Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


We experience our life in a certain context.  The current turmoil over the Ferguson, MO events is occurring in a context where

  • Black people are more likely to be targeted by police because of racial profiling; but also
  • Black people are more likely to be involved in a crime because of the social impact of fatherlessness, poverty, poor educational opportunities and drugs

and also where

  • Police are in the front lines of dealing with the fallout from a broken society; but also
  • Police are over-militarized and under-trained; and
  • Police are bringing their own baggage to situations, which can easily escalate

In other words, the events which led to the death of Michael Brown are in the context of a long chain of events, where neither he nor Darren Wilson are either fully innocent or fully guilty.  It is society itself which must do the work of healing both racial injustice (both from within and without) and police brutality.


Disability prejudice, likewise, exists in a societal context which devalues those who are seen to fall short.

This morning I followed this link, posted by the mother of a little girl with Down syndrome.  It is the story of a (different) mother who has just given birth after years of infertility treatments, several miscarriages, and the loss of newborn twins.  While most of the comments expressed congratulations for the birth and sympathy for the earlier losses, some were judgmental:
And not to be snarky, but what's wrong with adoption? Why do people feel such a strong need to have a biological child? If you have problems with fertility, maybe you should consider taking an unwanted child? Why go through all the heartache and expense, not to mention what it did to your body? Seems a little weird to me, that's all.
To which someone responded that this couple had in fact considered adoption, and linked to an earlier post, here.  Curious, I read this as well.  Turns out that their idea of adoption was the conventional desire for a "healthy newborn that looks like us," which generally involves a long, long wait and/or high expense (even while pouring both money and time into IVF).  As a young couple, it is reasonable for them to be hesitant about older-child adoption.  However, when I read this:

We decided that we were okay with certain physical problems (cleft lip/palate, blindness or deafness, missing limbs) but not others (Cerebral Palsy, etc). We also decided we are not okay with mental disabilities (Down’s Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, etc). Sound selfish? Sure. We get that a lot, even from our closest friends and family. Of course we know that there are lots of older/special needs kids who need homes, and of course we know that those children are harder to place than healthy newborns. That doesn’t mean that taking an older and/or special needs kid is right for our family. Right now, our family needs a healthy baby. An older and/or special needs kid needs things that we just can’t provide.

I could not help but wonder about the thought process.  They had already dealt with extreme prematurity, in term of the twins they had lost.  The risk of brain damage and consequent Cerebral Palsy is very high in premature infants, and yet they persisted in pursuing high-risk pregnancies.  If they cannot provide "things" that a special needs kid needs, what would they have done if they had given birth to one?  For that matter, what if their beautiful, perfect baby is diagnosed next month with a special need that was not detected in utero?  What if she is in an accident that leaves her disabled?  What if she turns out to be autistic?   There are no guarantees. Could they "provide" for their child then?

That said, I am not judging her, nor would I post this as a comment on her page.  Her decision process was, as I said above, conventional.  It took place in the context of prevailing social attitudes about disability.  Social attitudes which are demonstrated by parents "grieving the diagnosis," whether it comes pre- or post-natally.  Where expectant parents smile and say "as long as it's healthy," without considering the implication of that statement for a baby who fails to meet that standard.

It is society which must change.  Just as we seek to create a society where individuals are not devalued on the basis of their race, we also should create a society where all children are valued, not judged as deficient according to arbitrary standards before they take their first breath.

Are you with me?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Grateful for gratitude

As we approach Thanksgiving, many people share lists of things and people that they are grateful for, as well as high-minded sermons on the virtue of gratitude in general.

This is not that sermon.

In my last post, I reflected on the way praise can and should be given.  A corollary of people's reluctance to praise generously is the widespread tendency to deflect it when it is offered.  The same meme that informs us that "praise = insincerity" when we wish to compliment someone and hold back from full and generous praise leads us to assume that any compliments bestowed upon us cannot possibly be true.  And even if they are, that it would somehow be in poor form to accept them at face value.  So we deflect them:

  • "Oh, it was nothing."
  • "My part was really not that significant."
  • "There are still many problems to work out."

These seem like polite expressions of modesty, but they are not.  They are, in a mild way, a rejection of the goodwill of others.  We were offered a gift, and with these words, we have diminished it.  Rather, we should respond to compliments as we respond to any other gift:

"Thank you!"

Just as we are stingy with our praise, we are stingier still with our gratitude for the praise of others.

Please, in this season of gratitude, practice being grateful for all the expressions of praise, compliments, and general goodwill which you receive.  Say "thank you," and really take a minute to let the positive sentiment land.  Let it create a space of heightened self-esteem for yourself.  This is not vanity!  Instead, higher self-esteem will empower you to spread more goodness in the world.  Go ahead!  See yourself as a person who is deserving of praise!  Be the person that the praise says you are!

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you.

Friday, November 21, 2014

In praise of praise

I've been thinking a lot about praise recently.

Most of us are habitually stingy with praise. The reasons vary from concern that "excessive" praise would cheapen it, to fear that it would make us look pathetic and fawning.  I think that these concerns stem from a few misunderstandings about the nature of praise.

One problem is our experience with insincere praise, otherwise known as flattery.  We have all had experience with people who will flatter us in order to manipulate.  A reputation for flattery is very unsavory.  Once we have a reputation for insincerity, our opinions - both positive and negative - will be discounted.

Another form of false praise can be a style of polite speech.  Someone who uses the language of praise in casual contexts may have a harder time differentiating actual praise.

Both of these problems are solved by praise which is specific and concrete.  Studies of child-rearing have shown that children who are given generic praise (e.g. you are so smart, or strong, or pretty) actually have lower self-esteem than those who are given specific, concrete praise:

  • "That was a hard math problem! You stuck with it and figured it out - I'm really impressed!"
  • "Wow! You carried all those heavy shopping bags in one trip!"
  • "That color really brings out you eyes!"

This does not stop being true after childhood.  General compliments, while nice, may be suspect on either of the grounds described above.  Specific, concrete praise, is grounded in reality and can therefore be internalized and affirmed by the recipient.

It takes an effort to give this kind of praise.  You have to really think about what it is that you are acknowledging. But praise done right will not land as insincere or excessive, and will not cheapen either the giver or the recipient.

Thursday, November 20, 2014


Many in the disability community complain about their lives being seen as an "exhibit" for the purpose of inspiring others.  And yet, many people with disabilities do in fact live inspiring lives -- even if the inspirational element has more to do with overcoming societal prejudice than the disability itself.

Here is an excellent analysis of this issue.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

DS and race

I don't usually get into this kind of issue, but this caught my eye today:


The basic data is this:

Whites have been making steady progress in improving prognosis for the various conditions associated with Trisomy 21 since the 70's, but minorities did not even start to catch up until the 90's.  I have not seen more recent data, but I am certain that differences in access to quality pre- and post-natal care, as well as educational and social resources, account for much of these differences.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Another Jewish special needs website!


More on Lech-Lecha

Although I am not blogging the entire cycle this year (still waiting for suggestions on a good theme), I am still going to synagogue regularly and following the weekly parsha.  This week's parsha introduces the patriarch Abraham, as he is commanded to leave his home and go to the land which G*d will give to him and his descendants.

Many rabbinical discussions speculate on what distinguished Abraham to merit this call.  Some create legends out of whole cloth, suggesting that as a small child he saw the folly of idol worship.  Others see him as an adult, observing the world and concluding that there must be a Creator.  Some conclude that G*d calls each and every one of us, just as He called Adam in the Garden of Eden.  It is up to us to respond appropriately.

I have an edition of the Torah which breaks the text thematically rather than strictly along Parsha lines. This edition clued me in to a much more organic explanation of Abraham's prophetic encounter.  His childhood is not a total mystery, to be shrouded in legends.  The end of Parshat Noah gives some extensive detail:

כז  וְאֵלֶּה, תּוֹלְדֹת תֶּרַח--תֶּרַח הוֹלִיד אֶת-אַבְרָם, אֶת-נָחוֹר וְאֶת-הָרָן; וְהָרָן, הוֹלִיד אֶת-לוֹט.27 Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begot Lot.
כח  וַיָּמָת הָרָן, עַל-פְּנֵי תֶּרַח אָבִיו, בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתּוֹ, בְּאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים.28 And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Chaldees.
כט  וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם וְנָחוֹר לָהֶם, נָשִׁים:  שֵׁם אֵשֶׁת-אַבְרָם, שָׂרָי, וְשֵׁם אֵשֶׁת-נָחוֹר מִלְכָּה, בַּת-הָרָן אֲבִי-מִלְכָּה וַאֲבִי יִסְכָּה.29 And Abram and Nahor took them wives: the name of Abram's wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor's wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Iscah.
ל  וַתְּהִי שָׂרַי, עֲקָרָה:  אֵין לָהּ, וָלָד.30 And Sarai was barren; she had no child.
לא  וַיִּקַּח תֶּרַח אֶת-אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ, וְאֶת-לוֹט בֶּן-הָרָן בֶּן-בְּנוֹ, וְאֵת שָׂרַי כַּלָּתוֹ, אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ; וַיֵּצְאוּ אִתָּם מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים, לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן, וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד-חָרָן, וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם.31 And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son's son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there.
לב  וַיִּהְיוּ יְמֵי-תֶרַח, חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים וּמָאתַיִם שָׁנָה; וַיָּמָת תֶּרַח, בְּחָרָן. 32 And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.

What do we know here? Abraham (then Abram) was the eldest of three sons.  His youngest brother Haran died as a young father, leaving behind a son (Lot) and two daughters (Milcah and Iscah).  Does Abram feel any guilt in this?  As the eldest, does he feel responsible for the tragedy, or for its consequences? His middle brother marries his niece Milcah and (as we learn later) has 8 children with her, as well as 4 children by a concubine.  In the meantime Abram marries his (as we later learn) half-sister Sarai, who turns out to be barren.

In the midst of all this, his aging father decides to uproot from the city of Ur and head towards Canaan.  (Did he have a divine call in this?  What did this trip mean to the father, who had buried his youngest son?)  He takes with him his childless son and daughter-in-law, as well as his orphaned grandson Lot.  Abram and Sarai develop a sort of foster-parenting relationship with Lot.  Nahor and his large clan are left behind. How does this impact Abram?  Disconnected from his familiar town, his friends, and his remaining brother and his family.

Terah, Abram, Sarai and Lot never do arrive in Canaan.  They stop in Haran. In Hebrew this is spelled differently than the deceased brother's name, although this could be a transcription error, as the letters חָ and הָ are quite similar. It may well be that they named their stopping-point in his memory.  Why do they stop?  How does Terah feel about not making it to Canaan?  How does Abram feel about this?

It is in this context that Abram hear's G*d's call:

א  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.1 Now the LORD said unto Abram: 'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee.
ב  וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה.2 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing.
ג  וַאֲבָרְכָה, מְבָרְכֶיךָ, וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ, אָאֹר; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ, כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה.3 And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse; and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.'
ד  וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָם, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלָיו יְהוָה, וַיֵּלֶךְ אִתּוֹ, לוֹט; וְאַבְרָם, בֶּן-חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים וְשִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה, בְּצֵאתוֹ, מֵחָרָן.4 So Abram went, as the LORD had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him; and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran.
ה  וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת-שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת-לוֹט בֶּן-אָחִיו, וְאֶת-כָּל-רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ, וְאֶת-הַנֶּפֶשׁ, אֲשֶׁר-עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן; וַיֵּצְאוּ, לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן, וַיָּבֹאוּ, אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן.5 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came.

G*d's promise does not come in a vacuum.  G*d is promising to make right everything that went wrong in Abram's life.  He will have progeny, he will be a blessing rather than a curse to others (still feeling guilty about his little brother....) and he will complete his father's mission by arriving in Canaan.

This, indeed, is a person with whom we can identify!  Living through personal loss and disconnection, Abram sees in the divine an opportunity for deliverance.  He seeks to create a meaning for his life that is greater than the everyday details of his existence.  He has made a good living in Haran, but he is not settled.  He needs more.  He needs validation that there is a meaning and value to his losses.

And then G*d speaks to him.

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