The following is an article that was, more or less, published in last week's Mishpacha Magazine. I am grateful to Mishpacha for publishing it but, IMHO, their editing (they edited out 250 words) left much to be desired.
So, here it is in it's unabridged (and slightly revised) form.
I was sitting at my desk on a hot summer day in July, 2005. It was about 2 p.m. when the phone rang. I recognized the number displayed on my phone. It was Sara’s cell phone.
"Hi, What's up?"
"Ohel called. They need to place a ten week old baby. A girl."
"What's the story?"
"The baby is fine. Her mother is in the hospital. They think it may be post-partum depression. Ohel tried a number of foster families without success. They were pretty concerned."
"Ohel said probably a couple of months but it's unclear."
"What else do you know?"
"Nothing. That’s all that Ohel knows right now. What do you think?"
"Well, the burden is much more on you. If it's ok with you, it's ok with me."
"Good. 'Cause I already told them yes. The baby's coming this afternoon."
Ohel is the first agency contacted by New York’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) when a Jewish child is brought into the foster care system. Ohel is given a very short window to find a placement in a Jewish home with certified foster parents. If a Jewish home cannot be identified, the child runs the risk of being placed in a non-Jewish family. That’s why it’s so critical that Ohel has available Jewish foster families who can be contacted at a moment’s notice.
Sara and I were certified as foster parents in the spring of 2000. Raising our kids in a comfortable environment in the Five Towns presented many challenges and we felt that engaging in this type of hands-on chesed would be good for them. We also felt that we had a stable and structured home, which, we were told, was important for fostering. Our home was also, Baruch Hashem, a happy and fun place where a sense of humor was a must.
Working with government agencies responsible for the welfare of New York City’s children, Ohel has been providing certified Jewish foster homes for almost 40 years. During the past 15 years alone, over 350 foster children have come through their doors. The children range in age from newborns to 18 year olds. Sometimes they come in sibling groups. They come from all kinds of homes, ranging from non-observant to Modern Orthodox to Chassidic. They are Bukharian, Russian, Sephardi, Iranian, and Ashkenazi. The children, especially the older ones, often come with emotional or psychological issues, some more pronounced than others. (The act of being removed from one’s home alone is usually very traumatic). Foster children need foster parents who are loving but structured, non-judgmental but firm, and, above all, patient. A sense of humor doesn’t hurt.
Many children had passed through our home since we were certified but we had never before fostered an infant. Our next youngest child was 13 at the time. We hadn’t changed a diaper (other than our newborn grandson’s) in ten years. We no longer had a carriage, nor a playpen, baby bath, swing, baby clothes, or formula. So, Sara made a call to a younger friend from shul and by that evening our wonderful circle of friends had provided virtually everything we needed. I came home from work early that evening. We anxiously awaited the baby.
We waited. And waited. Nothing. No baby. No word from ACS. Midnight came. We went to bed, our door open so that we would be sure to hear the bell. Sara and I had a very fitful night’s sleep.
The next morning, we got a call from OHEL. How did it go? How did what go?, we asked. They quickly made some phone calls and discovered that ACS had messed up. The baby was delivered later that day.
In the beginning, Meira stared straight ahead when we held her, expressionless, as if to say, “What’s going on around here”? Thankfully, this look lasted only the first few hours; she quickly began to warm up to us. The kids made a big fuss over her, as you would expect, fighting for a chance to hold her. We bathed her and put her to sleep. We took turns feeding her through the night. This was a new experience for me; Sara had nursed all the other children so I never got to bottle-feed them in the middle of the night. While getting up in the middle of the night to feed a baby was not necessarily part of my plan at age 50, I found it surprisingly comforting. Meira was relaxed, staring at me with her big black eyes.
When you sign up as a foster parent, it is important to know that you are signing up your entire family. Your children are a big part of the team. They must ‘buy into’ fostering because they will inevitably have to sacrifice. They will sacrifice their time and, more importantly, some of your attention. From that sacrifice, however, they will learn life lessons that cannot otherwise be taught. They will see things that they would not otherwise see. They will grow and mature in profound ways.
Ironically, Sara almost never answers her cell during the day. But she picked up that phone call. Who could have imagined how profoundly Sara’s two minute conversation with Ohel would change our lives forever.
‘Two months’ has turned into almost four years. Meira has been with us every day since. She is as much a part of our family as each of the other kids. She is one of the ‘sisters’. Growing up surrounded by teenaged siblings, Meira sometimes acts like 4 going on 16 (how many four year olds do you know who like avocado more than candy?). Like any child her age, she tests our patience and our resolve. But she makes us smile and laugh much more frequently. She makes our backs creak (picking up a big toddler at the age of 54 is not so simple). But she keeps us young. She is delightful and adorable.
Fostering enriches the lives of foster children and foster families alike. However, it is certainly not for everyone. Ohel provides extensive training to all prospective foster parents to assist them in this important decision. Ohel continues to partner with those parents with ongoing support and case management once a child is placed in a home.
If you have it within you, fostering is a wonderful, important mitzvah whose rewards far exceed its sacrifices. And I don’t mean that in a spiritual way; I mean the rewards in this world, not the next (that is the Ribbono Shel Olam’s cheshbon). Knowing that you have given a needy child some love, some stability, some structure, a friendly smile, seeing their smiles, hearing them laugh, is worth it all. Knowing that you have played a small part in helping to save a Jewish neshama, a Jewish world, is priceless.
In late January, we worked out an agreement that would allow us to adopt Meira. B’ezras Hashem, the adoption process was finalized on Lag B’Omer.
Now the real work begins.
If you are interested in learning more about becoming a foster parent, please call Ohel at 718 851 6300.