A battle over two Jewish children is brewing in the Rensselaer County Department of Social Services and the county’s family court, pitting the Orthodox and Reform Jewish communities against each other over how the Jewish children should be raised.
Who can best raise these two foster children? Troy Jewish community has opposing thoughts
By MARC GRONICH • Jewish World
TROY–A battle over two Jewish children is brewing in the Rensselaer County Department of Social Services (RCDSS), the county’s family court and pitting the Troy Orthodox and Reform Jewish communities at odds over how Jewish children should be raised.
The battle centers on a foster care case where an infant girl only a few months old and a two-year-old boy have been placed in foster care, which means providing a temporary home for children in need, with the hope is that the child will eventually return to their birth family.
The Mother’s Profile
The biological mother is said to be in her 20s, grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, identifies with the Orthodox Jewish community in Troy, is a known drug addict and had her children out of wedlock. While the baby boy was not born addicted to drugs, the girl was born with a chemical dependency to heroin, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.
At the urging of the Manhattan-based Agudath Israel of America (AIA) and Leible Morrison, the spiritual leader of the Beth Tephilah Orthodox congregation in Troy, the mother is requesting that her children be placed in a Jewish household and raised in an Orthodox lifestyle. AIA is a Jewish communal organization representing sectors of Chasidic Judaism.
The Mohel From Crown Heights
The boy was given a bris by Rabbi Eliyahu Shain, a mohel in Crown Heights, who traveled to Troy for the ceremony at Beth Tephilah synagogue in Troy.
Shain said Leibel Morrison, the spiritual leader of the Troy synagogue, called him to arrange for the surgical procedure to take place.
“I just met them for a few minutes,” Shain told The Jewish World. “I usually charge $650 for a bris but I told Leible he could pay what he could afford, which turned out to be much less.”
Shain admitted he was not 100 percent sure if either the child or the mother were Jewish. He was simply asked by Morrison, who is not a rabbi, to come to Troy.
“The grandmother looked Jewish. I just met them for a few minutes, 15 minutes tops,” Shain said.
Troy Jewish Community Support
In recent months, RCDSS has placed the children in the home of a non-Jewish family prior to a possible formal adoption taking place. The parents of the non-Jewish household, a heterosexual couple, are known to Rabbi Deborah Gordon and her partner Judy Wineman from the time the two were adopting four children and were foster parents several years ago. Gordon is the spiritual leader of the Berith Sholom Reform congregation in Troy. At the time Wineman and Gordon befriended the foster parents, they were all going through a state-mandated 24-hour training program, Model Approach to Partnership in Parenting (MAPP). “We let our certification lapse because we needed to stabilize the environment for the four children we already had,” Wineman said.
Now that their own adopted children are in a stable environment, Wineman and Gordon say they would consider reopening their home for these two children but they probably would not qualify because the space at their home would not meet the requirements and guidelines of the RCDSS.
Advice And Counsel
Wineman said she spoke to the non-Jewish foster mother in October. “She wanted to know about the laws of kashrut,” Wineman recalled. “They are sincere in wanting to meet the religious needs of the children as specified by the biological mother. These kids would be okay in foster care with these non-Jewish parents,” Wineman said.
“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.
Wineman says she knows of instances where the RCDSS tries to keep children with extended family or immediate family members. “Rensselaer County has been very considerate and sensitive around these issues,” Wineman said.
According to Wineman there are no Jewish families in Rensselaer County certified to be a foster household, a fact confirmed by Theresa Beaudoin, chief counsel for RCDSS, “there are no Jewish households certified to be a foster family in Rensselaer County at this time.”
The Law Is Clear
Biser argues the boundaries for placing a child in foster care does not end in Rensselaer County He contends that since this is state law, the children could be placed with a certified Jewish household anywhere in the state of New York. Citing social services law section 373(7), Biser said “‘Religious wishes of a parent shall include wishes that the child be placed in the same religion as the parent.’” Biser says he will appeal the decision of the Rensselaer County judge, Catherine Cholakis, who made the decision to put the Jewish children with non-Jewish parents.
Biser also cites another law, New York State Family Court Act Section 116(c) as evidence that Cholakis made an incorrect decision: ‘Make an effort to place each child in a home as similar to and compatible with his or her religious background as possible with particular recognition that section 373(3) of the Social Services Law requires a court, when practicable, to give custody through adoption only to persons of the same religious faith as that of the child.’
Section 373(3) states: ‘In appointing guardians of children, and in granting orders of adoption of children, the court shall, when practicable, appoint as such guardians, and give custody through adoption, only to a person or persons of the same religious faith as that of the child.’
The Law Is Vague
Several people in the Jewish community and the legal community, familiar with this case and asked to comment refused mainly based on reasons of confidentiality, including Judge Cholakis. The phrase in state law, ‘when practicable’ is sufficently vague to allow these children to be placed in foster care of a non-Jewish household for the immediate future.
In the New York State Family Court Act, Section 116(e) attempts to clarify the phrase ‘when practicable’ as ‘interpreted as being without force or effect if there is a proper or suitable person of the same religious faith or persuasion as that of the child available for appointment as guardian.’
Raise them Orthodox, Mom Says
Biser says the mother has had a traditional Jewish upbringing and wants her children raised in an Orthodox home. He says he has a letter stating that, which he turned over to the courts, but for reasons of confidentiality could not produce the letter for this news report.
“Besides the question of religion, the system is struggling with many cultural-specific placements such as language and gender identity questions,” said David Mandel, the chief executive officer of Ohel, a Brooklyn-based social service agency that provides a multitude of services for the Jewish communities in New York City, northern New Jersey and southern Florida. “At this point we are indirectly involved and available to be directly involved, if necessary.”
Mandel says a Jewish family in the New York City area heard about the Rensselaer County case and asked to go through the MAPP training to become certified foster parents. He did not know how far along the potential foster parents are with the certification training. Since Ohel is a subcontractor with the NYS Office of Children and Family Services, they are able to provide the MAPP training sessions, according to Mandel.
“This is a situation where to what extent is the system required or obligated to adhere to the letter or spirit of the law,” Mandel said.
Biser says the biological mother has a dream for her children and the courts need to give additional consideration to her wishes. “It’s disturbing that she is a drug addict,” Biser admits. “We don’t know what happened in the family that led to this. It’s a tragic situation.”
[Hat Tip: Dr. Rofeh=Filosof.]