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Cross racial adoptions in Jewish families

  • racial lines
“There are things that are put in your path in life, and you just pick up the ball and you run with it – this was one of them.” This is how Marcelle Fisher explains her family’s journey towards adopting Nhlanhla Leeat, now aged 14.
by MIRAH LANGER | Jul 19, 2018

“My two older girls were very involved in the outreach programmes at their school, notably one at the Impilo institution, which helps orphaned, abused and neglected babies. They were there when Nhlanhla was brought in. She was five months old and my daughters bonded with her instantly,” explains the vivacious mother of five.

When Nhlanhla was 18 months old, the institution began looking at putting her in an orphanage. “Then my kids started asking me: ‘Mom, will you consider fostering her?’ I said: ‘Okay, let’s try…’

“It wasn’t anything I went to look for. It just happened. We decided as family that it was the right thing to do.”

At the time Marcelle said she didn’t have concerns over cultural differences, although in retrospect, she concedes it might have required more consideration. “But when you see this poor, innocent, abandoned little baby, you don’t think. The child needs a place of safety and if that’s what you can offer it, then that is what you have to do.”

Marcelle’s family is one of four Jewish families that the SA Jewish Report interviewed about their experiences in adopting across racial lines. While the parents, and, in some cases, other siblings are white, the adopted children are black. For the most part, these families requested to remain anonymous as they were afraid of victimisation. So, their names have been changed to protect them.

Most of the families describe themselves as traditional, rather than religious. Yet they do position this aspect of their identity as key in terms of promoting ethical values, a sense of family unity and feeling a sense of connection to certain rituals and practices.

“I love being Jewish; I’m passionate about it… His culture is our culture,” explains Tanya, who along with her husband Brad, adopted Sam when he was just three months old. He is now a toddler.

Julie and her husband, Chad, adopted Aaron when he was a baby. Now he is a young boy who has forged close ties with his extended Jewish family. “I have a strong and big family here; we celebrate the main festivals and Friday nights,” says Aaron.

None of the families who spoke to the SA Jewish Report conducted an Orthodox conversion to Judaism for their children. Some chose not to do this because they wanted to allow their children some leeway in the future, particularly in terms of finding a partner at some stage.

Alice and William are married with two biological children and an adopted daughter, Dina, who is now a teenager. Alice explains that they “made a decision that we would not do a conversion because I think it is very different when you adopt trans-racially. We want her to have that choice and if she wants to megaye, we will support her.”

When it came to schooling, the parents had also thought very carefully about their choices.

Sam attends a Jewish nursery school – Tanya said that it was chosen because “it is a great school”.

As Sam grows up, Tanya says finding the right school for him will be a case of “trial and error. I want him to go to a school where he doesn’t feel different.”

A similar sentiment is expressed by the other parents, who chose racially diverse schools. As Julie declares: “For me, it was more important that he went to a school where there would be mirrors for his identity.”

The families say that their social and family circles have embraced their children: “It seemed to bring out the best in people. People have their issues, assumptions and prejudices in theory, but when it comes to a baby, there is a natural response [of warmth],” observes Julie.

However, beyond personal contexts, racial difference has, at times, led to somewhat jarring and intrusive encounters with strangers. For example, William and Alice note that people have come up to ask whether Dina is HIV positive or the “maid’s daughter”.

Says Alice: “How can people poke their noses and say that? You would never go to a white mother and say that.”

At other times, people compliment them, seeing them as carrying out an act of charity, rather than of parenting.

This is also a limited understanding, suggest the couple, because “what we have got back is so much more than we have ever wished for. We see it as a huge privilege. It has been the biggest blessing in our lives.”

Marcelle says she has ensured that Nhlanhla knows she will always be supported in these difficult situations: “I have her back, and she knows it. So, she is quite secure in herself because we back her.”

The experiences of their children have often made the parents reflect on the nature of identity and difference as a whole.

Says Julie: “On one level, you are just a parent and you love your family like any other. But on another level, there are complex identity issues to process and you have to make space for them.”

Alice agrees, saying: “I don’t think we get how often she feels different.”

Referring to an article on trans-racial adoption, she reflects that while “a lot of people say race doesn’t matter, race only doesn’t matter to the people it doesn’t affect. So, it doesn’t affect us. We are not the ones who are getting the questions or getting the looks – and she does get it.”

Tanya accepts that she cannot fully determine what role race will play as Sam gets older. “Everyone is different in their own way. We will deal with it as it comes.”

Ultimately, the core of each family is simple: Love.

Describing the first night that Aaron came home, Julie says: “It was amazing; we put him in the cot and he looked around. He had an expression that seemed to say: ‘This will be okay.’

“My hope is that he embraces the different elements of who he is, his ancestry, his legacy.”

As Tanya reflects on the “overwhelming” moment of “instant love” when Sam was first placed in her arms, she hopes that Sam will grow up to be “a good person, who treats everyone with equality and respect – and who can be himself”.

Marcelle says that over the years, her beloved daughter “has realised she is a loved and wanted member of the family. She is my child; she just didn’t come out of my stomach.”

For Alice and William, what they have come to learn in parenting Dina – who spent some time in care before being adopted – is this: “You can’t undo the past; you can’t fix it; you can’t make it better. I think a lot of adoptive parents go into adoption, thinking: ‘I’m going to rescue this child and with enough love, I can fix their loss, their pain, their everything’ – and you can’t.”

Yet the bond they’ve forged now is of deep trust and a cherished connection. Alice describes the relationship between father and daughter: “Today, William is her closest person in the world and she is his closest person in the world. They are two peas in the pod. She is his absolute soul mate and vice versa.”

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