Rabbi Susan Silverman’s 14-year-old son Zamir recently asked if he is an Ashkenazi Jew. A mother — let alone a rabbi — should easily be able to answer that question. But this time the case isn’t so clear-cut.
Zamir was adopted as a young boy by Silverman and her husband Yosef Abramowitz from an Ethiopian orphanage. Zamir is black and his biological parents are not Jewish. However, he is now Israeli, lives in Jerusalem, and speaks Hebrew fluently.
Zamir converted to Judaism in a liberal ceremony in Boston and has been raised as an integral part of an Ashkenazi Jewish family.
So does all this make Zamir an Ashkenazi Jew?
To Silverman, the answer doesn’t really matter as much as the question. The fact that she and her husband are raising their three biological daughters alongside Zamir and his older brother Adar, also adopted from an Ethiopian orphanage, has brought up a lot of deep queries that they otherwise would not have considered.
According to Silverman, dealing with these issues and challenges complicates the Jewish parenting process — but they also greatly enrich it.
In the beginning…
In a new highly readable and candid memoir, “Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World,” Silverman takes readers back to her liberal New Hampshire childhood and on to her years as a young mother driven to adopt a son (and later another) from Africa.
At the time of the adoptions, Silverman, a Women of the Wall activist and the older sister of comedian Sarah Silverman, already led a full and hectic life in Boston with two willful little girls and a husband who travels a lot for his work.
“I initially did not conceive of this book as a memoir,” Silverman told The Times of Israel in an interview at her Jerusalem home.
“I’ve been working on this book on and off for 10 years, and I had planned on telling other people’s stories of adoption and bringing awareness to the fact that there are more than 150 million unparented children in need of families. The idea was to write about adoption from the perspective of the global orphan crisis instead of from the perspective of parents who can’t biologically conceive,” Silverman said.
Among the adoptions stories was to be Silverman’s own, and she planned to write it based on notes she had taken during the process of adopting her first son, Adar. However, the book morphed into a full-blown personal memoir after a writer friend who read an early draft advised Silverman to delve into her own childhood and family history.
The friend could see the psychological connection between Silverman’s childhood experience and her compulsion to adopt, but Silverman initially could not.
“It’s funny, because I am usually so open about everything. But I was clearly in denial about how the death of my younger brother Jeffrey affected me,” Silverman said.
‘The arc of the story became clear: A boy was lost—a boy was found’
The accidental death of her infant brother when she was just a toddler was the source of both her intense separation anxiety and her deep-seated need to bring a little boy into her life.
“The arc of the story became clear: A boy was lost — a boy was found,” she said.
Other aspects of Silverman’s girlhood and teenage years also contributed to her understanding of what family is and can be. Her parents took in foster children when she and her two biological sisters were growing up. (Laura Silverman, like youngest sister Sarah, works in America’s entertainment industry.) And after Silverman’s parents divorced, stepparents and a stepsister became part of a large, accepting and loving blended family.
“I’m not a big DNA person,” said Silverman, who considers her stepsister Jodyne Speyer (who accompanied Silverman to Ethiopia when she adopted Adar) as much her sister as Laura and Sarah.
International adoption as the solution to the global orphan crisis?
The publication of “Casting Lots” (the title is a reference to the Jewish holiday of Purim, the day on which Silverman and Abramowitz were notified that Adar — then a baby named Daniel — was available for adoption) coincides with Silverman’s foundation of a non-profit organization. Her new NGO,, JustAdopt, is tasked with raising awareness of the global orphan crisis and promoting adoption— especially the international variety, whose rates in the US have plummeted by more than 50 percent in recent years (for a variety of reasons, including suspicion of widespread child abduction and trafficking in China).
In getting her organization off the ground, Silverman has worked with Both Ends Burning, an organization devoted to prioritizing adoption over institutionalization, that has helped her establish relationships with welfare ministries in African, Asian, Latin American and East European countries. (Both Ends Burning produced an award-winning 2013 documentary called “Stuck” about the orphan crisis and American parents trying to navigate daunting international adoption bureaucratic red tape.)
A main aim of JustAdopt is “to inspire members of strong Jewish communities in North America to adopt children who come from the same orphanage or region abroad. [With the] goal to create an internal shared-heritage peer group for the children.”
The notion of creating Jewish communities where children adopted from a particular country and culture can grow up together is laudable. However, a new study shows that parenting an internationally adopted child to not only be Jewish, but simultaneously identify with his culture of origin is not as easy as the JustAdopt name — reminiscent of Nike’s Just Do It campaign — might make it sound.
Clearly, bringing an orphan from Asia, Africa or Latin America into a Jewish family is a lot harder than putting on a pair of sports shoes and hitting the gym.
Transcultural adoption in the American Jewish community
As adoptive mothers, and as directors of the Adoption & Jewish Identity Project, Dr. Jayne Guberman and Dr. Jenny Sartori have been surveying and speaking with adoptive American Jewish families for more than five years.
Guberman, an independent scholar and oral history consultant, and Sartori, associate director of Jewish Studies at Northeastern University, wanted to know if and how American Jewish parents’ Jewish identities changed after adopting children, especially in the case of transracial adoptions. They also were interested in understanding the experiences and Jewish identity of children adopted by Jewish families.
“We think that if we give adopted kids a warm Jewish upbringing they will adopt Judaism and Jewishness without complexity. But we have to remember that these children have other aspects of their identity that they and their adoptive parents need to deal with,” Guberman told The Times of Israel.
In the first phase of their research, the scholars conducted an online survey of American Jewish adoptive parents between fall 2010 and spring 2012. They sent the survey out through personal and communal networks, where it quickly went viral. In total, there were 1,000 respondents (789 of the surveys ended up being usable) from 44 states and 8 countries (American Jewish families living abroad).
American Jews adopt at approximately twice the rate of Americans in general, and 63% of adoptions by Jewish families were international
In the fall 2014 issue of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service, Guberman and Sartori published some of their findings, along with general information about adoption in the United States (and particularly among Jewish families).
They reported that American Jews adopt at approximately twice the rate of Americans in general (in 2000, 5% of Jewish households had at least one adopted child, as opposed to 2.5% of the general population). By the 2000s, 63% of adoptions by Jewish families were international, which was a significantly higher percentage than among other American families. In addition, transracial adoptions were more prevalent among Jewish families than among other families (66% versus 40%). Interestingly, Jews adopt children from the US foster care system far less than do other Americans.
The majority of the respondents to Guberman and Sartori’s survey said they had done some kind of Jewish conversion for their adopted child’ 62% said a formal ceremony was involved. Three percent said their adopted children were already Jewish by matrilineal descent and did not require conversion.
Helping adoptees mesh multiple identities
In the second phase of of the Adoption & Jewish Identity Project, which is now underway, the researchers are reaching out to adoptees who are now young adults between the ages of 18 and 30. Some 100 from all over the country have filled out surveys, and 25 are being chosen for in-depth, in-person recorded interviews.
Ultimately, Guberman and Sartori plan to turn all their findings into a book that they feel will give voice to parents and adoptees whom they believe have not been heard in the Jewish community thus far.
“It’s a lonely experience. People don’t talk about these issues. Adoption is something invisible in plain sight,” Guberman said.
“Jewish community professionals and educators are receptive to these children, but they haven’t received any specific training on the subject,” Sartori added.
Adoption experts say that if parents decide to adopt transracially or transculturally, they have the responsibility to raise the child with a comfortable understanding of their birth heritage.
“I can’t raise my Chinese-born daughter as Chinese, but I can take seriously the need to expose her to Chinese culture and to help her develop relationships with other people from that culture so that she feels comfortable with her racial identity,” Sartori said.
‘You have to start seeing your Jewish family as multi-racial’
“It’s about involving your whole family in the other culture and not outsourcing the job to someone else. You have to start seeing your Jewish family as multi-racial,” she said.
For her part, Silverman said she and her husband are raising all five of their children in the same manner.
“We are giving the same heritage to all our kids. All we can do is give them the same set of tools we have to orient themselves in the world,” she explained.
At the same time, she noted that she deliberately chose to hire Ethiopian-Israeli au pairs to help take care of the kids when they lived in Boston before moving to Israel nine-and-a-half years ago.
“I never wanted my boys’ to see their Ethiopian and Jewish identitites as separate,” Silverman said.
Not surprisingly, it is during adolescence and young adulthood, when adoptees begin to step out of their Jewish family and community “bubble” and start to grapple with their multifaceted identities.
“These young people are constantly being asked to prove their Jewish identity and cultural competence. You respond internally to ‘Funny, you don’t look Jewish’ differently if you weren’t born Jewish,” Guberman noted.
Sartori pointed out that some adopted children may not be interested in their birth heritage, but that this does not mean that parents shouldn’t bring it up or offer to expose them to it.
“Kids interpret silence as it being not okay to talk about their adoption and birth heritage,” she said.
Refusing to sacrifice children on the altar of cultural heritage
Now that Silverman and her family live in Israel, where there are some 150,000 Jewish citizens of Ethiopian origin or descent, her sons don’t really meet people who are surprised that they are both Jewish and Ethiopian.
While Silverman is fully aware of the importance of the issues on which Guberman and Sartori are focused, she believes that matters of cultural heritage must come second to saving the millions of children around the world in need of loving homes.
‘My job in the world is to tell people about adoption and the orphan crisis’
“My job in the world is to tell people about adoption and the orphan crisis. I am worried about systems that prevent international adoption, ones that sacrifice kids on altars like cultural heritage preservation or anti-colonialism,” Silverman told The Times of Israel.
“I’m not sure how you define cultural heritage, but a life of institutionalization, mental illness, sex trafficking, crime and early death is not a worthy cultural heritage. And certainly not a life we should impose on a child in the name of some greater heritage value,” she wrote in her book.
Just as Silverman’s memoir begins with her childhood, so too her desire to save the world’s orphans.
Her father taught a course on the Holocaust at a local Hebrew school when she was growing up. She still recalls the conversations she had with him about it, and in particular a question he posed.
“We are living in a time when people are suffering at the hands of others. So, what kind of person do you want to be?” he asked her.