HARTFORD — At the b'not mitzvah of their twin girls, Deborah and Howard Starr gave their daughters a gift with ties to their heritage: a Korean wedding chest engraved with the symbol for double happiness
Adopted in South Korea when they were just 3 months old, the twins have been the answer to their parents' prayers.
Elianna and Selena Starr were born Youn Joo Kim and Youn Jin Kim on Dec. 5, 1986, in Pusan, South Korea, to a young woman who could not take care of them.
Instead of following the practice of leaving them in a public place where they would be discovered, their birth mother made careful plans for their adoption.
Thirteen years later, Rabbi James Rosen of Beth El Temple in West Hartford presided over the girls' b'not mitzvah. At their service, he pointed out that they were not only celebrating their birthdays but also Chanukah — a double happiness.
"In Israel it is said, 'A miracle happened here.' But for your parents, a miracle happened here and there [in Korea]," the rabbi said at the service.
The Suffield, Conn., couple hoped and planned for children for 16 years before they began to pursue medical intervention and adoption at the same time. They requested twins when they applied for adoption.
"We were older parents, and we thought adopting two children would give us an instant family. Also, with twins, each of them would have a piece of their biological family," Debbie Starr said.
"We were going through infertility treatments and praying for a baby. Then Howard went on a UJA mission to Israel…and I joined him. One day on the trip, I decided to go to Rachel's tomb to pray [for a baby], right before we started the adoption process."
Soon after, Starr found out she was pregnant with either twins or triplets, but she miscarried. Less than 24 hours after the miscarriage, the Starrs received a phone call that twin Korean infants were available.
Three months later, two escorts delivered their babies to them. When the girls were 13 months old, they underwent an Orthodox conversion, even though their parents are Conservative Jews.
"We did not want there to ever be any question about their Jewishness," Starr said. "We still think that we might live in Israel someday."
Over the years, the Starrs have encouraged a connection to Korean culture. They have given their children bilingual copies of Korean literature and music, as well as videos and audio tapes. For several years they belonged to a Korean cultural group with other similarly formed families, until the girls lost interest.
On the couple's 25th wedding anniversary, when the girls were 10 years old, the family traveled to Korea and Japan for three weeks.
They had hoped to make contact with the foster mother who had been paid to take care of the girls for the first months of their lives, but they were unsuccessful in finding her. According to Starr, the girls were not interested in researching government records for information about their birth parents, as was their right.
"They do not speak Korean and were most fearful that they would not be able to respond if someone spoke to them," Starr said. "This was [also] the first time I realized they knew they would fit in and we wouldn't. They said to me: 'Poor Mom won't fit in at all — at least Dad has dark hair.'"
The girls, who attend Solomon Schechter Day School in West Hartford, are highly interested in the arts.
Both are musically gifted. Elianna plays the clarinet and Selena the flute, and they perform with the Schechter School intermediate band, as well as play duets at the Hartford Conservatory of Music.
They have danced "The Nutcracker" numerous times with the Northern Connecticut Ballet Company and have performed in "Sleeping Beauty" and other productions.
They also love to draw.
"They sketch all day long," Starr said. "I leave pads and art supplies everywhere in the house for them, and they reach for them wherever they sit down."
For their b'not mitzvah, each commented on a separate passage in their Torah portion.
Elianna found significance in a section about 12 tribal chieftains who brought identical gifts during the 12 days of dedication for the Tabernacle. Although each offering was the same gift, it was listed 12 times.
Elianna focused on the significance of each gift. Even though each was "identical in appearance," she said, each was different because of "the motivation, symbolism or inspiration" of each giver. She tied that to her sister and herself. They appear to be the same on the outside, she said, but they think and feel differently.
At the service, Elianna also addressed the theme of dedication.
"Chanukah is about rededication to Judaism. As an infant, I was converted to Judaism," she said. "This decision was made for me by my parents. Today, I…rededicate myself to Judaism, as I take on, by my choice, the responsibilities of becoming a daughter of the commandments."
Selena found her own twist to the Torah portion.
"The triumph of Chanukah was of observant Jews winning over assimilationist Jews. The real measure of my becoming bat mitzvah will be to continuously develop kadosh, holiness in my life."
Both girls approached the role of tzedakah in their celebration with seriousness. They decided to contribute to worthy causes reflecting all three nations of their heritage: Korea, Israel and America.
To honor their Korean beginnings, they asked guests to bring a gift for the Hanon Hospital in South Korea, where one floor serves as a temporary home for babies awaiting adoption.
In Israel, they are sponsoring an Ethiopian high school student through the North American Conference of Ethiopian Jewry. And in America, they contributed a portion of their gift money to the Hartford Community Capital Campaign, earmarked for the expansion of the Schechter School.
Having watched her daughters reach their b'not mitzvah, Debbie Starr readily acknowledges feeling grateful.
In a letter to them, she wrote: "Your courageous and loving birth mother gave you the gift of life. We have honored her trust and have cherished you from the day you were placed into our waiting arms. We thank God everyday that she heard His voice."