From left to right: Hallel, Adar, Aliza, Yosef, Ashira, Susan and Zamir.
From left to right: Hallel, Adar, Aliza, Yosef, Ashira, Susan and Zamir.

Rabbi, mom of five an advocate for 153 million parentless kids

When Susan Silverman landed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, she was on a mission. When she left, it was with a new member of her family, a little boy she and her husband, Yossi Abramowitz, named Adar.

“We were matched with our son Adar on the holiday of Purim, which means lots,” says Silverman, a Reform rabbi. “We were taking a chance, throwing lots, in building a family — because having kids means you take risks in terrifying ways, because the world is a dangerous place and, with kids, you put your open, vulnerable heart into the world with every child you have. Being from a theater-oriented family, one could say we were, in a sense, ‘casting’ our family through birth and adoption. And we had cast Adar’s lot with our family and the Jewish people. We had cast all our lots with each other.”

Rabbi Susan Silverman
Rabbi Susan Silverman

She and Abramowitz, who live in Jerusalem, soon adopted another orphan from Ethiopia. Both boys integrated into her family, which includes three biological daughters. And that was the beginning of what would become Silverman’s new mission: becoming an advocate for international adoption.

“To me, mitzvot, commandments, such as keeping kosher or the Sabbath, are not ends in themselves but tools in building a just and compassionate world,” Silverman says. “And that means all children having permanent, loving families.”

Silverman went on to found JustAdopt.net, a nonprofit dedicated to finding a forever home for the many parentless children around the world. She also wrote a new book, “Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World,” in which Silverman chronicles her journey and addresses the many facets of adoption, including transracial adoption. Silverman will speak at Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom as a scholar-in-residence April 8-9.

“Every child’s most fundamental human right is to have a loving parent,” she says. “I very much want my family’s story to put the orphan crisis in a personal light as part of the fight against the prevailing anti-international-adoption forces. There is no replacement for a family of one’s own. I’m not at all talking about ‘family values’ in the sense that conservatives in the U.S. have hijacked that term. I’m talking about the human right — the desperate, deep need — of every child to be raised as someone’s son or daughter.”

The stats are significant: 153 million children in the world are without parents. About 250,000 are adopted worldwide each year.

“I actually don’t think most people would be hesitant to adopt if they knew the extent of the need and there were reasonable, accessible paths to adoption,” says Silverman. At any given time, she says, there are about a million people in the U.S. who want to adopt — and 2 million internationally.

“It’s just … hard to do! What resistance there is to adoption itself may be found in residual tribalism and the sense that nonbiological children present a risk,” Silverman says. “All my kids are amazing and pains in the ass. That’s parenting: a combination of joy and angst.”

“Casting Lots” also sheds light on the “adoption cliff” — the steep drop-off in international adoptions by U.S.-based parents in the past decade. In 2004, there were 22,991 adoptions in America. In 2013, there were about 2,200.

“If that were due to the world solving the international orphan crisis, that would be wonderful. But it’s due to a shutdown of adoption programs internationally,” Silverman says. “So, despite the 8 to 12 million children in institutions and the estimated 153 million unparented children in the world, we are closing down the most compassionate and effective option: permanent, loving families.”

Together with Abramowitz, Silverman is co-author of another book, “Jewish Family and Life: Traditions, Holidays, and Values for Today’s Parents and Children.” She also partners with her sister, comedian and actress Sarah Silverman, on lectures and panels to address issues of shared interest. Like her sister, she writes with wit — and the occasional pitch-perfect swear word. Silverman worked as a rabbi in Maryland and in Jewish education in Boston before moving to Israel in 2006.

Her nonprofit, JustAdopt, proposes an innovative model for increasing the number of “loving, healthy, permanent families for the orphans of the world by leveraging existing communities.” The core concept, Silverman says, is that multiple families from the same community — such as synagogues, schools and community centers — adopt children from the same orphanage.

The goal is for adoptees to be raised among families who look like theirs; in her case, of mixed races and ethnic backgrounds. Among a community of such families, adoption becomes a natural part of the collective conversation, Silverman says. The children’s birth culture would be reflected in communal activities, strengthening the social fabric of the community. The community also would support an organization in the birth country that works toward an end to the orphan crisis through health, educational, technological or other community efforts.

Adopting, Silverman is quick to point out, benefits not only orphans. “What would we want good people to do if, God forbid, our kids were alone and vulnerable, no longer — for whatever reasons — under our care? We would want them to adopt our kids, to provide a loving, devoted, forever family,” Silverman says.

“So let’s be those people! And this is not just for those considering adoption. This is what I hope everyone will consider. It’s a way to give a child a permanent, loving family while enriching your own life.”

“Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World” (DaKapo Press, 256 pages)

Rabbi Susan Silverman will appear April 8 and 9 at Congregation Netivot Shalom, 1316 University Ave., Berkeley.

Lisa Klug