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Second Nurture

Susan SilvermanFilmed at Limmud Conference 2016

When Susan travelled to Ethiopia to adopt her son, she didn't expect to encounter Martin Buber there. But she did. Jewish philosophy, theology and Torah study are ways to describe the indescribable, the unknowable: God’s will. But sometimes, in some moments, all these ideas take on immediate, gritty, real-life meaning. And that’s when they demand something from us – and when they matter most.  

Susan Silverman is an author, teacher, activist and founder of Second Nurture: Every Child Deserves a Family – And a Community, a program to find permanent, loving families for all children – with the added bonus of supportive communal contexts for their families, which can be found at She is an advocate for asylum seekers and of liberal Judaism in Israel, the author of Jewish Family & Life: Traditions, Holiday and Values for Today’s Parents and Children and, recently, of Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful Broken World. She has appeared in Tablet Magazine, Moment Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Forward, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, YNet, The New York Times, NPR, and ABC’s The View, among others. She and her spouse, Yosef Abramowitz, have five children and live in Jerusalem. She can be found at and @rabbasusan.

I first held my oldest child moments after I gave birth to her. “I love you so much, but I have no idea what that means.”

She was this skinny little thing with this big mop of black hair and this wide face and we had named her Aliza: joy.

I peered into her face the way the Israelites stared at the thunder and lightning of Sinai. I was entering a sacred covenant. I didn’t understand it, but it filled me completely. From the first moments, I lost myself to the force of Aliza’s demand on me. I was overpowered by love and awe. I had given life, but it gave me life right back. I was someone new.

When I first held my son, Zamir, he was four-years-old and living in an orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

I had travelled there with Aliza, who was now twelve, and her sister, Hallel, who was ten years old. We had come together to bring home their new brother.

He expected us, and he knew our faces from the little red book we had sent with pictures of his sisters and his brother. And by now I knew – with every fiber of my being – that the love was inherent in adoption as it had been in birth. That it was an all-consuming, covenantal love.

Our three daughters had been born to us, and Zamir’s new brother was adopted from Ethiopia like he was.

The girls and I got to the small compound in the early afternoon, during the children’s naptime. The orphanage’s policy was not to tell the child that their new family would be coming to get them on a certain the date. The child knew they were coming, knew what they looked like, but didn’t know what date, in case something got messed up and there was a delay, and the family couldn’t make it on that particular date.

So we sat on these wooden steps in the courtyard. And Gail, the orphanage director, went into the building where the little boys slept. Through a series of windows on the side of the building, I could see Gail moving forward, to each bunk bed one after the other, wondering, where would she stop? It was like a twisted, high stakes musical chairs.

About two-thirds of the way in, she stopped, she reached to a top bunk and emerged to the courtyard with a little boy slumped on her body. She walked over to me, leaned down, and his weight shifted onto me, his head on my shoulder, his body along mine, his arms hanging over mine.

After a few beats he roused, looked into my face and stared blankly. Then, all of a sudden, this whole face smile just came across his giant eyes, his big lips, his cheeks, just everything expanded in this huge smile. And with that, his sisters were able to say their first hello.

Like millions of children worldwide, Zamir lived in an institution. And his was better than most. He had food, he had shelter, he had a nursery school, a pre-school and only limited physical punishment.

But no institution can provide what children are innately wired for: children are wired for love. Love that says “I see you”; “I got you.”

Just as babies in orphanages can lose their eyesight because they’re lying on their backs, and staring at white ceilings all the time and their optic nerve is never stimulated, little souls cannot flourish without the stimulation of full-hearted human commitment and engagement.

The Torah emphasizes care for the orphan and the stranger. What is it that these two biblical categories have in common? Neither has agency of their own in the world, nor do they have someone with agency who says, “I got you.”

Orphanages cannot provide what Martin Buber called an I-Thou relationship. This kind of relationship, “I-Thou”, means that we relate with the entirety of our being to another whole person.

The opposite relationship, which Buber calls “I-It”, we see others as members of categories, or as instruments of achievement.

Orphanage workers – like others responding to urgent needs of many people at one time – have by definition I-It relationships with the children. How else can you get dozens, or even hundreds, of children fed, clothed, sheltered?

But the ultimate goal for every single child, especially if we believe that everybody is made b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, has to be an I-Thou relationship with an adult – and not just any adult – a parent: a permanent, loving, devoted adult.

We can’t be rooted in the world – in our souls and our bodies – when we lack I-Thou. Perhaps, we can’t even be rooted or connected to God without an I-Thou relationship to mirror the Divine.

Now, brace yourselves because these numbers are not pretty. Using the US as an example, there are 400,000 children in the Foster Care system. 117,000 of them are available for adoption right now.

Kids who have lived in the Foster Care system have twice the rate of PTSD – of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – as war veterans.

Well under 1% of the general population, some 000% of the general population becomes homeless. 30% of kids, who grow up in the Foster Care system, as adults become homeless.

Internationally, there are between 8 and 12 million children in institutions. That’s not even I-It. If we’re estimating the number of kids by the millions, with the technology available today to do it, it’s below an I-It relationship, they’re nothing to us. And there are tens of millions of kids on the streets.

I’ll bet that there are a good number of people here tonight who have considered adoption. You’ve thought, “Hey, we’ve got a great family, or I’d be a really good parent, or you know my kids are getting older, I could adopt an older kid.” And there are lots of kids that need families. In fact, there are over 80 million people in the United States alone who have considered adoption, but haven’t done it.

The question is why? What are the barriers? Research – and the experience I’ve had as well interacting with people around this issue – have shown three basic reasons, three basic barriers:

One is bureaucracy: Oh my god, there’s this huge bureaucracy out there, I don’t even know where to start, who to call, what to do, who’s going to guide me through this?

Another is finances: Oh I heard adoption’s expensive, is that true? Am I going to be in debt? Are there hidden costs?

And the third is fear: What will that child need? Will it be more than I can give? Will I love her? Will he love me? Will there be attachment issues? Will there be developmental issues? Will I get the kind of support that I would need to properly raise this child.

These anxieties are reasonable – whether we’re adopting or giving birth. I often say that our biological child, Hallel, when she was a teenager – she happened to be a nightmare of a teenager – that if she had been adopted, people would have said, “You see what happens when you adopt”. But she was biological and no one ever says, “You see what happens when you replicate your DNA!” – even to us.

They’re worth taking in these anxieties, they’re real, and they’re based on a reality. But they’re also worth, for many of us, overcoming.

So when I ask myself, how do we overcome these barriers, and get more children into permanent, loving families? I think, here’s a solution: I believe that more people would adopt children if they knew that their community had their back.

Imagine. Imagine your synagogue, your school, or community center, got together, encouraged one another to adopt, and created concentric circles of support for those adoptive families. We would see more adoptions, more successful families, a richer family life and more engaged communities.

Not everyone will adopt, but there will be room for everybody in those concentric circles of support. And those circles will help lead to more adoptions.

So together we would facilitate the adoption – the bureaucracy part – but not only facilitate adoptions, but facilitate adoptions of children who come from the same country maybe even the same orphanage, or who all have experienced life in the Foster Care System, so that the children have a network of shared experience and perhaps even can continue pre-existing relationships.

Imagine if, when the girls and I went to get Zamir, multiple families from our community came with us and every child from that orphanage or his section of the orphanage went home with their new family.

And once home, each community would cultivate networks, with professional guidance, with the support where our organization brings in the best support available to these communities to address issues of physical and mental health, identity development, attachment, belonging.

And we’ll develop materials that will integrate adoption into Jewish life so that our children are not grafted onto the Tree of Life, but come from its roots.

I-Thou relationships would characterize our families, our communities. And I believe our connection to God.

For Buber, I-Thou is more than a way of relating to others; it is also how we can, a bit at a time, come closer to God.

Now, back to Addis Ababa and Zamir:

After our first day together, the girls and I brought Zamir back to the boarding house where we were staying – the small apartment that the orphanage made available to adopting families. We were wiped out. I gave them kisses, I sang Shema, I said goodnight and I went to sleep.

The next day, we had to go to court, we had a lot of errands to do, it was in Amharic, and it was very stressful to sort of make our way through all of these legal proceedings and kind of exhausting and its also just like a lot to take in in that country.

We get back to the boarding house that night. I got the kids into their beds on the floor, I said goodnight, and I got up to go into the next room to go to sleep. Zamir grabbed my arm and pulled me back down. It’s like OK, goodnight sweetie, kiss, kiss, kiss. Off. He pulls me down again. OK honey, goodnight kiss kiss kiss.

And then finally one of the girls said, “Mama, maybe he wants you to sing Shema,” He’d heard it the night before. And I thought, hmm, pretty much no way, but I had forgotten, so I sang:

Shema Yisrael adonai eloheinu adonai echad….

As I sang, he smiled that smile again, he closed his eyes and he lay down, and went to sleep.

Now, I have probably sung Shema 10,000 times over my 23 years of being a mother, it’s all a big mush in my mind, but that one time I remember distinctly, uniquely. That time that my new son, on a foam mattress on the floor of a paint-chipped rooming house in one of the poorest cities in the world, taught me the glory of I-Thou, and elicited God’s presence.

Thank you.

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