Dr. Jayne Guberman felt two things when her adopted daughter announced at a pre-bat mitzvah family education program eight years ago, “I don’t know how I feel about being Jewish.” Guberman felt it was incredibly courageous of her daughter to share this in public. She also felt very alone as an adoptive parent in the Jewish community.
Although things are changing, Guberman believes that the message many adoptive parents are still getting is this: “It’s okay to be in the community as long as your kids are feeling the right things.” In many cases, there is “not a lot of room for adopted kids to explore their other identity,” she said in a recent interview.
Her daughter now grown up and in college, Guberman, the former Director of Oral History and Online Collecting at the Jewish Women’s Archive, is partnering with Dr. Jennifer Sartori, Associate Director of Jewish Studies at Northeastern University, on the Adoption and Jewish Identity Project. Sartori, like Guberman, has a professional interest in Jewish identity, having focused on the subject for her doctoral dissertation in Jewish History. However, as the adoptive mother of a 4-year-old daughter from China, she, like Guberman, also has a personal stake in the project.
The two women formally launched the project this past fall with a comprehensive online survey. to gather data on adoptive families. “It is surprising how little is known about these families. Only one question about adoption was asked on the National Jewish Population Survey,” Sartori noted.
The Adoption and Jewish Identity Project survey, aimed at Jewish (broadly defined) adoptive parents asks questions about religious affiliation, practice and identity. It also asks about the religious and cultural upbringing of the children in the family, both those adopted and those born into the family biologically. In addition, there are questions about the birth religion and national origin of the children, conversion to Judaism, and the adopted children’s Jewish identity and relationship to their birth families.
In line with the fact that a large proportion of adoptions within the Jewish community today are international, there is a section of the survey which asks about whether and how adoptive parents are incorporating aspects of the adopted children’s birth heritage into the family’s life. Also, the survey asks parents to share information about their involvement in the organized Jewish community, and about their perception of the community’s acceptance of adoptive families.
Aside from gathering this data as the basis for a book that Guberman and Sartori plan on writing, the researchers aim to raise awareness and open the conversation about “a population that is changing the face of the community.” Adoption is no longer an unusual way to form a Jewish family (Guberman and Sartori cite a rough statistic that 5% of Jewish families have at least one adopted child), and they want to give these families a voice and ensure that no single adoptive family feels alone.
As of December 10, there were 711 respondents to the survey, which the researchers have been disseminating through organizations’ listservs, online affinity groups and social media — both Jewish and mainstream. Responses have come in from all over the country and from American Jewish families living in 30 other countries worldwide. So far among the respondents, international adoptions have been greater than domestic ones (60% to 40% respectively). “We’re seeing huge diversity; there are interfaith families, single parents, LGBT families, Jews of color. Adoption is reaching every corner of the Jewish community,” Sartori said. “There is clearly an overlap between adoption and other major demographic issues in today’s Jewish community,” added Guberman.
Because of the online nature of the survey, the majority of the respondents thus far have skewed toward younger ages. Guberman and Sartori hope that the number of older parents (with grown children) answering the survey will grow.
Guberman said that many respondents have thanked the research team for reaching out to them and asking them to share their experiences. Some will be able to share even more when the next phase of the project gets underway. The researchers plan on conducting oral history interviews with young adult adoptees (those in their late teens through their thirties), and collecting narrative essays by adoptive parents. These, framed and put into context by the data derived from the survey, will make up the book that Guberman and Sartori plan on ultimately producing.
Keeping in mind that the personal is the political, they hope that their work will help inform future policies and programs of Jewish organizations for the benefit of not only the Jewish adoptive community, but also the American Jewish community as a whole as it moves further into the 21st century.