The Jewish Imperative For Child Adoption
Jewish Week Online Columnist
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Millions of children fall asleep every night hungry, wearing an unchanged diaper, and with no one to hold them as they cry themselves to sleep. There is perhaps no greater suffering than to feel unloved, unwanted, and uncared for by anyone. This is the story of the orphan.

The global population just surpassed 7 billion, and concerns for the poor in a world with more limited resources than ever before must be a top priority. Perhaps the most vulnerable among us include the more than 160 million orphans who lack love, attachment, and emotional support, let alone homes. Millions of children need families, and we can all pause to consider adopting some of them.

My wife Shoshana and I feel that, as Jews and global citizens facing the realities of the 21st century, we must consider adoption as a moral imperative. It would not be easy, and there are always risks, but we are blessed with a safe home and with lots of love to give. One need not be rich or be challenged with infertility to consider adoption.

In addition to the moral imperative given the current global state, the Torah strongly condones adoption. The orphan (yatom) is prioritized in the Torah along with the widow (almanah) and stranger (ger) to ensure their protection (Deuteronomy 16:11 and 14; 24:19–21; 26:12–13). God is described as a “father of the fatherless” (Psalms 68:6). To become a parent to a parentless child is to emulate the Divine.

Jewish law encourages adoption so much that the law even considers the adoptive parents who care for, raise, and teach their child to be the official parents. "Whoever brings up an orphan in their home, it is as though they gave birth to him" (Sanhedrin 19b).  This is true to the extent that a child’s halakhic name includes his or her foster parents’ names, because "he who brings up a child is to be called its father, not he who gave birth" (Exodus Rabbah 46:5).

The rabbis taught that one who rescues and raises an orphan child in one’s home fulfills a tremendous mitzvah, since there is a community responsibility to support impoverished orphans (Ketubot 50a). The Talmud holds the community responsible for the support of orphans, for marrying them off, and for providing them with the means to live economically independent lives. Even further, we must allocate our communal funds to support orphans (Ketubot 67b). We are collectively responsible to find solutions for parentless children in the world!

We all might find our own ways to contribute. At the least, we must find some way to love and support this population. Rambam explains how we must show the highest sensitivity toward orphans: "Whoever irritates them, provokes them to anger, pains them, tyrannizes over them, or causes them loss of money, is guilty of a transgression” (Mishneh Torah, De'ot 6:10). We must go beyond avoiding wronging parentless children and be sure to actively show love and care to this population.  The great prophet Isaiah teaches us to “Defend the cause of orphans.” (Isaiah 1:17). How will each of us heed this prophetic call?

Adopting a child is not only a great kindness. It is also a chance to cultivate greatness in an individual with a rich background who can understand multiple worlds and identities. There is great precedent for adoption as a model to cultivate greatness. For example, the greatest prophet of all time, Moses, was adopted when his parents couldn’t safely raise him (Exodus 2). His multiple identities as a Hebrew and Egyptian benefited his leadership greatly cultivating deeper empathy towards human vulnerability. Similarly, Mordechai raised his orphaned cousin Esther, who went on to be a crucial Jewish leader.  The great talmudic sage Abaye often quoted wise sayings in the name of his foster mother.

Adoption is not for everyone. There are serious challenges, risks, and commitments that come with such a decision, but given the realities of our over-populated world and the over-abundance of orphans, it is a decision we must all at least consider. There is perhaps no damage greater to the soul then growing up in the world without parents and without being held at night. Every stable family has the opportunity to embrace the most vulnerable humans on the planet when we give children a home and family. Let’s consider!

Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for pre-order on Amazon. 



Last Update:

11/07/2013 - 04:29
adoption, Egyptians, mishna, orphans

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I was directed to this discussion from another article, and this was written nearly two years ago. Yet, as an adoptive parent, not Jewish but Catholic, may I say I was greatly inspired by the Rabbi's words.

As to the cost of adoption, I adopted twice, once from overseas, and once through Luthern Social Services. Oh, and our local agency was Jewish Family Services in Toledo Ohio. Nice selection for a Catholic family.

The cost then was far lower than it is today, and I believe that is largely because of baby buying through private adoptions. We need to move adoption back to non-profit agencies. The focus need to be on homes for the children, not babies for the parents.

What about the question of the enormous costs of adopting? What if you want to adopt but simply can not afford to do so? Why is this topic not addressed?

As far as adoption being expensive that is true in regards to international adoption yes. But children waiting in the US foster system to be adopted need homes as well. There is very little if any fees to adopt from foster care. Plus if the child is older than 5, part of a sibling group, a minority, or has special needs the child will receive an adoption subsidy and medicare until they are 21. International adoption while expensive should not be put to the side because of expenses. Most families who are adopting do not have the amount upfront. Many take a loan, apply for grants, and most fundraise. The reason that the cost of adoption is not discussed as a reason not to is because IT IS NOT A LEGITIMATE REASON IT IS AN EXCUSE.

For those not called to adopt, why look to Africa instead of right in your own backyard? Your local foster care agency is desperately in need of adult mentors for foster youth, your local foster families are desperately in need of respite care, families who are in danger of having their children removed need parenting mentors to help their families stay intact, and children in care need luggage (so they don't carry their belongings in demeaning garbage bags when they move homes) and gifts at the holidays. Adoptive families in crisis due to their childrens' trauma backgrounds and behaviors need support and kindness. How about inviting an adoptive family or foster family over for a shabbos meal? Families such as ours would appreciate knowing we are supported. Adoptive families are frequently mistreated in the Jewish world. Sometimes the Jewish (at least Orthodox) community seems the least supportive of the work we do fostering/adopting special needs children and it's no surprise that families with special needs kids (adopted or not) find themselves less included in synagogue and community life. Understanding more about how to include diverse families and families with special needs is work that we can all do, regardless of whether we are adopting.

I am glad to read this article, it's always struck me as strange that Christians have no problem using quotes from Tanach to justify making orphan care and adoption a big focus of their community, but we Jews do not do the same. perhaps it is suspicion/fear of the ger that contributes to this? I am excited for you and your wife that you are on the adoption journey. A few comments, though:

Adoption STAR is absolutely right. There is not a need for more (comparatively) wealthy Americans to adopt healthy white infants. There is a need to adopt children waiting in the foster care system - Who may be older, or part of a sibling set, and frequently have special needs and who are more frequently children of color. The need is pressing - Without a permanent adoptive family these children's futures are horrendous. So much healing can begin when a child has a safe and nurturing forever home. I also believe healthy adoption involves respect and collaboration with birth families, when possible, which is also "messy" and not as simple as just "obtaining" a baby with no strings attached. We have found it both challenging and incredibly rewarding to have a relationship with our childrens' birth family. Most children in need of homes are NOT orphans. They are children with birth families who love them but are unable to care for them - And their birth families cannot be simply cut out of the picture.

For those considering international adoption - It is convenient for some people to adopt an "orphan" from an foreign country because there is the illusion that one is helping save a child with no parents. But in reality, most of these "orphans" do indeed have parents who have given them up to orphanages due to poverty or AIDS or coercion. Much research has been done to expose this. There is a black market in babies in some of these countries - Orphanages and adoption agencies have been known to literally buy babies from families who are too poor to say no. I have friends who've adopted internationally only to find out their child was not an orphan at all, but rather had a (poor) family who left them at the orphanage temporarily until they could get enough money together to support them - Only to come back and find out the child was adopted. Can you imagine? Please do not think for a second that the international adoption industry is anything other than an industry. I question why Jews with a concern for social justice would turn towards "orphans" and this very corrupt money-driven industry, rather than the children in need in our own backyard: Children in the American child welfare system. I know it sounds inconvenient to some to have to deal with CPS, to have to deal with adopting a child who may have living relatives who the child may have some level of attachment to - But adoption always involves loss and trauma for a child, and adopting domestically means that child may get to connect with birth family at some point and have a more cohesive narrative around why they were adopted and who they are. Don't we have a responsibility to first care for the children in our own city or county before going off to find orphans elsewhere? They may not be true orphans, but I'm guessing halachically there is little difference because they do not have parents capable of caring for them.

I also ask potential adopters: Are you ready to help create a Jewish community where there are fewer impediments to converting adopted children? Where Jews of color are fully integrated into their Jewish communities and children of color in our yeshivas and day schools and shuls don't hear racist slurs or experience xenophobia from their peers? Since it is mostly children of color who are in need of adoption, I hope anyone adopting has thought seriously and is very engaged in challenging their own ideas around race and racism and their community's, and how they will help their child have a strong sense of self as a Jew of color. The Jewish Multiracial Network is a great resource for this.

What a wonderful article. I wanted to let your readers know that while adoption is not for everyone, there are other deeply Jewish ways in which to ensure our obligation to take care of orphans - even in the developing world - perhaps especially in the developing world where in some countries like Rwanda almost a quarter of the population are orphans. This is the uniquely Jewish/Israeli Youth Village system, where "parental wholeness" is emphasized and, while not the same as parents, the philosophy and methodology ensures that these kids have the same love and support and opportunities that children with parents would have...and none of the drawbacks that growing up in an orphanage ensures. Check out the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda ( We should be exporting this incredible model all over Africa where almost 100 million children are orphaned!

While it certainly is wonderful to encourage adoption, the need for adoptive families should be more specific when calling one to consider adoption (especially when they may not have considered it before.) Older children (ages 8 and up), sibling groups, and children with disabilities are the children who unfortunately wait and wait. The healthy newborn is the coveted child via adoption and while it is possible to adopt a healthy baby, it is important when advocating for families to consider adoption as a religious or moral duty, that they should evaluate if indeed they have what it takes to unconditionally accept a child into their lives. It surprises many, but there are Jewish children "waiting" to be adopted. These children are older, may have disabilities, etc., they are not the "newborn" who typically does not wait to find his forever family.

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