Rabbi and adoption advocate Susan Silverman has taken a decidedly different, yet no less fearless, path from her famously bold sister, comedian Sarah Silverman.
by Sandee Brawarsky
When she was in the fourth grade, with two long braids framing her face, Susan Silverman announced to her mother that when she grew up, she planned to adopt one hundred children, one from every country.
In a recent interview, the writer, activist, and rabbi explained that her yearning never left her. It may have been related to the fact that her parents’ firstborn son died as a baby, or that her New England family sometimes took in foster children and she saw kids close up who didn’t have loving parents. Now the mother of five, she lives in Jerusalem with her husband, international energy entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz, and their children, ranging in age from 12 to 22. Their two sons were adopted in Ethiopia.
Silverman’s eldest daughter finished serving in the IDF, her second daughter is almost done with her service and her oldest son, next in line, is planning to go into a combat unit when he begins his army duty next year. The next girl and boy are still in school.
Another significant fact about the author’s family: She is the sister of comedian Sarah Silverman. Another sister, Laura, is an actress.
In her compelling memoir, Casting Lots: Creating A Family in a Beautiful, Broken World (Da Capo), Silverman writes of her trip in October 1999 to the African Cradle Children’s Center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Her instinct, upon seeing all the children at the Center, was to “adopt each and every one of them.” But she left with one, whom they named Adar.
At Shabbat dinners in their home, when she would bless her children with the traditional blessing, she looked into her girls’ faces and would see aspects of herself and her husband, but when she looked into Adar’s face, she would get “a closer glimpse of the divine.” A few years later, she returned to a different Ethiopian orphanage to adopt Zamir.
In warm prose, she describes their hectic and happy, not-always-perfect home, in which they try to infuse their lives with Jewish meaning. The earlier chapters are devoted to her own homelife as a child. Her parents ultimately divorced and married other people, a situation that grew increasingly comfortable for all of them.
This is a memoir written with passion and humor by someone who wants to improve the world. She writes with openness and curiosity, telling a story that is both spiritual and practical.
These days, she and her three sisters remain very close. “They are my hearts.” She says that her kids have had rough patches with each other, but now everyone is getting along “and in a good place. I’m trying to freeze the moment.”
About the source of her humor – and her sister’s – she says that growing up, everybody in their home was funny.
“Our father is crazy funny, very irreverent – he always wrote funny poems, stories and toasts. We also spent a lot of time laughing and listening to comedians on records,” she says. By the time Sarah was two, their father would be teaching her swear words, and she – “the world’s cutest ventriloquist’s dummy” would innocently recite the litany of them, “for appalled and delighted guests.”
For Rabbi Silverman, advancing the cause of adoption is her life’s work. She founded a non-profit, JustAdopt, and her hope is to shift the paradigm. “Adoption isn’t about parents who need kids, but about kids who need parents.” There are more than 153 million children in the world without parents. “I’m talking about the human right of every child to be raised as someone’s son or daughter.”
She would like to see people from the same community, whether a synagogue, school or community center, adopt children from the same orphanage, and hopes to work out an adoption relationship between Israel and Nepal.
Silverman, who is also an activist for Women of the Wall, explains that her rabbinate is about “what I’m passionate about, what I can do. I’m not a Talmud scholar,” she says, although Jewish texts guide her deeply. “I have a real passion about humanity. My super power in all of this is my willingness to speak up and be present.”
“To me, mitzvot, commandments, such as keeping kosher or the Sabbath, are not ends in themselves, but tools in building a just and compassionate world,” Silverman continues. She believes that certain important commandments, like treating the stranger well and prioritizing the orphan – “all the stuff that scares us that takes courage” – don’t get enough societal attention.”
“I live as if there’s a God,” she continues. “We can’t know.”
In an author’s note at the end of the memoir, she writes about the global state of adoption, dismissing widely-accepted reasons against adoption, and showing how they are based in falsehood. As she explains, what often holds up adoption for many people is not the lack of children who would benefit from adoption, but government obstructions. To those who would argue that children have a right to experience their own cultural heritage and that it is not fair to them to transplant them to faraway places with foreign cultures, she questions whether “a life of institutionalization, mental illness, sex trafficking, crime and early death” is a cultural heritage that should be preserved.
Her book tour to the U.S. this spring is a way to advance her advocacy for adoption.
Sandee Brawarsky is an award-winning journalist and essayist. She is the culture editor for the New York Jewish Week.