Real parents, real children

“Who are her real parents?” I bristle every time I hear it. The questioner is usually well-meaning and benignly unaware of his faux pas. I respond with “We are her real parents. Her biological parents are in Russia, where she was born.” Sometimes the questioner immediately understands the distinction. Sometimes he forges ahead with, “So do you have any information about her real parents?”

Some people have a hard time picking up hints.

Baruch and Judy Sterman’s Saying Goodbye to Nilipublished just yesterday on The Times of Israel, has already gone viral, and I couldn’t be happier – for several reasons. As all who read the article can readily see, the Stermans are beautiful people. Anyone who has been given the gift of knowing them personally knows just how special they are, well beyond what the words of one blog post can convey.

The Stermans are my friends and neighbors, and I have always beheld them with some awe. I had the pleasure of witnessing how they selflessly opened up their home to Nili, and to a little boy a few years before. To take a child into your home, embrace that child with all the love you possess, and then release that child to a new future from which you will be absent requires a certain generosity of soul that I’m not sure I could ever acquire.

The Stermans have nurtured Nili with an outpouring of unconditional love that will lay the very foundation for her future. I should know. My wife and I symbolize that child’s future. We are adoptive parents. Or rather, we are simply parents, no adjective required. Our son and daughter are our children in every sense. But we didn’t give birth to them.

The Sterman’s experience as foster parents and our own experience as adoptive parents call into question the tried-and-true notion of parenthood. Many assume that our bond with our children begins with their birth and grows from there. I’ve even heard otherwise enlightened people assume that parents must somehow feel differently about their children, depending on whether they are one’s “real” children or are adopted. The assumption of the birth bond is hard to shake.

Judaism sees things differently. Although Judaism places strong emphasis on biological lineage and the mother’s Jewish status determining the child’s, it offers a different definition of what parenthood means – and in no uncertain terms.

The Bible (2 Samuel) says of Michal, King David’s wife, that she never had children but later mentions her five sons. Commenting on this discrepancy, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 19b) says that her sister Merab gave birth to them but that Michal raised them. The Talmud then goes on to say that from this example, we know that the person who raises the child is the parent “as though he had been born to him.” The Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 46:5) is even more emphatic: “the one who brings up the child is to be called its parent, not the one who gave birth.”

Being adopted is not unlike converting to Judaism, which happens to be how my wife and our two children have come to be Jewish. When someone converts, at the end of their new Hebrew name are the words ben or bat Avraham – son/daughter of Abraham. They are now children of Abraham, the first Jew. Their biology may have come from elsewhere, but the Jewish people have become their family.

Giving birth is necessary for a child to come into existence. It is not what makes one a parent. The daily acts of loving and raising a child are what makes one a parent.

Truthfully, not every curious soul asks us about real parents. Others are more understanding. Some even go to the other extreme. Not infrequently, people have come up to us and said, “You have given these children such a blessing by adopting them.”

No, no and again, emphatically, no. In adopting our children, we have received a blessing. Birth is unquestionably a miracle. But that two children born in Russia would come to be part of a family in Massachusetts, and now in Israel, is every bit as much of a miracle.

They are our children. We are their parents. No greater blessing exists.

About the Author
Harold Berman is the co-author of "Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope," the first true life account of "an intermarriage gone Jewish." Harold was the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and has held senior positions throughout the Jewish communal world. His musings on Jewish life and spirituality have appeared in numerous print and online publications.