Adoptive Jewish Families Head Back to China

By Daniel Levisohn

Published February 27, 2008, issue of March 07, 2008.
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Rabbi Mark Sameth does a lot of traveling with his two Chinese-born adopted daughters in pursuit of the girls’ hybrid cultural heritage.

In 2005, Annie Silverman traveled back to China with her adoptive Jewish mother, Janet.
In 2005, Annie Silverman traveled back to China with her adoptive Jewish mother, Janet.
Homecoming?: Yakira Sameth of Pleasantville, N.Y., visited her native China last year.
Homecoming?: Yakira Sameth of Pleasantville, N.Y., visited her native China last year.

On a recent trip to Washington from their home in Pleasantville, N.Y., they hunted down an ancient carved-stone washing bowl that once belonged to a Chinese synagogue. In New York City, they mined the sacred books room of the Jewish Theological Seminary to examine a Chinese Torah scroll bound with silk. But the most exciting trip, Sameth says, was touring with his daughters, ages 5 and 9, in China last summer.

“Now that the girls were old enough, we wanted to take them to see the country,” Sameth told the Forward. “The tour took us to ancient China, medieval China and modern China. And we wanted them to see the Jewish parts of China.”

The Sameth family is not alone. As the first generation of adopted Chinese daughters enters early childhood and adolescence, a growing number of adoptive Jewish parents are touring China with their children, in search of a way to explore identities that are both Chinese and Jewish.

“A large number of families returning are Jewish families,” Jane Liedtke said. Liedtke founded the Bloomington, Ill.-based Our Chinese Daughters Foundation, which organizes China tours for adoptive families.

According to Liedtke, Jews have constituted a growing portion of her clients since she began leading trips 10 years ago. Today, Liedtke estimates that as many as 40% of her 900 clients yearly have a Jewish background.

While there are no statistics on how many Jewish families have adopted daughters from China, the adoption rate by American families swelled in the 1990s after the Chinese government opened the country’s doors to foreign adoption. Today, there are more than 65,000 adopted Chinese children living in the United States, though new regulations have made it more difficult to adopt from China since numbers peaked in 2005. Most of the adoptees have been daughters, thanks to China’s policy of restricting family sizes and to the cultural prejudices with regard to girls.

For Jewish parents who have adopted daughters from China, a return trip can be driven by a variety of motivations. Some parents see it as a valuable opportunity to synthesize their daughters’ Jewish and Chinese heritages, while others see it simply as a chance to visit the places that shaped their daughters’ first days, such as orphanages. Others find it an alluring locale for a bat mitzvah.

“Because she was being bat mitzvahed in an Olympic year, we’d hoped to have an abbreviated bat mitzvah in China during the Olympic period,” said Steven Wolfe, who has been trying to plan a ceremony for his 12-year-old daughter at the Great Wall of China. “I thought that it would have been nice to mix her Chinese descent with her newly adopted religion. I thought the combination of the two would have been unusual and would have brought home for her that she is really from two different cultures.”

Wolfe thinks the trip won’t be possible, because of complications with logistics and the difficulty of finding a rabbi willing to travel to the Great Wall. Liedtke says that though she has been receiving requests to organize bat mitzvah trips to China, she doesn’t know if anyone has been able to pull that off.

For many parents, planning the trips to China brings up some of the dilemmas of raising a child from two different cultures. Parents can choose to go on a Jewish heritage tour of China, but this type of tour does not put families in contact with other adopted Chinese children. There are also tours set up for adopted families, but these generally do not emphasize Jewish sites.

Elena Stein, a Cincinnati rabbi who is engaging in research to plan a trip back to China with her daughter Dahlia, says she is still weighing her options. Touring with other adoptive families would require finding free time to partake in Jewish activities, while traveling with a Jewish heritage tour would deprive Stein and her daughter of experiencing China with families like their own.

“I would like for it to be a Chinese-Jewish tour because I would like for her to see her identities as integrated and not separated,” Stein said. But because return trips can often be emotionally charged, she is still considering a tour with other adoptive families. “Depending on what’s going on, we might need the support of that group,” she said.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that most adoptive families decide to travel with non-Jewish organizations. Many of these groups arrange for additional excursions to Jewish sites. Our Chinese Daughters Foundation maintains a relationship with Jewish community members in Beijing to meet the needs of its Jewish clients. Another popular stop is the city of Kaifeng in the Henan province, which was home to an isolated Jewish community that formed 1,000 years ago.

“They like going back so they can show [their children] there are Chinese people who are Jewish,” Liedtke told the Forward.

The Sameth family chose to travel with The Families With Children From China Heritage Tours, which organizes trips for adoptive families and is partly subsidized by the Chinese government.

“There were a number of different Jewish families on the trip, and we did have some of those experiences together,” Sameth said. “We went to the bakery and found rolls that looked enough like challah, and we would make our own Shabbat dinners.”

But not all Jewish families who travel back to China are looking for a Jewish experience.

“To me, what was important was showing her the country, visiting the orphanage and meeting the people who brought her to me, the two nurses, who were there,” said Janet Silverman, who traveled to China in 2005 with her then 9-year-old daughter.

Silverman told the Forward that though she wants her daughter, whose own bat mitzvah is approaching, to feel comfortable with her Judaism, that wasn’t the point of their trip. For that purpose she has a different destination in mind.

“We are supposed to go to Israel this summer,” she said. “The positive thing about going to Israel is seeing a lot of Jews out there who don’t look like the Jews in Westchester.”

Beyond the culture, there are strong reasons to return to China. The latest research has shown that a return can help an adopted child’s development. Whatever the reason, the interest is there and growing, Liedtke says.

“We’ve been asked to arrange for a kosher tour,” Liedtke said. “We expect that someday that trip will come.”

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