Earlier this year, on a beautiful spring day, we drove 30 minutes from our home in Philadelphia to a Thai temple and cultural center to celebrate Songkran, Thailand's Lunar New Year. Eager to get our son excited as we made our way up the drive, we pointed out the dome and spires of the temple peeking out from the trees. "Look Toby, see the temple? Isn't it beautiful?" we asked. He turned to us, full of excitement, and replied, "we're going to see the Temple? In Jerusalem? I can't wait!"
His words stunned and stung us. We were certainly glad to hear that our four-year-old son was picking up on Jewish history. But, on a day we intended to be an opportunity to connect with and celebrate his Thai culture and heritage, his comments concerned us. In our efforts to balance the Ashkenazi Jewish culture of his adopted family with his Thai heritage and traditions, it felt like we had already failed.
Finding ways to connect a child with their heritage while ensuring they feel welcomed as a full member of their adopted family is one of many challenges for transracial adoptive families like ours. This is made clear in the first weeks of any adoption journey - if you're looking to erase your child's identity and only assimilate them into your own family's identity, they tell you that, "the adoption journey is not for you." But, as we learned in the many trainings, seminars, and books we encountered, it's not so simple. How do you encourage your child to celebrate and honor their heritage without making them feel "othered"? If your child refuses to engage, is it your duty to force this identity onto them?
These are difficult questions for any transracial adoptive family, but we found that our Jewish identity added another complicated layer to our situation. At first, we dismissed the parts of our training that seemed intended for families who lived in all-white towns, neighborhoods, and spaces. But as we looked to the Hebrew school, day camps, and other Jewish spaces in which we planned to raise our son, we realized these concerns did apply to us. While there are plenty of resources for white parents adopting Children of Color, there are no real resources for Jewish parents adopting Children of Color.
In 2014, two Jewish adoptive parents, recognizing this lack of resources for Jewish families of adoptees, released a groundbreaking study, "Boundaries of Identity: Jewish Families in an Era of Transnational, Transracial, and Open Adoption," that examined the experiences of adopted American Jews and their families. In their research, these parents spoke with over 1,000 families and adopted adults. As they did so, they uncovered some troubling realities for Jewish Adoptees of Color, namely: "the deep-seated presumption - common to American Jews and non-Jews alike - that Jews are white, as well as the corrosive effects of ingrained racism in the Jewish community. Jewish Adoptees of Color often find the authenticity of their identities as Jews questioned even by members of their own communities or experience outright prejudice."
The study highlighted the unique challenges of Jewish families who wished to incorporate their child's birth heritage in substantial ways, including the reality that many of these activities, such as Chinese-language classes or national holiday and religious events, often conflict with the Jewish religious calendar. Equally concerning were the ambivalent or outright disapproving responses families received from their Jewish communities when these challenges arose. One respondent commented, "[Our] rabbi, who is otherwise welcoming to my children, has discouraged the pursuit of Chinese learning, as he would rather see them identify primarily as Jews. I don't see why they can't pursue both."
This comment struck at the heart of our fear that spring day, when our son saw a Thai temple and connected it not with the Buddhism of his heritage, but with the destruction of the second Temple that is detailed in his beloved PJ Library Hanukkah books. Our son, of course, is still very young, and his journey to discover his identity is just beginning. But as his parent, I recognize that this will be the first in one of the many challenges we will face in raising him - how we can bring him into a Jewish space and ensure that he feels safe to explore both his Thai and Jewish identities there?
This is a question that has yet to be answered, and I am grateful for groups like the Adoption and Jewish Identity Project who are leading the way in providing resources for families and Jewish institutions on this matter. Through this effort, alongside the integral work of groups like the URJ and Jews of Color Initiative, I have faith that my son and his generation will be prepared to look at the world with fresh eyes and recognize that two things can be true at the same time.
As our society remains bitterly divided and intent on forcing all people to pick a side, I hope that my son and those his age can be the leaders who guide us to the center to help us find our shared humanity and truth.
When my son walks into a Jewish space or a Thai place, it is my hope that he will see not what sets him apart, but what makes him whole. That a sacred Temple can have two meanings, and that both can be right and true.