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International adoptions changing face of U.S. Judaism

December 21, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Like so many Jewish women, Anne Suissa pursued her education and career with gusto, earning degrees from Cornell and MIT and going on to manage 27 people at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Suissa always knew she wanted marriage and family, but by the time she had found her husband and began trying to have a child, she was in her late 30s. Doctors told her the fertility treatments she had begun would not likely succeed.

Today, the Suissas are parents of two children from Guatemala, both of whom they converted to Judaism. Though their lives are full and rewarding, Suissa still wishes someone had encouraged her to start a family earlier.

In Jewish families, it's “education, education, education,” she said. “But nobody told me that college might be a good time to meet a nice Jewish boy.”

The general track of Suissa’s life is not unusual among Jewish American women. As a group, they’re highly educated — a fact demographers say contributes to their relatively low fertility rates.

Still longing to be mothers, they often adopt, and frequently, their children are of Latino, Asian or African descent. And that, in turn, is slowly changing the face of American Judaism.

Those who study American Jewish families can’t point to formal surveys to document the trend, but clergy and congregants say they are noticing more of these children.

“People don’t blink when they see these kids in synagogue today,” said Susan Abramson, the rabbi at Temple Shalom Emeth, a Reform synagogue in Burlington, MA.

A generation ago, when Abramson co-founded Stars of David, the first national group of Jewish adoptive families, the idea of bringing children of color into their congregations was daunting for many parents. They wondered how children who didn’t share the same Jewish ancestry would be accepted.

But the phenomenon is now a point of pride within many Jewish communities, and their presence reflects the varied complexions of Jews globally, from the Middle East to North Africa to India.

“Judaism is a religion, not a race, and we are enriched by the diversity these kids bring,” said Jenna Greenberg, the associate cantor at Washington’s Adas Israel Conservative synagogue, who recently presided over the baby-naming ceremonies for two girls from Guatemala.

But if the idea of an increasingly diverse community is embraced by American Jews, a key reason for it is not: the relatively low fertility rate.

The number of childless Jewish women in their early 30s is 54 percent, compared to 28 percent for American women in general, according to the most recent National Jewish Population Survey.

The survey also shows about 5 percent of American Jewish households with children include adopted children, compared to the national rate of 3.7 percent. But unlike Americans in general, the survey notes, Jewish Americans are not having enough children to replace themselves.

Fertility specialists and demographers say there’s no medical reason for the difference, but rather point to Jewish women pursuing education and careers, which pushes marriage and children later in life.

The lower fertility rate, which came to light decades ago, is described by some rabbis as ironic, in that one of American Jews’ most cherished values — education — is undermining another — family.

Paul and Joanna Tumarkin of Tucson, AZ, married in 1994, the same year Joanna earned a doctorate in ecology. Then in her mid-30s, she discovered early into fertility treatments that chances of conceiving a child were poor. The couple turned to China, where they adopted two girls.

Adopting two orphans in need of a home, she and her husband said, would be a personal expression of “tikkun olam,” or the Jewish responsibility to help heal the world.

Their girls, Ann, 10, and Lyle, 7, were converted to Judaism as babies and are now enrolled in Hebrew school. “It’s an outward expression of how the Jewish community is changing,” said Paul Tumarkin, who counts “two or three other families” in their synagogue who have adopted children from abroad.

The Tumarkins, like other multiracial Jewish families, say they wouldn’t have wanted their lives to turn out any other way, and now view their struggles with infertility as a step on the path toward adoption.

But some, like Suissa, nevertheless question whether a delayed marriage and childrearing is what they want for their own Jewish daughters.

“I tell younger women that there is more than one prize in life,” said Suissa. Get educated, she said, but keep your eyes on what else you want.

For several decades, Jewish leaders have warned of a demographic crisis in American Jewry caused by low fertility rates and intermarriage rates that hover around 50 percent. But even those who caution against an alarmist response to demographic trends say there is a case to be made for earlier weddings and babies.

Sylvia Barack Fishman, a professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University, encourages women who want families to be mindful of their fertility, understanding that fertility rates drop precipitously for women in their late 30s, and that assisted reproductive technology does not always work.

Jewish women may want to pursue family earlier not just to boost the Jewish population, she said, but also for themselves.

“Jewish women are likely to say they want more than one child. But they’re not having them,” she said. “As a feminist, I’m saying that women are wanting what they are not getting.”

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, who leads Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in suburban Bethesda, MD, cautioned that advising anyone to procreate earlier to solve a real or perceived demographic crisis is likely to backfire.

“Jewish feminists have noted since the 1970s how inappropriate it is to place the burden of Jewish peoplehood on the reproductive organs of half of today’s Jews,” said Dobb.

Dobb and his wife grappled with infertility before they adopted two children, one African-American and the other of mixed race. Rejecting the “mantra of Jewish procreation,” he said there are other ways to strengthen and build the Jewish community.

“Adoption,” he said, “is an answer for every household lucky enough to embrace it.”

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