Leisah Woldoff

Kreplach and wontons: Asian-American havurah

A few of the children of the Asian-American Havurah celebrate Sukkot. Photo by Alicia Messing

Sukkot and Autumn Moon. Hebrew and Chinese. Kreplach and wontons.

American Jewish parents who adopt children from Asian countries often strive to teach their children pride in both Jewish and Asian heritages – one of Alicia Messing’s goals when she founded the Asian-American Havurah, which first met in May.

Twenty adults and children joined the group’s first social event – a Sukkot party – on Oct. 12.

Messing and her husband Henry adopted their daughter Julie Mei from China in August 2002. Although she’s on the board of Family with Children from China and has formed playgroups with other transracial families, Messing wanted to meet Jewish families similar to her own.

“We know that (our daughter is) going to struggle with being Asian and Jewish,” Messing says. “There’s not a lot of people out there like that.”

Although she notes that while the children are young, the group may be more beneficial for the parents, she hopes it ultimately will provide lifelong connections for their children, “because they’re going to be a minority within a minority.”

However, it’s not strictly an adoption group, Messing notes. She also welcomes Asian adults who are part of the Jewish community. “They’re going to be educating us on some of the comments that they heard growing up and how they wish their parents had dealt with it or how they did deal with it. I hope we can benefit from each other.”

Through the Hadassah, Mishpacha Group, Messing, a member of Temple Chai, met fellow member Helen Press, a first-generation Chinese-American who converted to Judaism in 2001. She and her husband Keith have a 1-year-old daughter, Sydney.

“It’s very rare to see another Chinese-Jewish person,” Press says. “Since I converted, I’m a minority in the Jewish culture and religion.” She hopes to help incorporate elements of Chinese culture into the havurah (friendship group).

Press speaks to her daughter in Cantonese, as well as in English, and wants to teach her daughter as much as possible about the Chinese culture, from history and art to music and holidays.

Press notes the similarities between Jewish and Chinese cultures. “They have similar values and there are so many symbolic meanings to different things,” she says.

Both cultures follow the lunar calendar, celebrate holidays unique to their culture and share values of hard work and education, she says.

She looks forward to her daughter developing friendships with other Asian Jewish children in the havurah.

Randi Sweet, a Temple Solel member, adopted her daughter, Rebecca Powers, from Korea about 13 years ago. Powers, now 14, graduated from the Pardes Jewish Day School last year.

When Powers was younger, the family attended Korean Culture Camp, a family overnight camp focusing on providing role models for the children and teaching them information about Korea. Sweet still corresponds with other parents who adopted Korean children.

Powers also used to attend weekly Korean language classes and participate in Korean Culture Day. She doesn’t do much now because she’s a teen busy with other things, her mom says, but the foundation was laid.

To provide Chinese cultural experiences for their daughter, the Messings attend festivals at the Chinese Cultural Center, such as Chinese New Year and Autumn Moon celebrations.

Sweet says that one of the biggest challenges her daughter had, which she feels is common to most biracial families, is that “the world expects them to be whatever they look like.” For example, even though people know Powers was adopted at 5 months old, she often gets asked if she speaks Korean.

“There’s a lot to be learned about what to do to help these children who the world sees differently than they may be and prepare them for the fact that they’re going to get some of these silly questions,” Sweet says.

However, Sweet says that she found the Jewish community “quite tolerant and quite accepting.”

Future plans for the Asian-American Havurah include a November havdalah service and a Hanukkah party. Messing envisions it as a social group for families that will include social action programs.

Fast facts

This article first appeared in the Oct. 24, 2003 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.