An Orthodox Jewish member of the New Jersey State Assembly introduced a bill that would require adoptees to be placed in homes that would “maintain a child’s religious upbringing.”

Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Dist. 36), who represents portions of Bergen and Passaic counties, said he introduced the bill out of concern that an adoptee or foster child could be “put in a home where the parents practiced a religion other than that of the child.”

Within a day of the bill’s introduction, Schaer said, it has already received support from David Mandel, the chief executive officer of the Orthodox Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services in Brooklyn and from Aref Assaf, president of the American Arab Forum and an advisory board member of the New Jersey Council on American Islamic Relations.

“Not only Jews and Muslims, but many smaller Protestant sects, and even some people in the Catholic community” are supporting the measure, Schaer said.

In addition, a spokesperson for the Orthodox Union (OU) is praising it as “a great bill. It is important that children remain with the same culture they had with the family they were born into,” said Teaneck resident Rabbi Josh Pruzansky, the OU’s New Jersey regional director for public policy.

The bill would require state and private adoption agencies “to maintain a child’s religious upbringing when placing a child with a guardian, into foster care, or into an adoptive home.”

Agencies and courts would be able to place a child in a setting of a different religion only with a written statement from the child’s birth parent or legal guardian, if feasible.

The bill also bars discriminating against prospective parents on the basis of age, sex, race, national origin, religion, or marital status.

“Certainly we want to make the adoption and foster care process as easy as humanly possible,” Schaer said in an interview, “but we need a fit that matches, and it matches best when religious beliefs of adoptive and foster parents meet those of the child.”

The granting of veto power to birth parents over a child’s religious upbringing, however, is a matter of concern to Marc Stern, associate general counsel for legal advocacy at the American Jewish Committee.

“When you take a kid out of the house because the parents have been drug abusers or are abusing the children, why let them and only them decide what the religious upbringing of the child should be?” asked Stern, saying he was speaking as an individual and not as an AJCommittee representative. “You don’t give parents you are taking kids away from access over anything else. Why this? I am not clear why you would give them any veto.”

However, Stern does see some merits in the bill, especially in cases where the state’s Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) is forced to remove abused children from their biological parents.

“It is traumatic enough to pull kids out of a home, and if you have kids who are Sabbath-observant and eat kosher food, and you put them in with the family who is up next on the DYFS list, you are adding to the trauma,” he said.

While the bill would ostensibly maintain the Jewish identity of a child born Jewish, it could also limit the number of non-Jewish children available for adoption by Jewish families.

“The number of children born Jewish who are available for adoption is very small – much smaller than the demand within the Jewish community,” said Saul Berman, an attorney and Orthodox rabbi who is a professor of Jewish law at Stern College and Columbia University in New York.

In fact, because of the complexity of determining a child’s Jewish status under halachah, or Jewish law, some Jewish parents actually prefer that an adopted child be from a non-Jewish family.

“It is often simpler to adopt a child who is of non-Jewish parentage and then perform a conversion without the need for further information,” said Berman.

The bill also requires that, in cases where a child is placed with a family of a different religious faith, provisions be made so that the child could attend services conducted in his or her own religious faith.

That clause would pose problems for observant Jewish families, said Berman. “I don’t think any committed Jewish family would want to put themselves into a situation where the adopted child practiced a religion other than Judaism,” he said.

In his former position as director of Agudath Israel of New Jersey, the OU’s Pruzansky handled two cases in which children were removed from observant Jewish households and placed in non-Jewish foster homes.

Such a situation “simply can’t be tolerated,” he said. “It is something that is detrimental to the child.”

Pruzansky said it “took a lot of work behind the scenes” to have the children removed from their non-Jewish environments and placed with Orthodox foster parents. “Up until now, there hasn’t been any regulation on the state level to protect an adopted or foster child’s religious identity,” he said.

At this point, Schaer has no cosponsors. He anticipates none until after the state legislature opens its new session in January.

New Jersey Jewish News