For several years in my early twenties, I worked at a residential group home. The children who lived there – some for years at a time – were between the ages of 6 and 12. All had arrived because they had behaviors and mental illnesses that made living at home unsafe. Many came from foster homes. I spent most of my shifts playing with them, reading to them, taking them on outings, helping them bathe and dress, and cooking for them. The sole Jew on the staff, I brought dreidels, graggers, my leftover matzah, and taught them all to sing my favorite niggun while we washed up for dinner.
I also spent my shifts in the vicinity of their pain and trauma. A child who hits, kicks, bites, spits, swears, breaks things and tries to hurt itself is a child in terrible pain. And these group homes were clusters of children in pain, and it ricocheted from child to child to child, and among the staff, too. Pain lived in the colorful walls, in the hand-sewn quilts from the volunteers, in every stuffed animal, in all of our attempts to make it better.
It was there, while I was restraining a child who was trying to bite my throat, that the still, small voice said: I can. I can. They need me, and I can.
In 1855, a Philadelphia woman named Rebecca Gratz heard the voice, too. She founded the first Jewish orphanage in America. That organization grew and later merged with a group of Jewish organizations aimed at supporting Jews in poverty to become what today we call JFS – Jewish Family Service.
The Torah makes reference to the mitzvah of caring for the orphans, or detailing how one should treat orphans, a number of times. Judaism has a long and treasured history of people raising children who were not their biological children. Here are some examples: Abraham adopts his adult servant Eliezer to be his heir; Jacob claims his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, as his own; Moses was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, and Mordecai brought up his orphaned cousin Esther.
But most of the children in Gratz’s Jewish Foster Home, as it was called, were not actually orphans. Mostly, they were children whose parents were too poor to feed, clothe, and even shelter them. All of the children in my care at the group home had people they called Mom and Dad. Likewise, the vast majority of children in the foster care system today are also not orphans – they have parents who are, for whatever reason, unable to keep their children safe at home. In my experience, the parents – we call them first parents, or families of origin, rather than “birth parents,” which falsely suggests the only value the parent ever had was to give birth to the child – love their children fiercely, and want the best for them.
Indeed, the majority of children in foster care will eventually be reunified with their families of origin. Being a foster parent means supporting this journey of reunification, even as we commit to loving the children in our care with our whole entire heart.
I can. I can. They need me, and I can.
Some chapters of Jewish Family Service still have foster care organizations within them, but most of them don’t anymore. As Jews assimilated in the 20th century, began to be largely perceived as white, and got collectively wealthier, we were not only able to care for the material needs of our children more easily, but social services targeted us less.
We left our place as the immigrants with strange and inexplicable ways that were sometimes incorrectly read as abuse or maltreatment and emerged as a model minority within American society. There was no longer a need for Jewish social service organizations to say to the state – “thank you, but we’ll take care of our own foster care and adoption needs.” Jewish children are rare in the foster care system in Massachusetts, and across much of the country.
My favorite Jewish tale is the one of the rabbi who instructs his students to inscribe the words of Torah on their hearts. “But Rabbi – surely you mean IN our hearts, not ON our hearts?” the students ask incredulously. “What good do the words of Torah do sitting on our hearts?” The rabbi replies: “When your heart breaks, the words of Torah will find their way inside.”
My heart has found a lot of Torah in this work. There is no circumventing heartbreak – nor should there be. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about being a foster parent, it’s that no one can do it alone.
I’ve come here today because I think there is a place for us in this world of families who were not born to us. People have told me that I am the only person they know who fosters, and that I’ve been a window into this different world of family, and I am so grateful for their witness and their support, but it’s not the same as getting support from people who know what’s going on. I find community and solidarity among my foster parent friends, but I think – I know – we can do even better.
I have a vision for the JCA. It starts small, with this building, and a few families. DCF, the Department of Children and Families, is looking for an Amherst location to host an information session about foster parenting, and supporting children in foster care, then run a training for potential foster parents. They will come on February 4 at 1:00 pm to the JCF in the small sanctuary. If it’s a success, they’ll also need a space to establish a DCF-sponsored support group for foster families that meets once a month.
The Tikkun Olam Committee and Rabbi Weiner have showed the kind of generosity I’ve come to love about the JCA – they said they’d be happy to volunteer the JCA building without hesitation.
DCF can handle the logistics of the training and organizing support groups. They just need a space – and they’ll have one. But my vision for JCA goes beyond that.
The JCA and the Reconstructionist movement have been on the cutting edge when it comes to recognizing and honoring all families. I want us to take this on, too – not just to be welcoming, but to understand, acknowledge and make a place for the unique adventure that foster and adoptive families are on. There are so many ways we can do this, but I’ve got some ideas where to start:
- Working with the Ritual Life Committee to do something that has NEVER BEEN DONE before – creating Jewish rituals and writing liturgy that mark life cycle events that are specific to foster care, including the welcoming of new children into the community, and celebrating reunifications with their families, or moving to adoptive homes as their foster families say goodbye. If we do this, it could put the JCA on the map. I know Jewish foster parents across the country who are hungry to have their children recognized and honored in this way.
- Having dedicated members of the JCA community who are committed to supporting full-time foster parents by agreeing to go through training to do childcare for foster kids. Imagine being at work when your child’s school calls to tell you your child is sick and needs to be picked up – and there’s no one you can call because your kid can only be picked up by a DCF-approved carer. Imagine not being able to go to a shul committee meeting, or even to a foster parent support group, because there’s a shortage of DCF-approved carers. These sort of everyday occurrences become crises when there aren’t enough people to help out, but can also be opportunities to strengthen a child’s community of loving adults.
- Talk about foster care at shul. Become the place where local foster families know they’ll be seen, accepted, loved and nourished. Instead of referring to foster parents as “angels” and “heroes,” who do things that seem impossible, refer to them as “neighbor,” “comrade,” “kehilah” – people with whom you are in community, doing the hard, wonderful, vital work of being family.
If you’re at all intrigued, curious, or inspired by what you’ve heard today, I invite you to come to our full-on information session, which will be happening on February 4 at 1:00 pm. We’ll talk about ALL the ways to get involved, from full-time foster parenting to being a carer, or a foster family support person. We’ll also talk about what unique strengths a Jewish community can bring to the lives of foster families.
For me, becoming a foster parent started with a still small voice that echoed in the cracks of my heart. Take a moment to listen to yours. What does that voice say?
We can. We can. They need us, and we can.