By Stephen Oryszczuk
If you heard that Jewish children in Britain were unable to live in a Jewish home, through no fault of their own, what would you think?
Would you think they were the lucky ones? That there were worse things in life? Or that it was a travesty to deny them something fundamental? More importantly, would you do something about it, or simply read on?
That is the question being asked of the Jewish community during Foster Care Fortnight, which starts on Monday, 12 May, as national agencies try to fill a huge shortfall in carers. At present, the UK is around 9,000 carers down on the number it needs but, closer to home, the damning verdict of the National Fostering Agency as recently as October was that there was a particularly acute need in the Orthodox community.
“There is an urgent need to increase the number of Jewish foster parents,” said the NFA. “Currently there are not enough foster carers to look after the Jewish children being referred into care from the kehilla.”
Social workers have engaged organisations such as the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, but Michael Lerner of jewishfostering.org.uk says we’re still collectively failing to give our children the fostering support they need by “failing to provide Jewish foster carers that correctly match the foster child’s religious upbringing”.
The lack of suitably-trained, Jewish foster carers means that some Jewish children end up fostered by non-Jewish families, says Lerner. “There is without doubt a need for an instantly-available pool of approved, Orthodox, foster carers that come close to matching the child’s needs both culturally and religiously.”
For others, however, it is not just about Jewish foster carers caring for Jewish children, but about encouraging the community to give help to whoever needs it.
Currently caring for two non-Jewish children aged 13 and 16 years, Ros Esterman has been fostering for just over a year, and has had four children live with her, her husband Julian and her 25-year old daughter during that time.
“Jewish parents are well-placed to offer the love, care and safety these children need, whoever they are,” says the Edgware Masorti member. “If it’s a Jewish child, fine, but you take whoever comes through your door.”
The huge shortfall in foster carers is not unique to any particular race or religion, says Jewish social worker Natasha Adley, but rather it is a national crisis that care workers are trying to address.
Adley is one of several experts teaming up with communal organisations, such as the Movement for Reform Judaism, to help increase awareness of what fostering means and what it offers through no-obligation information sessions.
“It can be hugely challenging but also hugely rewarding,” she says, ahead of an awareness day at the Sternberg Centre on 18 May. “You need to have commitment, patience and understanding, perhaps also an interest in child psychology, and there are lots of appointments, so you also need to have lots of time and energy,” she says.
“It’s not for everyone,” agrees Esterman, who admits it can be a cause of stress. “It gives me terrible headaches sometimes,” she admits.
“But you’ve just got to be clear about boundaries, often to children who have never had any boundaries. You sit down and talk it through. They may throw tantrums, you may end up shouting, but I’ve never ever thought this wasn’t for me. I’ve only ever thought: ‘I wish they’d listen’ because I know I’m right, I know I can help them.”
Get through the tough times, and the rewards are huge, she says. “A shy, nervous child steps through the door and a few weeks later they’re bristling with confidence, wanting to stay – there’s no feeling like it.”
And as a mother of two grown-up children, Esterman says she was born to do it. “My life is children. I was put on this earth to look after them,” she explains. “My son and daughter are great with it, in fact they’re incredibly proud of us, and I definitely plan to continue. I’m 56 now and I’ve been looking after kids for 40 years. I ain’t stopping now.”
It is couples like Ros and Julian that both agencies and local authorities are seeking to attract, and Adler says Jewish parents are well-placed to help youngsters transition from a vulnerable position to permanent, adoptive parents.
“For many Jews, the sense of family and community is incredibly important,” she says. “To have some of that rub off on these children, to pass on some of those values, together with the idea of tikkun olam, well that’s just an amazing thing to do.”