January 18, 2019

Meet the Fosters

Twelve seconds. That’s how long it took for my wife, Shawni, to respond to a text asking if she wanted to put our name on the list of families willing to foster a newborn baby.

To put this into perspective: It takes Shawni three months to commit to buying a T-shirt (and another two months to return it). Our son’s bar mitzvah album arrived just in time for his 14th birthday. We’ve been shopping for bedroom furniture since we moved into our house four years ago.

But when a good friend told us that a baby needed a Jewish family to foster him so he could have a bris, Shawni immediately said yes.

To be clear, lots of people are looking to adopt babies, but we are not among them.  We’re in the “How long until the kids are in college?” stage. But we had no choice.

You see, when we bought a house we couldn’t really afford, I made an agreement with God. “If you do your part and pay the mortgage, we’ll always keep a space at our table for anyone who needs a Shabbat meal, and our guest room open for anyone who needs a place.”

Since then, we have put up guests about 40 weekends annually — including a 20-year-old woman I met in Toronto and invited to stay for six months. (That’s another story and why I’m not allowed to travel by myself anymore.)

Shawni’s first question about the baby was whether we would be his best possible option. We’re both 50-something, and it turned out this kid needed a lot of help. The family situation was complicated, with daily plot twists: surprise court appearances, paternity tests.

My wife did what she does before every life-changing decision: She davened. She spoke to God for an entire spinning class — 45 minutes, including arms!

“If this is meant to be the best thing for the baby,” she said, “please let it happen quickly and easily. If not, please let him find the proper home.” When she got off her bike, she received a text: “The other families dropped out — you got him.”

Then it sank in: We would have a new baby for the first time in 14 years! The plan: We would keep him 3 to 6 months, until the mom got her act together. We’d fill his body and soul with the sounds and smells and warmth of a Jewish home — careful to not get too attached, since we knew he was not ours.

The reality: Shawni brought him home from the hospital and said, “I love him!” We invited 40 people for his first Shabbat to offer blessings before his bris. There never has been a baby more surrounded by love. Shawni snuggled with him constantly, my kids changed and fed him, and I vowed to “get it right this time.”

Then, a week later, the unthinkable happened: We had to give him back. In a third-act twist, the biological father had learned of the son and wanted custody. It hardly seemed fair — “We’re not done with him!”— but the court thought otherwise.

So, together as a family, we waited for the “real” dad to show up. Shawni offered a blessing that the baby always would know he is loved and have a strong connection with God and a love of being Jewish.

Then it sank in: We would have a new baby for the first time in 14 years! The plan: We would keep him 3 to 6 months, until the mom got her act together.

When the dad finally showed up, the resemblance was undeniable. He had a natural bond with the baby — and a shock of thick black hair that we could never provide. I adjured my family not to cry. (“He was never ours.”) Then, when the baby left with his dad, who couldn’t have been kinder or more grateful, my eyes exploded as I sobbed, “Our baby!”

People had warned us that saying goodbye would be the hardest part. In fairness, most people, including us, thought we would have him for longer than a week. But that one week was powerful — for all of us.

Interestingly, Shawni, who has never made it through an episode of “This Is Us” without blowing through a box of Kleenex, didn’t shed a tear. As she requested in the beginning, “If this is meant to be the best thing for the baby, please let it happen quickly and easily.” And so it was.

Jeff Astrof, a television writer and producer, is the creator of “Trial & Error.”