Sarah and Seth Ettinger are expecting their second child, a baby girl, in May. Plans are already underway for their third.
“We struggled so much to conceive the second child that we would move straight towards the adoption phase and wouldn’t go through with trying the way that we did for the second,” Sarah said.
The couple started the adoption process before conceiving their second child. “As they say, the minute you go to adopt, you end up getting pregnant,” Sarah joked. But they know they want three kids and the adoption process can take a while. They’ll pick it back up in a few months.
The adoption process can seem overwhelming for any family. Phoenix-based Yatom: The Jewish Foster and Adoption Network has been offering support and guidance, and Seth and Sarah found there are challenges unique to Jewish parents looking to adopt.
For starters, there aren’t a lot of Jewish kids up for adoption.
Relative to the number of kids in the system, the number identifying as Jewish is relatively small, said Caron Blau Rothstein, Yatom’s program manager. That fact is one of the first things she explains to Jewish parents looking to foster or adopt.
National data show there are about 424,000 kids in foster care, with about 14,500 in Arizona, according to the state Department of Child Safety. Data on how many are Jewish is not available.
There are also fewer adoption agencies focused on Jewish families as opposed to Christian families.
“There are less options for someone who doesn’t identify as Christian,” said Katie Zimmerman, founder of Phoenix-based Purl Adoption Advisory.
Yatom encourages Jewish families to be more “expansive in their idea of who they should be willing to foster or adopt,” Rothstein said. And that leads to another challenge.
“If we adopt a child who’s not Jewish, what do we do? How do we raise this child?” Sarah asked.
The Ettingers expect to adopt their third child privately from an agency and are expecting a semi-open or fully open adoption process, where the birth mom chooses the adoptive family for her child.
Expectant mothers tend to choose families that have a belief system similar to their own, and there are probably fewer expectant moms who are Jewish that are contacting an attorney or agency to match them with a prospective adoptive family, Zimmerman said.
“That’s probably because the Jewish culture is supportive of their own,” she said. “And so if a woman is in a situation where she is facing an unplanned pregnancy and her Jewish faith is important to her, she might reach out to a rabbi, she might reach out to someone that can help her identify a family that might be interested in adopting her child.”
Seth, the cantor at Congregation Beth Israel, and Sarah, a teacher at Pardes Jewish Day School, are already thinking about the kinds of conversations they will have with their child’s birth mother.
“On the one hand, we’re a clergy family, and we’re Jewish. But I’m also a convert. So I understand what it must feel like for a birth mom, if she selects a Jewish family, the questions she might have,” said Sarah, who converted to Judaism when she was 23, about five years before she met Seth.
At the same time, the couple feels strongly about honoring the wishes of the birth mother.
“Even though we have a very religiously tolerant home, our kids are raised Jewish, our kids are Jewish,” Seth said. “We don’t want to go ahead and dishonor the religious lineage of a birth mother, who’s wanting to give this kid a better life. And then at the same time, we want to be authentic to our upbringing and not have this person feeling like an outcast.”
Yatom has raised this conversation and others like it for the Ettingers and the other parents participating in its annual support and education program. The program consists of up to six sessions that take place about every other month. Parents get the opportunity to meet others on a similar journey and learn about the adoption process.
“It’s as important to know what you can do as what you can’t do, or what you want to do or what you don’t want to do,” Rothstein said. “In a couple, you may have partners in different spaces after they go through the experience.”
For example, Seth and Sarah have had to come to terms with not only a potentially complicated religious household, but also the reality that many kids up for adoption have health risks.
“You really have to ask yourself questions, because external people are going to be asking you questions and evaluating,” Rothstein said. “It’s not that you have to be in lockstep with each other, but you have to be solid in your relationship.”
Seth and Sarah will finish the Yatom program in May, and feel committed to proceeding with adoption.
“We’re older parents,” said Seth, noting he and Sarah had their son, now 3, in their early 30s. If they were to conceive another child, Sarah would be giving birth when she is close to 40.
“I would rather adopt the third and not assume that health risk, so I can be there to take care of my family,” Sarah said.
They plan to pick the adoption process back up when their daughter is around 7 months old. They have a few things still to decide, but they both agree on adopting a child whose age maintains birth order.
“Adoption is a very lengthy process, because to get certified and to get all this stuff, it can take years and then they could also put you on a waitlist,” Sarah said. “Depending on when our paperwork goes through and when we’re fully licensed by the state of Arizona, we would take an infant (aged) all the way up to whatever age our youngest is at that time.”
Yatom’s first fellowship program for parents began in 2016. The organization offered the program for a Phoenix-only cohort in 2020, in addition to a national cohort and will do so again this year. JN
Applications for Yatom’s next cohort will open this spring. Those interested can email firstname.lastname@example.org.