Why Orthodox Jews Have Been Hesitant to Adopt Outside Their Community, and Why They Shouldn't Be

Over 100,000 American children in foster care are waiting to be adopted. Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews can help.



Jan. 14 2020
About the author

Malka Groden is a domestic-adoption advocate in the American Jewish community.

The rapid growth in the numbers of children in America who are waiting to be adopted has stimulated proactive efforts by Christian organizations to ease the burden on foster-care and adoptive families. So far, the American Jewish community has shown little desire to help.

To understand both the nature of the problem and the disparity in responses to it, a bit of background is in order, starting with the terms themselves.

For many, the word “adoption” brings to mind a biologically childless couple waiting for years to be matched with a child until the blessed day arrives when they can bring their infant home from the hospital. That scenario does indeed describe one type of adoption: the private type. This usually involves the services of an adoption agency or a private lawyer hired to match prospective parents with a pregnant woman who makes her choice by looking through colorful booklets of smiling couples. Should those prospective parents be open to a non-white child, or a child exposed in utero to drugs or alcohol, they will often be matched more quickly.

But then there’s public adoption, which is managed through the foster-care system: an arrangement for children whose parents, for one reason or another, are unable to care for them. Typically, the goal in foster care is reunification with the child’s biological family; in the interim, such a child might be placed with relatives, or with foster parents, or in a group home. Only if reunification becomes impossible are the biological parents’ rights terminated and the child freed for adoption.

Foster-care children are rarely infants. Some are sibling sets; others have experienced some form of trauma, abuse, and/or neglect; in the case of some, one or both parents may be incarcerated. More than one-third of the children entering the foster-care system have been removed from their homes at least in part because of parental substance abuse.

In short: in private adoption, prospective parents wait impatiently to be matched with a single child. In the world of public adoption, legions of children are waiting to be matched with a home. According to AFCARS, the federal service that tracks child-welfare cases, the number of American children entering the foster-care system has increased over the last five years. By the close of 2017, out of a reported total of 437,000 children in foster care, 123,000 were waiting to be adopted.


In trying to cope with this burgeoning challenge, a number of states, especially those ravaged by the opioid crisis, have been overhauling their foster-care system with an eye toward more actively recruiting foster and adoptive parents. Still, the actual process of fostering a child remains, understandably, extensive and burdensome. Along with a background check to make sure a home is appropriate, prospective families are required to undergo state-mandated training. This involves a number of sessions (varying both within each state and from state to state) to prepare for parenting a child who might have been through trauma, abuse, and/or multiple foster-care placements.

Fortunately, the efforts by public institutions to fill the void of desperately needed families have recently been augmented as, across the country, church communities and evangelical Christian organizations have mobilized to partner with state agencies. These churches and grassroots initiatives tend to know up-close the difficulties faced by those who volunteer to foster and adopt or are thinking of doing so—and especially how hard it is to navigate the process alone. In enlisting the help of local pastors and religious leaders, they have linked the good deed of helping needy and vulnerable children to the principles animating their faith, all in the cause of supplying a crucial missing element in the process: communal support, both practical and emotional.

In a 2018 essay for the Atlantic, Naomi Schaefer Riley described three such organizations—Project 1:27, the CALL, and Restore Hope—that work to alleviate the burden on prospective foster families through a network of other families of faith who are either going through the same process or have been educated to understand its realities and can provide effective support. Thus, families are strongly encouraged (and sometimes required) to bring a friend to training sessions who will be equipped to step in and help when the new foster parents will inevitably need a day off. Local pastors are encouraged to speak and give guidance on this subject and to promote an adoptive- and foster-family-friendly atmosphere in their churches.

On a practical level, these organizations provide anything from a more convenient schedule of training sessions to a babysitting room where volunteers care for a family’s other children during parental sessions. The CALL, in Arkansas, has even built a fully stocked “thrift shop” with free diapers, clothes, and toiletries for families who have suddenly been placed with a foster child.

Efforts like these have indeed made some headway toward recruiting and supporting foster and adoptive parents. But the need for more homes remains urgent. In New York State alone, where no such bridge organizations exist, there are currently 3,500 children waiting for adoptive families.


What, then, of the Jews—another faith community with a substantial presence in large cities and a broad communal infrastructure? So far, the involvement of American Jews in this cause has been minimal. Nor does there seem any reason to think that some significant portion of the Jewish community might become galvanized to act.

For one thing, as survey data from the last several years have confirmed, American Jews in general are themselves marrying later, having fewer if any children, and showing minimal connection to any form of organized Jewish life with its many resources for communal support. According to a 2017 study published by the Jewish People Policy Institute and authored by the sociologists Sylvia Barack Fishman and Steven M. Cohen, only 15 percent of non-ḥaredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) Jews between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-four are forming Jewish families and raising Jewish children; 30-35 percent are unmarried and have no children; and the remainder are largely intermarried or without children.

If a sizable percentage of non-ḥaredi Jews—that is to say, a sizable percentage of most Jews in this age range—are not forming families to begin with, they are unlikely to become directly involved in adoption and/or foster care.

There is, however, one group of American Jews who are indeed marrying young, having children, and building families deeply connected to Jewish communal infrastructure through synagogues, schools, and a broad range of support organizations. That group comprises both the Ḥaredim and the modern Orthodox, who, although together making up only a minority of affiliated American Jews, are uniquely committed to their traditions and their communities.

In recent decades, indeed, the Orthodox world has become adept at devising arrangements in support of individuals and families going through life’s most significant challenges: medical crises, infertility, domestic violence, drug addiction, poverty, and more. The organization In Shifra’s Arms, for example, supports, emotionally, practically, and financially, Jewish women facing unplanned pregnancies; for another example, the Jewish Children’s Adoption Network has placed thousands of Jewish babies with special needs in Jewish homes nationwide.

But there’s the rub: float within Orthodox precincts any suggestion of becoming involved with the issue of foster care and adoption in the larger society, and the initial response will likely be, “But those children aren’t Jewish. Why is this a Jewish cause?”

As it happens, there is an answer to that question that is of special relevance to Orthodox and ḥaredi Jews. To grasp it, one need only turn to the perspective on the Jewish family propounded by two towering Jewish leaders and thinkers of the 20th century: Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the “Lubavitcher Rebbe,” and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the “Rav”: the one the innovative leader of the ḥasidic movement known as Chabad, the other the pre-eminent theologian and doyen of modern Orthodoxy.


The Lubavitcher Rebbe is famous for sending his emissaries throughout the world to bring Judaism and Jewish resources to Jews wherever they might be found, thereby building a mass network of Jewish centers worldwide.

Initially, the Rebbe’s vision for outreach came as a shock to the Orthodox world, involving as it did the spectacle of young Orthodox men and women picking up their roots and relocating to distant corners of the globe as emissaries of Chabad or perhaps approaching business people on the streets of midtown Manhattan asking if they’re Jewish and then urging them to don phylacteries or light Sabbath candles. Dismissing objections to this practice, the Rebbe stressed that it was a Jew’s mission to multiply opportunities for good deeds and the chance for any and all Jews to connect to their Creator.

More broadly, the Rebbe taught that Jews are tasked with revealing not only their own “divine spark” but also the divine spark that resides within each human being, Jew and non-Jew alike. Thus, among Chabad’s initiatives was a campaign to include, at the start of each day in the nation’s public schools, a moment of silence during which all children would have an opportunity to contemplate their own purpose and responsibilities. Similarly, the Rebbe pushed for criminal-justice reform—stressing that those incarcerated must be given the chance for rehabilitation so that they too can return to their God-given mission in life—at a time when this issue did not command the broad consensus it enjoys today.

Both of these projects, geared simultaneously toward Jews and the broader community, reflected the Rebbe’s firmly activist view of the essential worth of each human being. With a proper moral foundation and education, he held, every individual, however highly or humbly situated, has the potential to grow and reveal his or her own divine spark. It is the mission of Jews to advance that project through whatever means they can: teaching Torah, helping to build a soup kitchen, giving charity, or adopting and parenting a non-Jewish child in desperate need of a stable, loving home.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Soloveitchik, coming at the issue from his own direction, devoted an entire volume of essays, Family Redeemed, to the theme of family relationships. In one of these essays, he describes two forms of parenthood.

The first form, “natural parenthood,” is represented by Adam and Eve. The motherhood of Eve is instinctual and all-consuming; her entire being is involved, through the nine months of pregnancy and onward through the physical and biological demands of childbirth and child rearing. For Adam, by contrast, fathering a child makes no biological claims at all; after the child’s birth, he is free to act exactly as he did before.

With Abraham and Sarah, a new form—“covenantal” or “redeemed” parenthood—is revealed. For the first time, fatherhood demands something of men: Abraham must serve as an educator, molding his children and the next generation. In this mission, Sarah, the redeemed mother, joins him as partner and essential link in the transmission of the covenant. Separate from the biological demands made on her as a mother, motherhood takes on a larger ethical meaning to which she in turn makes a free commitment. At the start of the Jewish people’s history, God confers on the first foremother and forefather the chance to move beyond the innate ties of biology and assume a trans-generational mission.


Thus, where the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings clarify the nature of the core Jewish mission, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s conception of covenantal parenthood provides the framework in which that mission can be fulfilled through the specific medium of the Jewish family.

What does this mean for our subject here? It means that by moving a child from the darkness of abuse, neglect, and trauma and embracing that child in their home, a Jewish family steps into the shoes of Abraham and Sarah. Theirs is by definition not an act of biological reproduction but of covenantal redemptiveness: a pledge to cultivate the child’s God-given dignity and worth and, in so doing, exemplify and advance the essential mission of a Jew.

In this regard, pathbreaking Christian efforts to recruit and support adoptive and foster families can serve as a model for nascent Jewish ones, especially within the religiously observant communities of Orthodox and ḥaredi Jews. Those Christian efforts have also shown that not everyone is called upon exclusively to foster or adopt; equally important are those who can help support families financially and emotionally.

By learning from the remarkable work done by American Christians, and by actualizing the core Jewish mission through the redemptive power of the Jewish family, American Jews can begin to help bring healing to a generation of children wounded and forgotten.

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