COLUMBIA — Like many Jewish girls her age, Rachel Shenker has already begun planning the celebration of her bat mitzvah.
Lounging in a chair, blowing her gum into big, pink sticky bubbles, toying with her cell phone, she explained that her bat mitzvah will have a ’50s sock hop theme, complete with a pink poodle skirt for her to wear during the ceremony and subsequent dance.
To most of those who know her, Rachel is an average 12-year-old Jewish girl. But because she was born to non-Jewish parents before being adopted by Joel and Debbie Shenker, and never went through a conversion ritual, some Jewish communities would not consider Rachel a Jew.
The question of who is and isn’t a Jew has been an age-old debate in the religious community, and it has only grown more potent as adoption and interracial marriage becomes more and more common among Jews. Ancient religious writings and teachings are mixed on the subject of Jewish adoption, said Rabbi Michael Gold, author of “And Hannah Wept: Infertility, Adoption, and the Jewish Couple.”
“Adoption as a legal procedure does not exist in Jewish law,” Gold said. “And there are two messages in Judaism that seem to contradict each other. One is, the true parent is the one that raises the child. On the other hand, blood ties are everything. How do you put those two messages together?”
As a result, different Jewish traditions have chosen to handle the question of adoption in different ways.
In the Reform expression, practiced by Rachel and her family, no formal conversion is necessary for an adopted child whose birth mother is a gentile, Gold said. As long as the child is raised Jewish and chooses to stay a Jew after coming of age, the child is seen as Jewish.
The Orthodox movement, on the other hand, holds to the part of Halakha (Jewish law) that states that any child born to a non-Jewish mother, regardless of the religion of the father, cannot be considered a Jew without going through a formal conversion.
THE SHENKER FAMILY
Debbie Shenker, Rachel’s adoptive mother, was raised Methodist but began the long process to convert to Judaism after she and Joel were married. Then the chaos of Sept. 11 happened, she said, “and it sort of stopped,” although she said she still embraces the philosophy of Reform Judaism.
Debbie and Joel have always kept a Jewish home, and the decision to raise Rachel and her 9-year-old adopted brother, Benjamin, in the Jewish faith was natural to being part of the family.
The children’s non-Jewish pasts still have a small presence in Shenker rituals. “Rachel’s birth mother asked three things of us, and one was that Rachel would always be able to have a Christmas tree and celebrate Christmas,” Debbie said. “She (Rachel’s birth mother) gave us something that we couldn’t give ourselves, so we worked out a way to do Christmas.”
The Shenkers celebrate Christmas every third year along with Debbie’s non-Jewish side of the family. Instead of nativity scenes or ornaments painted with religious scenes, they opt for “winter decorations.”
Rachel said she recognizes that her birth mother was not Jewish, but her identity has always been that of a Jew. “My friends all think it’s cool that I’m adopted and that I’m Jewish,” she said, saying that both things are part of her identity.
While there are no recent statistics on the number of American Jews adopting children, the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey found that about 8 percent of Jewish households had adopted children, about three times the rate of the general community, said Bert J. Goldberg, president and CEO of the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies.
Goldberg said that one theory for the number of Jews turning to adoption is that, statistically, Jewish women tend to wait to have children later in life and may run into more fertility problems as a result. Other theories suggest that the prevalence of adoption may be attributed in part to the importance Judaism places on family and kids.
“It does create issues,” said Gold, who raised three adopted children. “All my kids said, ‘People say I’m not really Jewish.’ But what’s important is not the seed, the biology. What’s important is raising children. ... This is a very controversial issue today in Judaism.”
Another trend is the growing number of Jewish couples choosing international adoption.
“Sometimes you hear, ‘That baby doesn’t look Jewish,’ but any rabbi will tell you race is utterly irrelevant.” Gold said. “More and more, the Jewish community is changing and realizing that Judaism is not a race and colors and types, but it’s going to be slow.”
THE SIMS FAMILY
Eleven-year-old Rayna Sims just shrugs her shoulders and shakes her head when asked if she ever has trouble with people saying she doesn’t “look” Jewish. A thoughtful girl with straight black hair and almond-shaped eyes, Rayna has known all her life that she wasn’t exactly like most of the other kids in her school. And she’s OK with that.
Rayna was 7 months old and living in an orphanage in Maoming City, China, when she was adopted by Columbia resident Wendy Sims, who is a Reform Jew.
“Adoption day was the day I met her. She was placed in my arms and we became a family,” said Wendy, who chose to adopt from China because, at the time, there were no barriers there against single mothers. “I just held her. It was very intense. ... I just cried.”
When China first began allowing international adoption in the early 1990s, many Jewish adoptive parents like Wendy took advantage of the country’s relatively open adoption process.
Now that first wave of Chinese children who were adopted, including Rayna, are reaching the age where it is time for them to choose to reaffirm their Jewish faith through preparation for their bar or bat mitzvahs. Wendy said Rayna has never questioned her place in the Jewish community because she has always tried to instill in her daughter the idea that looking different is OK.
“We’ve talked about that forever. It’s not particularly about being Jewish. We have always looked different,” Wendy said. “She’s Chinese, Jewish, with a single mother by choice. She’s a lot of minorities, but I want her to be very confident with who she is.”
Rayna said she recognizes that she is different from other kids in her school, and that she is one of the only non-Anglo children in her Hebrew school class. She said she could recall only one instance when someone questioned her faith because of the way she looked. In fifth grade, a substitute teacher read a holiday story to Rayna’s class in preparation for the holiday season. After finishing the book, Rayna said the teacher looked around the room and asked children to raise their hands if they didn’t celebrate Christmas.
“She didn’t believe that I was Jewish,” Rayna said. “I realized she hasn’t had much experience with other types of people.”
LIVING IN COLUMBIA
Both the Sims and the Shenkers say that their families’ experiences in the Jewish community would be a lot different if they didn’t live in Columbia.
The Shenkers lived in Illinois and Virginia before moving to Columbia, and Joel and Debbie agree that the Columbia Jewish community has been the most welcoming of the places they’ve lived.
“When we came here, it was like sunshine. It’s a very warm, welcoming place,” Joel said. “The kids know the rabbi, the rabbi knows the kids. We felt embraced.”
No one in Columbia has questioned her about Rachel’s and Ben’s “legitimacy” as Jews, Debbie said. At the synagogue she and Joel attended in Illinois, however, the members did not accept her because she was not Jewish, even though she was going through the process of conversion at the time.
“Columbia is a good place for nontraditional families,” Wendy Sims said. “We’ve received only positive reactions from the Jewish community.”
Yossi Feintuch, rabbi of Columbia’s Congregation Beth Shalom, said that as a Reform rabbi, he feels he has more leeway in choosing whether to push certain religious rituals on his congregation than his Orthodox or Conservative colleagues, which creates a much more harmonious, welcoming place for Columbia Jews.
“Reform places most emphasis on the way they are raised and less on the rituals,” Feintuch said. “It doesn’t even occur to me to think, ‘Hmm, maybe their biological mother was Baptist. Hmm, maybe they’re not Jews.’”
While Feintuch said he suggests that adopted Jews go through the proper rituals to avoid problems down the road, he doesn’t want to push the rituals or make the children question their faith.
Feintuch said the question of who is a Jew will likely never be fully resolved. He referred to the advice of David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel: “Ben-Gurion said, ‘You are a Jew if you identify yourself as a Jew.’ I don’t think someone who didn’t identify as a Jew would say, ‘I am a Jew.’”