigns celebrating multiculturalism and diversity, there are also practical reasons for adopting ethnic children from overseas.

"It's easier for young [single] mothers in America these days to keep their babies, so there are fewer [domestic] babies available," Abramson explains. "Also, for some of the babies that are put up for adoption [domestically], there are a lot of problems ø drugs, mental illness. So when a lot of families think about adoption, they go overseas."

Not that adopting children from other countries is an easy process. Indeed, if handled by a reputable agency, the process can be a long, intensive affair, fraught with paperwork and red tape. It's also costly, Golden says, with overseas adoptions costing between $18,000 and $25,000.

The Raizes' odyssey began with the Internet. Both Elliot and Beth Raizes were concerned about the plight of African AIDS orphans. Elliot, an infectious disease physician, knew the effects of the disease all too well.

A chance entry of "African orphans" led the couple to All As One (www.all-as-one.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to child welfare in impoverished African countries.

Working with them, the Raizes researched Sierra Leone and discovered the terrible mortality rate there ø a consequence of poverty and a disastrous civil war. "When we saw that, the rest didn't matter," says Beth Raizes. "The fact that these children were in danger every day made us want to adopt."

The two already had some experience with adoption, blended families and fertility issues. Beth Raizes' brother was adopted, Beth was a divorced mother with a daughter when she married Elliot, and after the couple had two children, doctors told them they could have no more.

The Raizes made their decision to adopt in June. From there, a process that could have taken more than a year was completed in less than four months, even though the situation occasionally was touch and go. There was the requisite home study; the INS forms that needed to be filled out and sent to the right people; an FBI background check; and tran-Atlantic calls to Africa to talk with bureaucrats and politicians.

At one point, they even ran into a Sierra Leonean law that appeared to prevent adoption and thought the journey was over.

Through it all, the Raizes persevered. "We adopted the posture that these were our children trapped in a foreign country," says Elliot Raizes.

The children were supposed to arrive on Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 30. Just before that date, the Raizes received a call that they were missing one piece of paper; it had been sent to the wrong city. For Elliot, that was it. "I used that fact to say, 'I'm going on a plane and I'm going to take the paperwork personally,' " he recalls.

He flew to Dakar, Senegal, to take care of the situation and meet his children. A couple days after he arrived, the odyssey was over: David and Fea were brought to meet him. The experience of getting their hugs, he says, was matchless.

Faith And Acceptance

Some prospective parents know the type of child they want to adopt. For others, the process leads to discovery. Through their awareness of AIDS orphans, the Raizes were led to Sierra Leone. For David and Jamie Sachs, who were assisted by Heart to Heart, it was the experiences of other families that led to their "gut decision" to adopt their daughter, Naomi, from China.

But for Steven Joachim and his partner, Steve Neeley, who live in northeast DeKalb County, the decision was more gut-wrenching. They decided to adopt domestically, but a question from their agency ø "What kind of child would you like?" ø gave them pause.

"That was sobering," recalls Neeley. "Would you accept a child of a different race, a child with a disability, with a deformity... it was a laundry list of things."

In the end, the pair decided not to check anything, and left the question almost literally up to God.

"We decided we would get the child we were supposed to get," Neeley says. "If ever there was an act of faith, that was it."

The child they adopted, eight months after their home study and interviews were concluded, was an 18-day-old African-American named Neil. And that led to another issue: Would this child be accepted by their families and their community?

That's a question Rabbi Joel Mosbacher of Temple Emanu-El has pondered as well. Mosbacher has immersed himself in adoption culture since he was approached by 10 couples about the subject within a four-week period.

"I'd like to think my community would be welcoming," he says. "But there's a big gap in saying that and when the kids actually show up. There's a lot of consciousness to be raised on fertility issues in general. Many couples feel like they're the only ones coping with the issue."

With interracial adoptions, he continues, the issue of acceptance is impossible to avoid. "The children are a constant reminder, and they're right there," he says.

There are a handful of multiracial families at Emanu-El, including the Raizes and Joachim and Neeley. According to Neeley, there have been no problems. "If they can take us, they can take the kid," he says with a laugh.

Paula Budnitz, the domestic adoption coordinator at LMG, says that she's heard of some concern from the extended families of parents who adopt, but it fades quickly. "Even if the grandparents resist, and wonder how the child will fit into the family, those concerns disappear when the child arrives," she says. "I don't think the kids stand out in the way they might have 20 years ago."

Mosbacher acknowledges that his congregation has handled its own situations well, but that might not be true everywhere. "The Jewish community hasn't come close to welcoming these people," he says.

Adoption is not "seen as a priority" by the Jewish community, says Golden. Cradle of Love and other adoption programs receive no support from local synagogues or the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. Similar programs in the Christian community, Golden says, are usually supported by churches (though LMG's adoption arm is self-supporting, according to its officials).

Federation Executive Director Steve Rakitt ø who has talked about adoption and fertility issues with Mosbacher ø says the subject raises larger questions of ethics and community priorities.

Those are questions that need to be addressed by many community leaders, Rakitt says. After all, Federation casts a wide safety net for a number of social service agencies, and deciding where community money should go ø and under which circumstances ø is a difficult matter requiring some kind of planning process and consensus.

"I look forward to continuing a dialogue and learning more about these important issues with the community," Rakitt says. "I encourage rabbis and ethicists in our community to discuss whether communal support is an important priority for the Jewish community."

A Minority Of A Minority

While the number of children of color is currently small in Atlanta's Jewish day schools, educators say that neither adoption nor race is a factor for children at school.

"Race is a non-issue," says Richard Wagner, headmaster of Greenfield Hebrew Academy. "We Jews are a diverse people, and God wants all of us to be nice to one another."

Wagner says that in the past, his school has been an academic home to children adopted from all over the world ø Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. "The whole adoption thing is such an incredibly courageous mitzvah," he says. "These people are mitzvah heroes as far as I'm concerned."

While it's normal for families to fret about their children fitting in, school leaders say there's nothing to worry about. "Parents may be concerned, but the community is really behind it," says Rabbi Joseph Abrams, principal of Yeshiva Atlanta, the area's modern Orthodox prep school. "The only issue we have is are you a member of the Jewish community?"

Still, Mosbacher worries about what the future will bring when these children become teen-agers. "Right now these kids are colorblind," he says. "But down the road they won't be."

Though she declined to go into detail, Golden says she's heard of problems affecting older multiracial families. The children aren't as readily accepted by their peers, and Jewish parents are wary of having their white children date Jewish children of another race.

"I think we need more education," she says. "We really need to look at this issue. We need more diversity training in the day schools and the synagogues so the children will be accepted."

Despite some hesitations and curious looks, new blended families say they are doing all right. "He's a cute kid ø he looks better than we do," says Steve Neeley, whose son Neil is now 4 years old. When he was 10 months old, Neeley says, the couple went to Israel with a friend. "So there we are, three white guys in Jerusalem toting around a black kid. People would look at us, then him, and they'd start smiling.

"Nobody in Atlanta has ever looked or said anything indicating hostility," he adds. "The questions I get are from other African-Americans. They want to know if I'm babysitting."

David and Jamie Sachs says the decision to adopt Naomi, who is now 16 months old, required some extra thought. They also recognize the difficulties to come for their daughter. "It's a double whammy," David Sachs says. "Jews are already a minority, and these children are nonwhites in a minority religion. They're a minority of a minority."

The couple already has a 4-year-old at the Epstein School, and they plan to send Naomi there as well.

David and Fea Raizes are still too young to realize they're "a minority of a minority." There was a bit of culture shock when they arrived ø in those first days, Beth Raizes recalls, they would secretly stockpile their food, fearful they wouldn't receive any more ø but, says Elliot Raizes, "it's like when we went from black-and-white to color TV. It's just different to them."

Considering their pasts, adjusting to life as children of a well-to-do Jewish couple in suburban Atlanta will probably be the least of their troubles. When he was a year old, David was left with an elder by his mother and he never saw her again. Fea's parents died before she turned 3. She escaped her birthplace in Sierra Leone's diamond-mining district, site of some of the worst conflict, with family members by walking 300 miles through the bush.

The Raizes' other children have been supportive. Tradd Raizes needed some reassurance, but once the idea of new siblings sunk in, "I was excited," he says. "When they arrived, it wasn't exactly what I expected, but they fit right in."

His friends have been welcoming as well ø and curious. "I used to go over to their houses [to play], but now they all come here."

"I'm so proud of my parents," says the Raizes' oldest child, 21-year-old Shannon. "They're great people for doing this."

The family already had members of Atlanta's small Sierra Leonean community over to meet the children, so they'll know their heritage. They're also on their way to learning the ropes of Judaism, having spent some of their first hours in Atlanta at Yom Kippur services. (Fea is fond of saying "Shabbat Shalom" on Friday nights.)

Time will tell, says Beth Raizes, how much they'll really be accepted. For now, it's merely curious looks at the mall, but they'll be enrolled in kindergarten next year, and you never know.

But Beth Raizes plans to address all the questions head-on. "Whatever we need to deal with, regarding the racial issues," she says, "we'll deal with it."

Are They Jewish?

Eventually, adopted children have to make their own decisions on religion.

Rabbis from all major denominations of Judaism say all non-Jewish children who are adopted by Jewish families must undergo conversion.

Of course, each denomination has its own standards for what constitutes a legitimate conversion.

But one thing they all agree on is that a child who was converted by his or her parents before the age of bar or bat mitzvah has the opportunity to renounce his or her Judaism.

"We never force Judaism upon anybody," says Rabbi Moshe Parnes of the Atlanta Scholars Kollel. "It's got to be accepted by the person doing it."

Parnes says that from an Orthodox perspective, when children are over the age of bar or bat mitzvah (13 for boys and 12 for girls), it is assumed that they can take responsibility for their own lives. If the child wishes to convert, it is his or her own decision, and the child would undergo a typical Orthodox conversion.

But for children below the age of bar or bat mitzvah, it is assumed that they cannot make those life decisions for themselves, so the parents are acting on their behalf. The converted child may opt to renounce Judaism upon reaching the age of bar or bat mitzvah. The conversion is then considered retroactively invalid.

The pronouncement must be made at the time of the 13th birthday, Parnes says. For example, he says, if a child waits until his 15th birthday and decides he no longer wants to be Jewish, the rabbis would not view the conversion as retroactively invalid.

Similarly, Rabbi Shalom Lewis of the Conservative Congregation Etz Chaim says his movement also permits adopted children to opt out of Judaism upon reaching the age of bar or bat mitzvah. They use the same age guidelines as the Orthodox ø 13 for boys and 12 for girls.

In the Reform movement, the answer varies. "It depends on the Reform rabbi and their interpretation of halachah (Jewish law)," says Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis.

That notion is born out in Atlanta's Reform rabbinate. Rabbi Julie Schwartz of Temple B'nai Israel says Reform Judaism offers children a chance to leave the faith. Unlike the Orthodox and Conservative movements, Schwartz says the age is 13 for both boys and girls.

"A baby is brought into Judaism just as an adult is," she says.

On the other hand, Rabbi Harvey Winokur of Temple Kehillat Chaim, who has adopted children of his own, says he had never heard of the concept in Reform Judaism. "There's just no supportive information on that," he says.

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher of the Reform Temple Emanu-El says in Judaism, conversion is supposed to be a matter of choice, and technically a small child hasn't been given that choice.

"It's different from community to community and according to age," Mosbacher says. "In cases where the child is very young, we'll do a 'conditional conversion.' The assumption is that we're doing it for the child's benefit."

It's only when a child reaches bar or bat mitzvah age that they truly can become Jewish ø or not. "They can always say, 'I opt out,' " says Mosbacher.

How The Process Works

A picture has tugged at your heart. Or, having exhausted fertility options, you still want children. Or maybe you just want to give your love to a new member of the family.

You want to adopt a child. What do you do?

The first thing you do is call an agency. (It's become far easier to see the child being adopted ø not only do agencies and placement programs have videotapes, but dozens of adoption sites, with photographs of children, exist on the Internet.) For international adoptions, the agencies generally have arrangements with national programs that specialize in placement, such as Holt International.

An agency representative then sits and meets with the prospective parents, who must go through a home study, sometimes including the creation of a thick, detailed autobiography. And then the agency conducts a series of interviews.

Cradle of Love's Judy Golden says there are certain topics she always discusses with prospective parents of international children. "The couple must understand they may not get the child's medical or social history," she says, adding that, depending on the country, such information may be sketchy.

"They also must understand the child is a product of his or her culture. The family must appreciate that culture and bring up the child with a sense of it. And they must realize that there may be development issues because the child hasn't been exposed to a one-to-one situation."

Even after approval by the domestic agency, the parents have to be approved by the INS and the international programs; furthermore, several countries require the parents to visit with the child in his or her homeland at least once before the adoption goes through. Sometimes the parents must then fly back to pick up their new son or daughter.

The entire process can take 18 months or longer, and can cost more than $25,000, including airfare. Domestic adoptions of white children can cost more, Golden says, running between $20,000 and $35,000, because there are few healthy Caucasian children to adopt.

Domestic adoption of black children can cost less, she says, because it can be hard to find homes for them.

Adopting older children in America also can be complicated, Golden says, because children often have been neglected, have special needs or have siblings who also need homes. Subsidies are available for families who choose to adopt older children.