Varied VOICES: July 2010

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

GREEN ACRES: The Gift of Mishael Adar Binyamin

By Haviva Ner David

KIBBUTZ HANNATON, GALILEE—Mishael Adar Binyamin, our youngest son, had been living with us for two years when we were called to court to finalize his adoption, which is why, the night before our court date, my eleven-year-old daughter posted to her friends on Facebook in Hebrew: “Tomorrow we are going to Jerusalem to finish adopting my youngest brother, who has been living with our family since he was half a year old. And the funny thing is, I forgot he was adopted!”

I know all of us in the family feel the same way. When we applied to adopt a child through the Israeli Office of Child Welfare, we did not know this would be the case. It was an act of faith. Our first five children are our biological children. We have friends and family (gay and straight) with adopted children, but almost all of them adopted because they couldn't have biological children and had a long wait before being offered a child. We did not want to take a child away from a couple who could not conceive. So the thought never occurred to us to adopt. Until we were having trouble bringing a sixth child into the world. It seems my body was telling me it had had enough. But the desire was still there.

And then our very good friends from Massachusetts moved to Israel. They had adopted two boys from Ethiopia, where there are many orphans in need of a loving family. We spent Sukkoth with these friends, and I watched with interest how these boys were integrated into the family. I considered adoption for the first time. On the drive home I asked Jacob what he thought, and we agreed that the idea of adopting a child who needs a home was appealing. But we felt it made sense first to make sure there are no such children in Israel before looking in a foreign country.

The next day, I called the Child Welfare Office and discovered that indeed there are. These are called “Special Needs Children,” (and there are plenty of them although they would not give us a number), and are defined as any child in the system above the age of two or who has medical and/or emotional issues. When I heard this, I understood that the feeling that I was meant to have another child was not wrong; it was just the manner in which this was going to happen that I had been wrong about. So we applied and were contacted a few months later. This was followed by a series of meetings with our social worker and a required adoption course.

A few months later, about 1.5 years after we applied, we were offered Mishael Adar (although his name then was Binyamin, which we kept as his third name). They showed us his file (no pictures allowed until after we agreed). He had a medical disorder which manifested itself twice before, both times when his perspective adoptive parents came to pick him up from the institution where he spent his first six months of life. The couple decided they were no longer interested. So our social worker called us.

Experienced parents, we knew that all kids have their “issues,” so we decided his medical condition was an issue we could handle (a luxury we did not have with our biological children!). We felt there was a reason we were being offered this particular child, so we decided to go with our instinct. After all, the entire project of adopting a sixth child was not rational. Yet something was pushing us in this direction. And now we know why. From the moment we first met him, we knew he was meant to be part of our family. After a difficult first night (his care takers forgot to give us his special bottle), he became an integral and natural part of the Ner-David family and has been ever since. I can say with complete certainty that I feel no different about him than I do about my five biological children. And I know Jacob and Mishael's siblings feel the same way. When someone lives with you and becomes part of your family, it makes no difference how they got there. At least that has been my personal experience. And, thank God, his medical condition seems to have disappeared.

The road towards adopting Mishael was not seamless. We had to deal with the Israeli Rabbinate (to convert him, as his non-Jewish biological mother requested that he be converted), as well as the general Israeli bureaucracy. It took a whole year to be called to the Beit Din (the Rabbinical Courts). We were worried, because adoption in Israel is only through the Rabbinate, which is Orthodox. And my being a woman rabbi would not be a point in my favor in that system. One of the judges, it turns out, recognized me as the woman who received Orthodox rabbinic ordination. At first, he kept it secret, but when another one of the judges asked Jacob if he dons tefillin, this rabbi said with a smirk: “Not only does he don tefillin, but so does she!” I thought they would take Mishael away from us then and there. But thank God, the judges did not hold that against me. In fact, I think it worked in our favor. They were so fascinated with this fact that they did not ask any other questions about our religious lifestyle, which is not “Orthodox” and therefore not “religious” by their standards.

Next he had to be circumcised (they did not let us do this earlier, when it would have hurt less and not required a general anesthetic, much to our horror). Astonishingly, they informed us that the only place we could do this was in Safed. We were still living in Jerusalem then, which is a three-hour drive from Safed, and the thought of driving a toddler three hours home after surgery seemed ridiculous. So we waited, and after a few weeks, they sent us to Bat Yam, which is a little over an hour from Jerusalem. The experience was far from positive for a variety of reasons—one being that Mishael suffered from an infection after the surgery and was in a lot of pain.

We were delayed further with the mikveh immersion, which we were told could also only be done in Safed. They would not allow him to immerse without an I.D. number. This was a problem we encountered every step along the way. We kept explaining that until he was adopted, he would not have an I.D. number, and until he was converted he could not be adopted (Israeli law forbids parents to adopt a child of a religion other than their own). One would think that the governmental office that deals with conversion would have worked this out with the governmental office that deals with adoption well before our case. Mishael immersed without an I.D. number in the end, and it seems he is Jewish nonetheless, because his conversion went through in August.

It was not until a Friday in March that we were called to appear in court--on Monday morning at 8:45 am! After all of this waiting, all of a sudden they were in a rush! We asked to make it later in the day, since we now live two hours from Jerusalem and needed to get our children off to school, but they refused. So we packed up all the kids and took them along. Which again was a blessing in disguise, since they will now have the memory of being present for this momentous event.

The moral of this story is: Count your blessings—even those that don't seem on the surface to be blessings at all. This is not the only time in my life when I have felt God's metaphorical hand guiding me, steering me in a certain direction. But this was certainly the most powerful of those times. I was fortunate enough to have been given the gift of Mishael Adar Binyamin. But I was even more fortunate to have been given the faith to accept this gift.

The writer is the founding director of Reut: The Center for Modern Jewish Marriage and Shmaya: A Ritual and Educational Mikve at Kibbutz Hannaton. She is the author of Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination. This article first appeared in Zeek, published by the Jewish Daily Forward.