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.

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.

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.