New effort to aid Jewish foster, adoptive families

When Lynne was a child, her parents brought two young foster children into their home for a brief period. This experience was very meaningful to her and when she and her husband, Brad, discovered they were unable to bear children, the Phoenix couple decided to become foster parents themselves. But it had a very different outcome.

After taking the required classes and getting licensed to become foster parents, the couple (who did not want their last name used in this article) welcomed David (not his real name) into their home.

“It was our desire at the time to have an older child,” Lynne said. “We wanted to provide a home for someone whose parents were unable to or maybe weren’t around anymore.”

Soon after David, 10, moved into their home, they learned that he was developmentally disabled, but there was no documentation explaining what his disabilities were.

“We didn’t know what resources were available to us so we didn’t know how to ask for them.”

When it comes to figuring out how the process works, “it’s very hard to put all the pieces together,” Lynne said. “There’s not a flowchart that tells you what to do next or how things happen. So many times, you feel like you’re on a scavenger hunt, but don’t know what you’re looking for.”

During the 21 months David lived with them, the family went through the process of David’s parents getting divorced and being severed from their rights over David and his four siblings. There were weekly meetings with caseworkers and high-needs case managers. It took several months before the couple were able to secure counseling or other services and they went through a rough period with medication regulation.

David entered fifth grade at a first-grade reading level and received some help at school – “I would like to put in a plug of how wonderful Madison School No. 1 was for kids with special needs,” Lynne said. When David entered sixth grade, he was reading on a third-grade level and played soccer and baseball.

But Lynne said that David blamed her for not being able to be with his parents and threatened to kill her on a number of occasions. She and her husband were unsure of how to proceed, and couldn’t find any support groups to help.

After 21 months, David left their home and was placed in a high-needs home.

“There is no one to hold your hand, there’s no one to advocate for you,” Lynne said. “There’s no one to tell you what the next step is, and there’s no one to tell you what your rights are as a foster parent.”

The girls who lived in Lynne’s childhood home as foster children were placed there through a program of Jewish Family & Children’s Service. In 2013, JFCS launched an initiative to train Jewish families to become certified foster care parents, but JFCS no longer offers any foster care-specific programs.

Jewish Free Loan offers interest-free loans up to $20,000 for Jewish individuals and families wanting to grow their families, which applies to adoption, foster care-related expenses, and infertility treatments. Besides these, no other resources in the local Jewish community had been available to help Jewish families who wish to become foster or adoptive parents.

Until now.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz and his wife, Shoshana, had tried to adopt a child for about five years, both domestically and internationally.

“After hitting a lot of walls and spending a lot of time and energy and money, we finally told the state that we would foster and within an hour, they had a child for us,” said Yanklowitz. “It really opened up our eyes to how great the need is.”

Their foster child was only 4 days old when he arrived at their home on a Friday night right before Shabbat. He is now 6 months old.

Although the Yanklowitzes have two children of their own, a 3-year-old daughter and a boy who turns 2 this week, they decided when they first married that they wanted to be able to provide a home for a child who didn’t have one.

“We were blown away by how challenging the  bureaucratic process can be when looking to foster or adopt,” Yanklowitz said. “And how isolating it can be.”

So it was out of this personal experience that Yanklowitz, who is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash, founded Yatom: The Jewish Foster & Adoption Network this past June. Yatom means “a vulnerable child” or “orphan” in Hebrew.

“Being that we have a focus on social entrepreneurship, we try to build new initiatives in the Valley Beit Midrash structure and also to create or embrace new initiatives in the community that may currently be beyond our formal structure in order to address new needs,” Yanklowitz said.

Last month, Yatom introduced the Yatom Family Fellowship, which was created to inspire families striving to foster or adopt. After putting out the call for applications, Yatom was contacted by a few dozen families nationwide, Yanklowitz said. “There was a much larger interest than we thought.”

Eight families, one in Phoenix and seven in seven other cities, were selected to receive a $1,000 stipend to participate in the one-year fellowship. The stipends are funded by Valley Beit Midrash and Yanklowitz’s discretionary fund.

The fellowship is geared toward Jewish families – including single parents or LGBT couples – who are interested in adopting or fostering but who have not yet started the process.

“One of our main goals is to motivate and incentivize people who are on the fence to actually do it,” Yanklowitz said. “So those who are already in the process or in the midst of it, we want to support them, too, it’s just a different program.”

During the fellowship, Yatom will “try to hold their hand” in the process of applying and getting licensed and certified, as well as provide access to expert sources to coach them with any challenges they encounter. There’s also a social component that involves monthly conference calls with the other families and a Jewish learning component.

According to the Arizona Department of Economic Security, there were more than 18,000 children in Arizona who were in out-of-home care as of Sept. 30, 2015. The majority of these children, 33.4 percent, were between the ages of 1 and 5. Neglect is the main reason children are in out-of-home care – 85.7 percent of the cases.

“I think this is an area where our local Jewish community can really play a much greater role,” Yanklowitz said. “First, in families considering fostering or adopting or secondly, people considering financially or socially supporting those who are doing it. And third, advocating on a statewide level for a better process and more funding for this kind of work. So everyone can participate in this. I think it is something that ought to keep us up at night, how many children are being neglected.”

Visit yatom.org.

This article first appeared on the Aug 26 issue of Phoenix Jewish News.

A short time to imprint Jewish memories

Last week, I was on a conference call and before the meeting started, someone inquired how everybody’s Sukkot was going. One caller in Ohio said his family was wearing jackets in the sukkah, as it was 55 degrees, and another in New Jersey said they were having a soggy Sukkot. Meanwhile, our Sukkot in the Valley started out with triple-digit temperatures, with some sukkah-dwellers using ceiling fans under the schach.

This conversation led me to think about how our memories are formed by our experiences. As long as we live in Phoenix, our children will likely not form memories of being bundled up in a warm jacket inside a sukkah or lighting their menorah at home during a blizzard.

As we concluded the recent month of holidays, it occurred to me that much of my effort in celebrating the holidays lately is not for me personally – I vaguely recall attending classes or reading in preparation for a holiday, but that hasn’t been the case in years – but instead to imprint memories of the holidays on my children.

These imprints included the taste of apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, wearing white and blowing a shofar on Yom Kippur, building a sukkah with their dad, and then eating meals inside it and dancing with a Torah (although I think they were too busy running around to actually notice the latter).  At other times of the year, it’s the crunch of the matzah and the “No, no, no, I will not let them go” chant of Passover and the costumes, groggers and treats of Purim.

It’s unknown what moments will make an imprint and what kind of impact they will make. Will my dragging my kids into the sanctuary during Yom Kippur so they can hear the shofar in a room filled with worshippers dressed in white bring back memories of boredom or will they instead fondly remember standing on the bimah with other children with their glow sticks and shofars during Havdalah at the end of the holiday?

When I think back to my early Jewish memories, I’m not sure they are what my parents intended. I remember being shushed by grown-ups during Shabbat services and visiting the bathroom often so I could hang out with my friends there. I remember the oneg afterward, which was considered successful if I could get a good piece of the inside of the challah. I remember trying to hide a book under my desk during Hebrew school so I could read during class. And then there was the time my dad wanted to record our Passover seder on audiotape and my sister and I kept making jokes and cracking up throughout the recording. My time at Jewish summer camp and youth group retreats take up a lot of space in my Jewish memories.

When we first started taking our kids to the family High Holiday service at our synagogue years ago, they didn’t pay too much attention to the prayers or the songs – they preferred to crawl around on the floor with their friends. I watched some of the other children – mainly girls – sit nicely and listen to the story and clap their hands to the songs and felt embarrassed that my kids were being so disruptive. I didn’t even bother taking them into the main sanctuary afterward, instead putting them in baby-sitting while I headed into the grown-up service.

But this year, things were a little different. My oldest boys, who are now in second and third grade, wanted to help lead the family service. They stood in front of the room, did some of the reading and handed out the plush Torahs to the younger children. My youngest son, now in kindergarten, even sat on my husband’s lap on the floor to listen to almost the whole book read by one of the teachers.

Thinking back to previous years and reflecting on how quickly they flew by, I realized that we have such a limited time to share these moments with our children. And although we have no control over what imprints they will carry into adulthood, we can only try to provide them with experiences that may endure.

This article first appeared on the Phoenix Jewish News blog, JN Blog, on Oct. 7, 2015.

The cost of a committed Jewish life

When I was younger, the approach of summer was met with excitement – a break from the routine of school and a time for new adventures. As a parent, however, I feel an impending sense of dread.

I’m not even talking about our three-digit temperatures that limit outdoor activities – I’m talking about planning my children’s summer. And I imagine I am not alone.

I’d guess that most of the working parents whose children attend Jewish preschools or day schools have spent a great deal of their time and resources to make that happen. From the rigorous, and sometimes overwhelming, application process for financial assistance to the scheduling challenges when Jewish holiday schedules conflict with work schedules, these parents do what they can to ensure that their children are in a safe, nurturing and enriching Jewish environment.

But it comes at a price.

For those who don’t have young children in school, here is an example of the costs for one child in day school and one child in preschool.

For one month of day school here in the Valley, the full tuition ranges from $830 to $1,400 per child. For a month of full-time preschool, the cost varies from nearly $800 to more than $1,000. And that doesn’t include the additional day care required for all of the holidays, both Jewish and secular, when a parent is still required to work.

If a family belongs to a synagogue, membership fees can be an additional $100 or $200 a month.

So, during the school year, we’re looking at more than $2,000 per month. And that’s just for 10 months of the year and for only two children.

And now here we are at the season when it’s time to register for camp, which can run up to $300 a week per child.

These numbers don’t even include other expenses of Jewish life, such as a JCC membership, enrichment activities, attending fundraising events or purchasing kosher food. (And the cost of stocking up for eight days of kosher-for-Passover food is a whole other discussion.)

Fortunately, there are ways to make it work. Several organizations that recognize the high cost of committing to a Jewish lifestyle are there to help, with the support of many generous individuals. Synagogues offer reduced membership fees to families who qualify, and preschools, day schools and camps often offer sibling discounts and scholarships.

Last year, the Jewish Tuition Organization (JTO) collected a record $2.64 million to fund need-based scholarships to Jewish day schools in the Valley. (And if you haven’t filed your taxes yet, there’s still time to get a tax credit – until April 15 – which provides an opportunity to help fund Jewish education without spending a dime.) The JTO funded 409 scholarships for the 2013-14 academic year.

Jewish Free Loan has a number of loans that can help young families. There are interest-free loans available for Jewish preschools, Jewish day schools, religious school, Jewish educational opportunities, Jewish summer camp (both day camp and sleep-away camp), Israel experiences and adoption/IVF (for those who hope to grow their Jewish family). The Bureau of Jewish Education also provides need-based summer camp scholarships (both day camp and sleep-away camp). The national program, One Happy Camper, offers grants of up to $1,000 for the first year a child is at a Jewish overnight camp.

We are fortunate to have so many great organizations and programs in the Valley that offer high-quality Jewish programming – and many generous donors that support them. And of course these high-quality programs require the necessary funds to run them successfully. I wish I could offer a solution here, but I really just wanted to bring up the issue. There’s been much discussion about the Valley’s high unaffiliation rate. But could it be possible that it’s not because those individuals aren’t interested; perhaps they just can’t afford to be affiliated?

This article first appeared on jewishaz.com.

Missing Piece of the Puzzle: How an adoptive daughter found her birth father

Sharon Kahn visits the grave of her birth mother during her recent trip to Chicago. She’s pictured here with Jack Decker, her birth father, whom she met for the first time during this trip.

Sharon Kahn visits the grave of her birth mother during her recent trip to Chicago. She’s pictured here with Jack Decker, her birth father, whom she met for the first time during this trip. Photo courtesy of Sharon Kahn

Sharon, who grew up in Phoenix and now lives in Northern California, started searching for her birth parents when she was a teenager. Her adoptive mother, Joanne Rockoff, had done some research a few years earlier in hopes of finding medical history that would help explain her daughter’s illnesses, but she came up empty.

Joanne and her husband, Marshall, had adopted Sharon when she was 3 days old and the only information they had to work with was her birth record, which listed her name as “Baby Girl Kahn,” and the name of her mother and maternal grandparents.

In 1999, after not having any success in her search, Sharon, now 48, changed her last name, with her adoptive parents’ blessings, to Kahn, thinking that might help her find family members. “I thought, if I can’t find them and this is going to be the best I can do, then I’m going to change my last name so I’ll have that connection.”

Not knowing her origins caused Sharon tremendous angst throughout her life, she says. “My adoptive parents, my family, are incredible people. I love them, but this was always a hole in my heart that I just couldn’t fill. No amount of therapy, no amount of anything could fill it.”

As she grew older, she was able to find more information through Internet searches. Within the past year, she discovered someone’s family tree on ancestry.com that listed the same first names as her maternal grandparents – the grandmother’s first name was uniquely spelled and her husband’s name was the same as Sharon’s maternal grandfather’s. But the last name was Kotlar instead of Kahn.

Years ago, through a court-appointed intermediary, Sharon was told that although her adoption file was mainly empty, the name Kotlar was penciled in. “So I always knew there was a possibility that Kotlar played in there somewhere,” she says.

Less than a year ago, she learned that her birth mother had died at a young age. “I just thought that was it, it was all over.”

In January of this year, Sharon became ill with the neuroinvasive West Nile virus. She had a significant immune disorder her whole life and she developed meningitis and encephalitis after contracting the virus. She suffered brain damage and nearly died.

Convinced that her search was over, she instead focused on surviving her illness. “I figured (my birth parents) were young, and I didn’t even know if my birth father knew I existed.”

Fulfilling a promise
High school sweethearts Jack Decker and Joyce Kotlar planned to get married after finishing high school in 1965. But when Joyce got pregnant during her senior year, her parents, prominent members of the Chicago Jewish community, sent their daughter away to Phoenix to have the baby, who was born on Feb. 4, and put her up for adoption. Months later, Jack and Joyce married, on Aug. 29, 1965.
The couple was heartbroken about giving their baby up for adoption, Jack told Jewish News, but didn’t want to interfere in her life and decided to try to make contact with her after she turned 18.
But eight years later, one day before her 25th birthday, Joyce died of leukemia.

“I promised [Joyce] before she died that I would find [our daughter],” Jack, a retired police officer who still lives in Chicago, told Jewish News in July.

Jack searched for their daughter for many years, but never got very far. After experiencing serious health issues, including multiple heart attacks, he accelerated his search.

Along the way, someone referred him to Janette Silverman, the education and youth director at Beth El Congregation in Phoenix, who is also the chair of the Phoenix Jewish Genealogy Society. She put him in touch with Hillary Kaminsky, a confidential adoption intermediary in Phoenix who took on his case. Silverman also contacted the Jewish News to see if the newspaper could help get the word out. “I’m in debt to her forever,” Jack says.

The article, “Man seeks daughter 49 years after adoption,” ran in the July 19, 2013 issue of Jewish News.

That day, Heather Figelman of Sun City Grand read the article and contacted her friend Joanne, who had first arrived in Phoenix in 1958. They had met through a bereavement group after they each lost their husband, and Figelman knew Rockoff had adopted her daughter and might recognize the story since she was a longtime Valley resident.

“When she read [me the article], I was screaming, I was crying, I was shaking,” said Joanne, who now lives in Sun City Grand. “Then I went and got the article so I could call Jack.”

She left him a message and “he almost didn’t call me back because I mentioned the wrong last name.”

Sharon says that her mother called her, “all choked up in tears,” and said, “I think we found your birth dad, he was looking for you.”

“When she told me, I just couldn’t believe it,” Sharon says. “I feel that it’s a miracle, I really do … It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, besides having my kids.”

Joanne met with the adoption intermediary to review the documentation and Kaminsky reported back to Jack. “I said, ‘This is your daughter,’ ” Kaminsky says. “I feel it in my bones, I believe this is your daughter.”

At this point, Kaminsky had already submitted the paperwork to start the case and the county wasn’t able to find the adoption record. She then filed a “Motion to Open” with the court, asking permission for the court to give her access to the vital records, such as the birth certificate, which is not public record. That was in process when Kaminsky met with Joanne.

But even if Kaminsky had been given that access, she would have reached a dead end.

Falsified documents
Sharon’s birth certificate had her mother listed as Marilyn Kahn – Marilyn was Joyce’s middle name – and Joyce’s correct birth month and date but the year was one year off.  It listed the correct first name of Joyce’s parents, but the same false last name.

Oftentimes, when people make up phony information, they still incorporate aspects of their life, Kaminsky notes.

Before 1970, when it was considered more taboo to have a child out of wedlock, there was more of an emphasis on confidentiality, Kaminsky says, but in handling more than 100 cases in more than 20 years, she says she’s only seen one or two cases where the information was falsified.

“I understand that people want to protect their reputations,” Sharon says, “But you’re dealing with real live people that end up suffering because of information that isn’t available.”

Without the Jewish News article, “Hillary would have had nothing but dead ends because of the phony information,” says Jack. “Hopefully, nobody else will go through this. We could have reunited many years ago.”

The reunion
Sharon and Joanne traveled to Chicago to meet Jack Aug. 10-14. Because of Sharon’s health issues, she required a doctor’s clearance and wasn’t able to travel alone.

In discussing a place to stay, Sharon suggested The Drake Hotel. After Jack told her that that’s where he and Joyce were married, it was an easy decision.

Sharon recalls a poem she wrote – one of many – in 1995, called “Eyes of a Stranger,” in which the first two lines are: “Searching the eyes of strangers, trying to find my own.” She describes how she felt seeing Jack for the first time: “In walks this guy into the hotel room and there are the eyes that I had been looking for, there he is.”

At one point, Sharon and Jack stood in the same place at The Drake Hotel where Joyce and Jack had stood under the chuppah.

Jack took Sharon and Joanne on a tour of the Albany Park area where Joyce and Jack grew up and went to school – which was the same area where Sharon’s adoptive father had grown up. Jack and Marshall had gone to the same grade school and high school – although 12 years apart – and lived only blocks away from each other.

“He is everything I could ever imagine and then some,” Sharon says. “He’s a very loving, wonderful and funny man, very intelligent. He reminds me a lot of my adoptive dad.”

Jack also took her to visit Joyce’s grave. “Even though I will never get to physically meet her, spiritually, as Jack said, it was like she was standing right there with us,” Sharon says.

“That was the closest she was to her mother since she was taken out of her mother’s arms in 1965,” says Jack. “It came from heaven. This was God’s hand in this.”

“It was just so emotional and so thrilling that it had finally happened,” says Joanne. “It was like finding the last piece to a big puzzle.

“We wished that it happened earlier in life so the two of them would have had more time.”

This article first appeared in the Sept. 6, 2013 issue of Jewish News.

Who is a Jewish mother?

Jewish mother

One morning at 3 a.m., as I was holding my 8-month-old son and worrying about his stuffy nose, it suddenly occurred to me – I am now a Jewish mother.

Could all the jokes about the worrying, nagging and overbearingness now potentially apply to me? Are these attributes innate, something that will slowly develop as my son grows, or are they merely stereotypes?

Fortunately, three books released this year help new mothers like me learn about their new role and glean some wisdom from their pages.

For “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother” (Hyperion, $22.95 hardcover), comedian Judy Gold and playwright Kate Moira Ryan spent five years traveling across the U.S. interviewing Jewish mothers to find out what makes them different from non-Jewish mothers. As the

title implies, they asked them each 25 questions; topics range from religious observance – “Do you find Judaism limiting or empowering?” and “Are you kosher?” – to parenting – “Do you approve of your children’s choices?” and “What is Jewish mother guilt?” Interspersed with quotes by mothers from all Jewish backgrounds, Gold writes about her relationship with her mom and her own journey through parenthood.

In “‘Yiddishe Mamas’: The Truth About the Jewish Mother” (Andrews McMeel, $14.95 paperback) by Marnie Winston-Macauley, the author starts out by addressing the stereotype of the Jewish mother. Who is she?

Yiddishe Mamas

Rather than using the word “stereotype,” Winston-Macauley prefers “ethno-type,” which she describes as allowing “us to treasure our uniqueness as a group and as individuals without falling into the trap of carbon copying all Jewish mothers.” This has no positive or negative judgment, she writes, but instead “allows us to look at our history, our biology, our values and characteristic traits without prejudice or the quick sound bite.”

So what are these traits? She lists them as sacrifice (having the child come first); the importance of education; expectations of excellence; kvetching; worrying; expressing love with food; overprotection; control; guilt; high intensity and humor; activism, community and philanthropy; and measuring our own success through our children’s success.

In one chapter, “Yes, they, too, are Jewish mothers,” Winston-Macauley interviews many different types of Jewish mothers – from early American settlers to female rabbis. There’s even an interview with the Valley’s own Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, in a section called, “This land is our land,” about mothers in the military.

“You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother” (Oxford University Press, $24.95 hardcover) by Joyce Antler follows the evolution of the Jewish mother from the turn of the 20th century until today.

You Never Call - Mother

Antler looks at the early roots of Jewish moms in America – from the “My Yiddishe Mama” (a 1925 ballad first sung in Yiddish by Sophie Tucker) and Molly Goldberg, a radio-turned-TV character described as “the prototype of the Jewish mother” of the 20th century, to feminists and “Roseanne.”

For many in my generation, the “Jewish mother” stereotype is deeply embedded in our minds, but it’s actually relatively new. In fact, according to Antler, the Jewish mother jokes originated in the heyday of the Borscht Belt in the 1940s and 1950s.

Although each of these three books takes a different approach in exploring what a Jewish mother is, they all have the same message: There are all different types of Jewish mothers.

And I have a feeling that most mothers, regardless of religion or nationality, are up in the middle of the night worrying about their babies.

This first appeared in the May 11, 2007 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.

Finding balance

One Friday in August, I conducted two interviews for an article I was working on. I had planned to make one more call on Monday before writing the story. But a few hours later, my water broke – more than a month before my due date – and by Monday morning, I was a mom.

My original plan was to work up to the week before that much-anticipated due date, then take a few days off to finish any last-minute preparations. Meanwhile, during the weeks preceding our baby’s debut, my husband and I would set up the nursery, meet with a doula about a birth plan – to learn those breathing exercises – and maybe even get away for a weekend in Northern Arizona.

Yeah, right.

Now I know that it was one of my first lessons of motherhood – making plans is nice in theory, but it doesn’t guarantee anything.

In one weekend, the focus of my weekdays changed from copyediting and proofreading to breastfeeding and diapering. Instead of the “AP Stylebook,” I consulted “What to Expect the First Year.”

The decision to have a child is one of the most important, life-changing decisions you can ever make. But what makes this different is that it doesn’t only affect your own life but also your husband’s and a little person whose very existence you’re responsible for.

After the pregnancy test results show that plus sign, the decision-making begins: What foods should I eat? Am I getting all the necessary nutrients? Do I eat fish because it’s supposed to help strong brain development or do I avoid it because of mercury content? Do we find out if it’s a boy or a girl beforehand? What should we name the baby?

And after the baby is born, there are countless decisions that you as parents have to make: When should we introduce him to the bottle? Will crying himself to sleep scar him from developing intimate relationships? And the really big one – should one of the parents step out of the workforce to stay at home with the baby?

In my third month of maternity leave, I opted to ease back into the work world by devoting 10 hours a week to work from home. My first interview started off well – the baby was sleeping and I felt focused. A few minutes after the interview began, my son started screaming, and I tried to soothe him with one hand while typing with the other, balancing the phone between my ear and chin. Fortunately the woman on the other end was also a mother with a young child and was very understanding.

During a second interview, not only did the baby wake up, but this time the dogs joined in, barking and romping in the hallway. Not the ideal working environment.

On my maternity leave, one of the books I read – in scattered moments when I had a chance – was “Mommy Wars,” a book of essays by 26 women, edited by Leslie Morgan Steiner. The women, who were successful in their chosen professions, told stories of their own decision to either continue to work outside the home or stay at home with their children.

Some who returned to work felt guilty for leaving their baby each morning, while others felt it contributed to their sanity as a mother and set a good example for their children. Many who stayed at home missed their career but felt that their role at home was more important. Others were able to do a little of both; for example, working at home or shortening their hours to part time.

I’m attempting to find my own balance on this issue. I’m fortunate to have an employer who is extremely accommodating – I’m able to do some work from home and bring my son with me to work the rest of the week. My co-workers have been wonderful, volunteering to hold him while I run to the restroom or being patient when my attention is diverted.

Sometimes the dual role of parent and employee can be challenging, and my husband and I are planning to send our son to daycare twice a week soon, but I’m not ready for any more hours away from him yet.

I’m not sure how this will all work out once the little guy learns to crawl. But for now I treasure being able to continue a job I enjoy while being fortunate enough to get regular doses of smiles and laughter from my son throughout the day as I do so. Sure, there’s a dirty diaper to change every few hours, but it’s all worth it.

This article first appeared in the Feb. 2, 2007 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.

Kreplach and wontons: Asian-American havurah

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

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

  • The Chinese adoption process, from selecting an agency to arriving home with the child, usually takes about 12-18 months.
  • The cost, including the trip to China and fees, ranges between $15,000-$20,000.
  • In general, most children are between 6-20 months old when the adoption process is complete.
  • Ninety-five percent of the children are girls.
  • About one-third of all the children adopted from China are adopted by single parents.
  • To adopt a healthy child, Chinese law requires that the parents be over the age of 30. The parents also need to have sufficient income to support the child and to be in reasonably good health.
  • All dossiers, the collection of documents that the adoption agency sends to China, must be sent by adoption agencies that are registered with the China Center of Adoption Affairs.
    Source: Families with Children from China, www.fwcc.org.

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

Siblings connect: A story of two adoptees

In November, after watching a television movie about a woman returning to her heritage after being adopted at birth, Mara Addison of Scottsdale was determined to find her birth mother.

She went online to see if she had received any response to her previous postings on adoption Web sites. There were none.

A year earlier, in Santa Fe, N.M., another woman, Donna Benjamin, had posted information on a Web site started by an adoptee of the Louise Wise Services agency in New York – the adoption agency where she had been adopted as a baby. She checked the site regularly at first, then forgot about it after not receiving any response.

As Addison scrolled through listings of other adoptees on this same Web site a year later, she read Benjamin’s posting, which included information similar to hers.

Addison and Benjamin e-mailed each other back and forth, comparing notes.

“Between the information we shared in e-mail, it sounded like we were a match,” says Benjamin. “Plus, it felt like I was talking to myself – it was very unusual.”

The women each called the adoption agency, which confirmed they were sisters.

“You wake up, you have your cup of coffee, you get on the Internet and find out you have a sister you never knew existed,” Benjamin says.

Addison flew to Santa Fe to meet her sister that week.

“Donna’s skin, her body type, her mannerisms, her expressions are so similar to mine that it’s eerie,” Addison, 44, says. “It’s surreal.”

Soon after, Benjamin, 42, spent Hanukkah and New Year’s with her newfound sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephews. Rabbi Maynard Bell at Temple Solel in Paradise Valley gave the sisters a special blessing during a Shabbat service.

The sisters discovered they were raised 20-30 minutes apart from each other in Queens, N.Y., and believe they both attended the same Elton John concert at Central Park in the early 70s.

Addison moved to Arizona from New Jersey in 1991; Benjamin moved to New Mexico in 1994.

“There a lot of similarities,” Benjamin says. “We were together for a week – there were times we spoke at the same time, said the same thing. Looking at her is like looking in the mirror.”

It was the first time either of them had ever met a blood relative.

“I feel no resentment about being adopted; I had a good life,” Addison says. “But I always had this burning question: Are there other people on this planet that look like me?” She says it’s not so much that she wanted to find her birth mother, but that she wanted to meet someone that looked like her – “to feel that connection,” she explains.

Benjamin says she also feels no resentment; her search always had been to discover her ancestry and genealogy, rather than to find her birth mother.

In January, Addison hired Kin Solving Investigations in North Carolina to find her birth mother.

Less than 48 hours later, she heard back – her birth mother died in 1995, and she and Benjamin have another sister and a brother, both of whom were raised with their birth mother in New Jersey. Addison had moved to New Jersey when she was 15 and unknowingly lived two towns from her birth family until she moved to Arizona in 1991.

Addison and Benjamin are flying to New Jersey later this month to meet with their brother, Ken Kollinsworth, and sister, Sharon Robertson. All four siblings have different fathers, and the two in New Jersey “did not have an easy childhood,” Addison says.

Learning more about her birth mother, Addison says, led her and Benjamin to each “call our adoptive family and tell them how much we love them and to thank them for the wonderful life they gave us.”

Their birth mother had also been born to Jewish parents and adopted by Jewish parents. Before seeing a picture of her birth mother, Addison “thought it was going to be a big emotional event because you wait for it all your life, but it wasn’t. … It was closure for me.”

During the years Addison and Benjamin were adopted, the Louise Wise Services agency dealt with only Jewish children and parents; therefore, the sisters were both raised by Jewish parents.

Before 2000, adoption agencies in New York were prohibited from confirming or denying sibling relationships, Addison says. But the state law changed that year, which allowed Addison and Benjamin to confirm their relationship.

Because she feels that “when you’re given gifts in life, you’ve got to give back,” Addison has founded The Sibling Connection, to inform adoptees and the public of the laws concerning sibling identification.

This article first appeared in the March 2, 2001 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix. 

Shelters offer first step to self-sufficiency

Every night, two bunk beds in each room of two Valley shelters are filled with women and children from all cultural and economic backgrounds.

A few personal belongings they managed to grab before a fast escape are strewn around the rooms – fragments of different lives coming together for no more than three months.

These women and children all have one thing in common – they are victims of domestic violence and they have found the courage to leave abusive situations.

They must now rely on the support of various organizations, as well as personal donors, to help them get their lives back together.

Chrysalis Shelter for Victims of Domestic Violence, Inc., is one of the resources female victims of domestic abuse use to do this.

Between its two shelters, at confidential locations in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Chrysalis houses 45 women and children for up to 90 days.

Both shelters are run in “a communal-type setting,” says Patricia Klahr, executive director. The women take turns completing different chores and do their own cooking and laundry.

The nonprofit organization relies heavily on donations.

All of the furniture and appliances in the shelters were donated, from the kitchen table and bunk beds to the TVs, and playground furniture.

Shelves in the supply room are filled with donated shoes, toys, makeup, feminine supplies, games, toilet paper and diapers.

Volunteers sort the donations on a daily basis, constantly replenishing the much-needed items.

Once a week, residents are allowed one hour to choose dresses, jackets, robes and other clothing for themselves and their children. Several women come to the shelter with “nothing but fear on their back,” says Charlene Vincent, volunteer coordinator.

Food is figured into the budget, but a great deal comes from food banks and donations. Sometimes organizations bring their own supplies to the shelter and cook for the residents.

Children’s birthdays are celebrated with cakes donated by a neighborhood church and new donated toys are set aside as presents.

Vincent organizes a toy drive in December and has a wish list of items for the shelter.

These items include toiletries, school supplies, baby formula, diapers, over-the-counter drugs without alcohol, children’s videos, movie certificates, dish soap and bus tickets.

The shelter can also use kitchenware such as silverware, plates and glasses to be used in the transitional apartments.

Throughout their stay, women and children receive independent and group counseling.

“If they are already working, we encourage them to continue working. If they’re not working and have no job skills, we hook them up with different job programs,” Klahr says.

Chrysalis also offers case management and advocacy, which means they help women get medical and legal assistance, housing and other services.

Wendy Shepherd, a counselor at the shelter for six years, works closely with the children. She plays games with them and helps them deal with their feelings. She says the most popular toy is the dollhouse, and children act out scenarios with the dolls, often using toy monsters. However, Shepherd warns that you must “be careful what you read into it,” as children have access to violence in television, movies and video games and may be acting out scenes from those.

Often, younger children are more apt to talk about a fight on the school playground rather than abuse in the home, she says, because their home lives seem normal to them.

Besides operating shelters for battered women and children, Chrysalis Shelter, founded in 1982, offers outpatient counseling for men, women and children in individual and group settings and provides community-centered education and prevention programs.

According to statistics, about 8 percent of women return to their spouses after leaving the shelter, Klahr says. Others go on to transitional or independent housing.

For Jewish families experiencing domestic violence, Chrysalis started Program Chai in September.

The program includes a support group for Jewish women who are victims of domestic violence, and meets 10-11:30 a.m. Tuesdays at Beth Joseph Congregation, 515 E. Bethany Home Road, Phoenix.

The shelter’s staff completed a training program to become educated about Jewish traditions and customs and kosher food is available.

Program Chai also offers outpatient counseling, shelter services and community outreach.

A study printed in a 1994 issue of Jewish Advocate showed that 15 percent to 20 percent of Jewish women are abused – a rate comparable to that of non-Jewish women.

Statistics also show that Jewish women remain in abusive relationships 5 to 10 years longer than non-Jewish women, says Klahr.

Several Valley Jewish organizations recognize the necessity of confronting this issue.

These women who have left their batterers and their homes are now seeking help in community shelters to continue with their lives, and most of all, to improve them.

For women who have left or are ready to leave an abusive relationship, Jewish Family and Children’s Service offers “Shelter Without Walls,” a transitional living program “designed to fill a gap between when a woman leaves a shelter and becomes independent and self-sufficient,” says resource specialist Nicola Winkel.

“Shelter Without Walls,” a constituent agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, offers goal development and on-going case management, individual and family counseling, access to career counseling and other services to help the woman to become self-sufficient.

Jewish Women International enforces education and published its 1996 Resource Guide for Rabbis to help rabbis deal with the problem. The guide includes information about domestic violence, how to identify and counsel abused women, how to identify and talk to batterers, and sample sermons.

Hadassah, Valley of the Sun Chapter, supplies materials regarding domestic violence in their Scottsdale office and individual groups within the chapter have sponsored informational programs. Hadassah also lobbies for the Violence Against Women Act, presently in congress.

A local chapter of National Council of Jewish Women holds a luncheon and shower to which guests bring clothes or items for the home and the gifts are donated to shelters or transitional housing programs.

NCJW also has guest speakers and holds programs to educate its members about domestic violence.

Honey Yellin, community liaison for NA’AMAT USA, says local chapters donate toiletries, food, clothing and toys to area shelters, as well as provide shelter information to callers.

JWI and NCJW are sponsors of the third annual Religious Response to Domestic Violence: A Conference for the Interfaith Religious Community 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 17, at Paradise Valley United Methodist Church, 4455 E. Lincoln Drive, Paradise Valley.

The conference will include addresses by Gov. Jane Hull; Attorney General Janet Napolitano; an interfaith religious leaders’ panel discussion on religious attitudes toward domestic violence; a criminal justice panel on legal issues of domestic violence; and afternoon interactive workshops.

Rabbi Lisa Tzur of Temple Chai in Phoenix and Rabbi Bonnie Koppell of Temple Beth Sholom in Chandler, are scheduled speakers.

This article first appeared in the Oct. 13, 2000 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.

Family-owned delicatessen keeps packing in customers

Businessmen generate deals while indulging in delicatessen delights. Parents tote their small children in after the main lunch rush. Regular customers saunter in, knowing what they’re going to order long before they reach the counter.

This is the rhythm of a day at the Miracle Mile Delicatessen in the Camelback Colonnade, the newest of four locations of the restaurant, started in 1952 by the late Jack Grodzinsky.

Grodzinsky’s daughter, Jill Garcia, and her husband, George, own this Miracle Mile Delicatessen, which opened in February, as well two others at Chris-Town Mall and Arrowhead Towne Center.

Jill’s sister and brother-in-law, Ellen and Craig Dean, own a fourth Miracle Mile at Park Central Mall. Jill’s earliest memory of working in her father’s restaurant is standing on milk crates filling creamers when she was 5 or 6 years old. By the time she was 10, she was helping her father with catering.

Grodzinsky had opened the first Miracle Mile on 16th Street and McDowell Road; which closed in 1964. Meanwhile, in 1958, he opened the Park Central Mall store, followed by the Chris-Town store in 1960.

The Garcias opened at Arrowhead in 1998.

One recollection that sticks out in Jill Garcia’s mind from her father’s store at Chris-Town Mall is the holiday seasons, when the number of party tray orders increased. She remembers her parents’ friends coming to help prepare party trays after the store closed for the day.

“We would use all the tables in the restaurant to make trays because we had no space to make them (in the back),” Jill says. “Now we have a full catering crew” and a separate room to assemble party trays, she says.

George was a dishwasher at the Chris-Town location when he was 15 and met Jill, then 12. They worked together for years and, in their mid-20s, started dating. They married a year later.

Jill works at the Camelback Colonnade store and George is at Chris-Town. Managers handle their Arrowhead store.

“This is the first time since we’ve been married – in 19 years – that we’ve been at separate stores,” Jill says. “This is a whole adjustment for us in that respect as well because we’ve always, always worked together.

“So we call each other 10 or 20 times a day. … We’re really used to being together all the time,” she says.

Their 17-year-old son, Josh, a Central High School senior, works in the restaurant during busy seasons and when he has extra time.

Customers at the Garcias’ three stores consume some 10,000 pounds of pastrami per month, George says. The Colonnade store serves more than 1,000 customers each day, while each the two other stores averages 400-600 customers a day.

The Colonnade store, which is nearly 7,000 square feet and seats 226 customers, has three sections. On one side of the store is a counter for take-out orders. In the middle is the main, cafeteria-style line with selections of hot and cold sandwiches, soups, salads, side dishes and desserts.

An additional line on the far side of the store, which offers the same selections as the main line, opens for the lunch crowd.

Jill’s cousin Suzie Goldstein and her husband, Marvin, also help with the deli. “Without their involvement in the business, we probably would not have expanded,” Jill says. “There’s no way the two of us could have taken on this much.”

Although the couple have considered opening additional stores, they have no plans to create a franchise. “It has always been in the family, it will always stay in the family,” George says.

“Very few family businesses survive over the years,” George says. “What my father-in-law, Jack, started many, many years ago still works in this day and age. His foresight in seeing this was tremendous.”

This article first appeared in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix