How my adopted son taught me the glory of the I-Thou relationship

I have sung Shema thousands of times over the years, but I will never forget singing it to Zamir on the floor of an Ethiopian boarding house
Rabbi Susan Silverman, second from left, with her children, including Zamir, second from the right. (Courtesy)
Rabbi Susan Silverman, second from left, with her children, including Zamir, second from the right. (Courtesy)

I first held my little boy, Zamir, when he was four years old and living in an orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I traveled there with his new big sisters: Aliza, who was twelve years old, and Hallel, who was ten. Waiting at home with their dad were their younger brother Adar, seven, and baby sister, Ashira, two. At four, Zamir would plop in between the two little ones. Our three daughters had been born to us, and Zamir’s new big brother was adopted from Ethiopia.

My girls and I arrived in the early afternoon during nap time at the Children’s House. As we waited patiently in the courtyard, we watched through the window as Gail, the Children’s House director, gently picked up a little boy from the top bunk and brought him to us. She walked over to me, and carefully let the child’s weight shift onto me. His tiny head rested on my shoulder, his body along mine, and his arms gently embracing me.

After a few moments, he woke up and stared into my eyes. It took him a few seconds to recognize me from the photos we had sent, but once he made the connection, his entire face radiated such joy. We were all smiling and so excited as we embraced the newest member of our family.

Like millions of children worldwide, Zamir lived in an institution. And no institution can provide what children are innately wired for, love. Love that says: I see you, I got you, I value you. They cannot provide what Martin Buber called an I-Thou relationship. This kind of relationship, “I-Thou,” means we relate with the entirety of our being to another whole person.

The ultimate goal for every single child, especially if we believe everybody is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, is to be in an I-Thou relationship with an adult – and not just any adult: a permanent, loving, devoted adult.

After our first day together, the girls and I brought Zamir back to the boarding house where we were staying. I gave each one of them a kiss and sang the traditional nightly Shema prayer before we went to bed.

The next day, we finalized the adoption in court and celebrated by sharing our first family meal. Little Zamir’s laughter was so contagious, and it brought me tremendous joy to see him have such a great time with his older sisters. I will always cherish that memory in my heart.

That night, exhausted, we arrived back at the boarding house, and I prepared the children for bed. As I got up to go to sleep in the next room, I felt little Zamir’s tiny hand grip my arm and delicately pull me back down. I said good night again, gave him a kiss, and went to leave but he pulled me down again.

One of the girls said, “Mama, maybe he wants you to sing Shema.” I had sung it to them the night before, as was our family custom, but in my exhaustion had forgotten. While I was unsure that was the reason, I still started to sing it. Shema Yisrael adonai eloheinu adonai echad….

As I sang, he had the same beautiful smile from the day we first embraced in the courtyard. He closed his eyes, lay down, and went to sleep. I have sung Shema thousands of times over my 30 years of being a mother. However, it was this moment that I still remember distinctly. My new son, on a foam mattress on the floor of a paint-chipped boarding home, in one of the poorest cities in the world, taught me the glory of I-Thou, and elicited God’s presence.

About the Author
Rabbi Susan Silverman is a writer, teacher, activist and Director of Second Nurture: Every Child Deserves a Family and a Community, that partners with synagogues in the US to gather in support of local foster families.
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