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A Chinese Orphan’s Journey to a Jewish Rite of Passage Is Highlighted, Showing the Changing Nature of the American Jewish Community

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
May - June 2007

The bat mitzvah of the girl once known as Fu Qian, renamed Cecelia Naolon-Shapiro at 3 months when she was adopted in China, was featured on the front page of The New York Times (March 8, 2007).  
The Times reported: “Of the 613 laws in the Torah, the one that appears most often is the directive to welcome strangers. The girl once known as Fu Qian has been thinking about that a lot lately. Three weeks ago she stood at the altar of her synagogue on the Upper West Side and gave a speech about it ... She was one of the first Chinese children — most of them girls — taken in by American families after China opened its doors to international adoption in the early 1990s. Now, at 13, she is one of the first to complete the rite of passage into Jewish womanhood known as bat mitzvah. She will not be the last. Across the country, many Jewish girls like her will be studying their Torah portions, struggling to master the plaintive singsong of Hebrew liturgy and trying to decide whether to wear Ann Taylor or a traditional Chinese outfit to the after-party.”  
Olivia Rauss, a girl in Massachusetts who celebrated her bat mitzvah last fall on a day when the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot coincided with the Chinese autumn moon festival, said she saw no tension between the two facets of her identity either. “Judaism is a religion. Chinese is my heritage and somewhat my culture, and I’m looking at them in a different way,” she said. “I don’t feel like they conflict with each other at all.”  
According to The Times, “While no statistics are kept on the number of Chinese children adopted by Jewish families, over all, there were about 1,300 Chinese children adopted into American families from 1991 to 1994, another 17,000 in the second half of the ‘90s, and 44,000 since then, according to the State Department.”  
At Cecelia’s bat mitzvah at Temple Rodeph Sholom, Rabbi Robert N. Levine preached from the day’s reading: “Let the stranger in your midst be to you as the native, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  
Rabbi Michael Gold, father of three domestically adopted children and author of And Hannah Wept: Infertility, Adoption and the Jewish Couple, notes that, “Variety is increasing. We’re seeing a more fluid Jewish community.”  
The Jerusalem Report, in an article entitled ”Opening Up the Jewish Gene Pool,” reports that, “An intermarriage rate of some 47 per cent as well as conversion are bringIng in former non-Jews, including blacks, Asians and Latinos. The 1990 Jewish population survey found that 6.5 per cent of respondents or 3.2 million households nationally were non-white Jews. Today that figure is thought to have risen as much as 10 per cent. With more Jews migrating to North America from countries outside Europe, the old profile of American Jews as white and Ashkenazi is clearly changing.”  
The Report notes that, “Concern that their children will be shunned because of their looks is a recurring theme on Jewish adoption internet forums. But what does it mean to ‘look Jewish?’ An anonymous Ethiopian couple living on a kibbutz in Israel posed a message on Adoptionforums.com expressing their concern that their adopted daughter from Russia wouldn’t fit in: ‘She’s white with green eyes and light brown hair. We are concerned whether she will be seen as Jewish,’ the couple wrote. ‘While we look Jewish, she doesn’t.’”

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.