International adoptions change face of American Judaism

By Lauren Markoe
Friday, December 10, 2010; 9:13 PM

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 probably would not 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," said Suissa, who lives in the District. "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, Mass.

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 and 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.

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