There’s No Argument in the Troy Jewish Community over Foster Care

front-page article in the Feb. 24 edition of our local Jewish newspaper, The Jewish World, portrayed me — surely accidentally — in a poor light, and I’d like to correct a couple of misrepresentations.

In case you don’t feel like clicking on the link to the article, though I suggest that you do, here’s a bit of background: There are currently two children in foster care with Rensselaer County DSS (Department of Social Services), ages 2 and a few months.  Their mother identifies with the ultra-Orthodox community and has a connection with Leible Morrison, who has served as the leader of Cong. Beth Tephilah here in Troy for a few years.

My partner Judy and I were foster parents through Rensselaer County for over 5 years.  We’ve adopted 4 children, as many of you know — none of whom were born to Jewish parents, all of whom are being raised Jewish.  As far as we know, we were the only Jewish foster parents in Rensselaer County at the time, and when we let our certification lapse — having our hands full, as well as our house! — there remained no Jewish foster parents in the county.  (This is confirmed in the article.)

So when these two children came into foster care, the county placed them with experienced foster parents — and called us for guidance, being the only Jews that they knew.  There is a high level of privacy maintained in foster care circles concerning personal information, so we had no information about the children’s birth mother other than that she identifies as Orthodox.  That in itself was curious; the Orthodox community in Troy is aging, other than two families with children, and I was quite sure that these young children did not come from those families.

We did what we could, including trying to make connections between the foster parents and the Orthodox community.  Congregation Beth Tephilah in Troy does not employ a rabbi, so naturally I reached out to my Orthodox colleague in Albany, Rabbi Moshe Bomzer, who is Rav haMachshir of Va’ad haKashrut of the Capital District — in other words, he’s the certifying rabbi of our local kashrut supervising organization.  We have a mutually respectful relationship of many years’ duration.

The headline and first paragraph of the Jewish World article imply that there is some kind of opposition between my position, as a Reform rabbi, and that of the Orthodox Jews involved with these two children. That’s not accurate. First of all, we all agree that the idea that a non-Jewish family can raise Jewish children is patently absurd.  However, when children come into foster care, they need a place to stay immediately, and the goal is to keep them local so that they don’t lose touch with their birth parent(s); so it’s both normal and reasonable that they were placed immediately with non-Jewish foster parents in Rensselaer County.

An organization called Agudath Israel of America is now involved.  I can’t find a website for AIA, but the article describes it as “a Jewish communal organization representing sectors of Chasidic Judaism.”  Their general counsel, Mordecai Biser, is quoted talking about me, whom he doesn’t know and has never spoken to:

“A non-Jewish woman who is getting instruction from a reform rabbi is a far cry from what the biological mother wants,” says Modechai Biser, general counsel for the New York City-based Agudath Israel of America.

I am not so foolish as to try to instruct a non-Jewish woman (or anyone) on how to raise observant Jews!  We did three things only:

  1. Gave the foster mother basic beginner’s information about kashrut. (We didn’t have to mention haircuts because that’s already in DSS regulations; foster parents are not permitted to cut foster children’s hair without permission from birth parents.  While this could be an issue for the baby boy in ultra-Orthodox circles, we had no way even of knowing at the time that their mother identifies as ultra-Orthodox.)
  2. Directed the foster mother to call Rochel Bomzer for more information about kashrut and caring for these children.
  3. Spoke with Rabbi Moshe Bomzer to alert him about the situation.  (NB: I should note that Judy made this call, since she had fielded the original call from DSS and had the information direct from them.)

I hope that your readers will concur that those were appropriate ways, respectful of the Orthodox community, for this Reform rabbi to be part of this situation.

I have always assumed, since we got involved in foster care, that one reason that very few Jewish children end up in foster care is that we have a level of communal concern and involvement that tends to intervene in difficult family situations before CPS (Child Protective Services) is called in.  I also remember, from our very first foster care placement, that there is a window of up to 72 hours after children are placed in foster care in which family or friends can step up and provide the safe and stable environment that parents are not providing at that time.  It’s sad that neither of these things happened for this young woman and her children.

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NB:  This post, while it accurately expresses my discomfort with the headline and first paragraph of the story, failed to acknowledge that reporter Marc Gronich wrote a generally balanced, thoughtful, and sensitive article. He had a long conversation with Judy and many other people beforehand, and we especially appreciate that he wrote accurately about our family situation.  That should have been the first thing I said, before I laid out my criciticm.  I apologize to Marc for putting him in a bad light.  This publishing thing is harder than it looks!

I wrote a longer apology which also considers the different meanings of the phrase “raising children.”  The next one after that will address some of the realities of foster care and the unnecessary involvement of Agudath Israel of America in this case.