Calling All Jewish Adoptive Families A Local Support Group Is Being Revived. There's Plenty To Talk About.

Posted: December 14, 1995

MOUNT LAUREL — As a 46-year-old Jewish single mother, Marlyn Kress realized her options were limited. She'd already gone through two miscarriages and desperately wanted to adopt a child.

But domestic adoption agencies were biased against Kress because she is single and middle-aged. Several foreign countries in which Kress applied for adoption refused to adopt to a Jewish person, she said.

"The only route open" was the one leading to China, she said.

There, Kress found her daughter, Zoe, in May 1994. "I couldn't have made a better baby if I had given birth myself," she said, looking fondly at her playful daughter, now 21 months old.

Yet, there are problems that come along with her decision to adopt a Chinese child. When strangers see Zoe's bright, round Asian eyes and straight jet-black hair, most would never fathom that she is Jewish.

Kress went through the ceremonial process of having her only child converted soon after Zoe was a year old.

Today, Kress says it's sometimes hard to deal with the curious stares she gets on the street and the questions strangers ask: "How are you going to raise her Jewish?" or "Are you going to teach her English?"

At times, Kress ponders how she will help the growing Zoe deal with being of the Jewish culture, but of Chinese descent.

Kress hopes that through a support group, she and other Jewish adoptive parents will help each other discuss such questions, and other issues that go along with adoption. She, along with Helene Cohen and Debra Berger, are trying to revive a South Jersey chapter of the Stars of David, a nonprofit national support group for Jewish adoptive parents. A local chapter was active several years ago, but for some reason died out in recent years, Cohen said.

Through networking, Kress estimates that about 100 other Jewish families in South Jersey must deal with the issues that go along with an ethnically diverse family and religious conversion, on top of the traditional nuances of adoption. About 20 of those families attended a picnic that the women organized a few months ago. Most of those families were complete with children born in Russia, Paraguay, Chile, Mexico and Romania.

The women believe that so many Jewish families are now electing to adopt internationally because such adoptions offer less hassle and more guarantees, they said.

When Cohen and her husband, Robert, decided to adopt, they had just followed the Baby Jessica story in the media, Helene Cohen said.

"I didn't want to start loving my child, then have her given back to the birth mother." Things like that don't usually happen when you adopt a foreign-born child, she said.

The couple, who live in Woodbury, first held their daughter Carly, born in South Korea, last July.

Members of the support group could be used as resources for Jewish families wanting to adopt, as well as those who already have, organizers said.

"If you don't have an organization to tell you the different ways to go about it, you can flounder," said Berger, who lives in Woodbury. "It (the support group) will bring all the adoptive families under one umbrella. It will give us a chance to address our Jewishness."

Unlike the Cohens and Kress, Berger and her husband, Bill, decided not to have Chloe converted to Judaism. Nonethess, the Guatemalan-born girl will be raised in the Jewish faith, Berger said.

Because the conversion ceremony involves a brief immersion in a small pool of water, babies must be at least a year old for safety reasons, Berger said. But when Chloe became that age, the Bergers were involved in another family situation and decided it wasn't a good time. Now that Chloe is 3 1/2, the Bergers fear immersing her in water could be traumatizing.

Talking with other Jewish adoptive families helped them through their decision to wait until Chloe is 13, at which time they hope the girl will choose conversion on her own.

"You hope that your teachings and what you believe in and raise your child to believe in will be enough to carry her through," Debra Berger said.

But she can't escape the fear that Chloe may not choose to convert. Another adoptive mother told Berger of a child who asked the Jewish adoptive parents, ''Did my real mother know I wouldn't get to celebrate Christmas when she let you have me?"

"These are things that only Jewish adoptive children are going to face," Berger said.

All three mothers belong to other adoptive support groups that deal with the ethnicity of their children - Kress to a Chinese group, Cohen to a Korean group, and Berger to a Latin American group. "We believe that is just as important," Berger said.

"We want to incorporate their ethnic heritage with their Jewish heritage," Kress said. The Stars of David is not about exclusion, but inclusion, she said.

The group plans to sponsor a number of social and educational programs each month, as well as discussion sessions. The women are organizing a formal event scheduled for Feb. 16 at which members will celebrate the gifts of adoption.

For information about the Stars of David, contact Helene Cohen, spokeswoman, at 853-5771.

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