Send a child off to preschool and one day she will come home and say, “Mom, Sarah says she’s Methodist. What am I?”
For parents raised with little religion or for those who don’t belong to any church or synagogue, the question can be difficult. If a child was adopted and the prevailing religion in her birth country or culture is different from your own, it can be particularly daunting.
Just how important is religion to adopted family life? Very important, says Rabbi Judy Spicehandler, director of education at the North Shore Congregation Israel in Glen Coe, Illinois, and adoptive mother of Alizza, age nine. “As children grow, they want to place themselves in their world,” she says. “That’s especially true of adopted children. One way of doing that is through religion.”
Knowing that she would raise her daughter as a Jew, Rabbi Spicehandler looked for ways to integrate her daughter’s Chinese heritage with her new faith. The first opportunity came with Alizza’s naming ceremony when she was one year old. “The Chinese also celebrate a baby’s first birthday,” says Rabbi Spicehandler, “so I incorporated whatever traditions I could, like serving red eggs.”
For children who don’t have a genetic link to their families, being raised in the same religion can be an important connection, says Adam Pertman, author of Adoption Nation. “Religion is not a matter of birth, it’s a matter of choice,” says Pertman, “and it’s a decision that should be left to the adoptive parents.”
Remembering my own positive Sunday School experiences, I was determined to find a church where my Chinese-born daughter would feel comfortable. So we did what many young families do, we shopped around, visiting a variety of local Protestant churches in our community.
We eventually joined an Episcopal church, although it was not the denomination in which I was raised. And interestingly, it is my nine-year-old daughter who is our family’s most insistent church-goer. She likes the community, the Bible stories, the sense of belonging.
In her capacity as a rabbi, Judy Spicehandler often counsels parents who worry that their adopted children won’t be “accepted” by other members of their congregation. Though rejection could happen, the rabbi often finds just the reverse: “A church or temple is one more place your family can find affirmation and support,” she explains.
For Pertman, the rewards are even more basic. “When I hear my blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter mutter ‘Oy, vey’ in frustration, I know that’s not nature speaking — that’s nuture.”