An Empty Chair

By Anne Silber

In 1933, when I was born and placed for adoption, the system had no regard for the
fact that I had a Jewish mother. The fact that my birthfather was not Jewish played a
greater part in the decision about where I should be placed. Even the wishes of
birthmothers, not only mine, but all birthmothers, were not always taken into
account. It was one of the worst years of the Great Depression, and state facilities
and private agencies were full to overflowing with the tragedies of that Era. The
system had one less mouth to feed.
It is disconcerting to find, 66 years later, that not much has changed in regard to
babies being considered "generic". Our present adoption laws do not take the child's
birth religion into account in the placement process. It is assumed that once the
child is placed in a good home, of whatever religious background, the adoptee will
simply absorb and internalize that religion, along with the culture and lifestyle of
the adoptive parents. Numerous accounts from adoptees, including myself, attest to
the fact that this is not always the case. Over and over we hear from them that there
was a compelling urge to examine a religion and lifestyle that was not part of their
adoptive experience, subsequently to find that it was indeed from whence they came.
Some describe it as a sort of de'ja'vu experience. I experienced it. As I was drawn
closer and closer to my Jewish roots, I had an eerie feeling that I had been there
before. In fact I had. I spent one Rosh Hashana and one Pesach in my mother's
womb. Every culture and religion has its own rhythm and its own yearly cycle.
Modern research tells us that the fetus is sensitive to those rhythms, and can even
hear sounds from outside its environment. It should not come as a shock that some
persons will remember these experiences, and others not.
My records were not officially sealed until I was 10 years old, but trust me, I was
never told of my Jewish origins, and never allowed to see a single document
relating to the birth and adoption. They were sealed by my parents long before they
were sealed by the state. Why, then, did I grab any and every book, magazine, or
picture that depicted Jewish people? Why at age 12 did I frequently stand across the
street from the old BMH synagogue on Gaylord Street, on Saturday mornings, just
to watch the Jewish people going in and coming out? My adoptive mother thought I
was at the Saturday Matinee Movies, and many times that was true. But, the urge to
be close to my roots compelled me to return to Gaylord Street time and again, and
the system of secrecy imposed by both my parents and the state turned me into an
accomplished little liar before I became a teen. Needless to say, as soon as I reached
21, I opted for Judaism, but it confirmed what I had known in my heart all along: I
had a Jewish mother. I was, and am, a Jew.
However sorry we may feel for the dilemma of the individual in a case like mine,
we must seriously consider the other side of this coin: the impact on the community
due to the loss of its members through inappropriate placement. We who espouse the
Orthodox perspective know that the child born to a Jewish mother is Jewish, and
that this law was ordained by G-d. It should therefore be obvious that this law
cannot be changed by any human instrument. No adoption certificate, declaring that
this child is now no longer Jewish, signed by however many attorneys, can change
the factor of the child's rightful claim.
We cannot expect the non-Jewish world to do our work for us. It is incumbent on
every Jew, and especially those professionals concerned with adoption, to make
every human effort to place a Jewish child in a Jewish home. No one can be allowed
the comfortable dodge of apathy. Our resistance to losing even ONE child must be
active and never-ending.
Sometimes it is difficult for us to imagine what this slow, silent exit of children
really means. Try this visualization. For very child born Jewish, but adopted by
non-Jews, there will always be an empty seat in the synagogue, and an empty chair
at Shabbat and festive meals. Picture that empty chair. Then let your mind leap
forward about, say, 25 years. Now there are 3 or more empty seats and empty chairs,
for now the child has grown up and has children of his/her own. Leap forward
another 25 years or so. Now there are 6 or more empty seats and empty chairs.
We must all take responsibility for the proper placement of these children. The next
time you pass one of those empty seats at the synagogue, have a compassionate
thought about that baby, 66 years ago, who fell through every crack in a seriously
flawed adoption system and do whatever you can to make sure that it doesn't
happen again.

Copyright permission to reprint 'An Empty Chair' from author
Adapted with Permission from Jewish Children's Adoption Network Newsletter - Fall '99