Five children tumble down the stairs for breakfast. It is hard to hear over the chatter about who is eating whose cereal — the Robinsons look and sound like any large Jewish family.
John, who is a Liberal Democrat councillor in Hull, Yorkshire, has a busy work life and his wife Sarita is equally busy, coordinating Reform Judaism’s northern communities. Their two eldest sons attend RSY summer camps, while their youngest, Jamie, loves Jewish-themed books.
The Robinsons have been fostering children of all faiths for seven years, but their five bedroom home is an example of something that’s increasingly rare in the Jewish community. Last week, two London councils warned that children in need are being left without Jewish foster care, because of a lack of suitable families to help them.
The Robinsons see their home as Jewish, even though John is a Christian. Jamie, now aged four, was converted under the auspices of Reform Judaism. He arrived as a newborn baby needing a foster home and has only known the Robinsons as parents. The rest of their brood are Christian or have no faith.
“You could say we are a complicated family,” Sarita reflects, “but for us, it is no big deal.”
When they adopted Jamie, they already considered themselves parents to Ben, 13, and Adam, 12, neither of whom were religious. The fourth child, Anna, a Christian 16-year-old unaccompanied asylum seeker and her newborn baby, joined them in April this year.
“Jamie had been with us for five months when social services told us he was going to be put up for adoption. We said we wanted to be considered and a long seven months later we were successful.”
Raising foster children with different religious identities, alongside a Jewish son can be challenging, she accepts.
“But it is not that complicated. The two boys, who came from non-religious backgrounds, have grown up going to RSY camps. The younger one is interested in Judaism and he says the blessings with us on a Friday night.
“The other is less so. But they both love coming to shul, because they find it fun and they get to eat, and they also go to church with my husband if they want. Most importantly, we provide them with freedom of choice.”
While social services prefer to place children with families of the same faith or cultural background, a national shortage of all kinds of carers means children can often be placed with people of a different faith.
“It is difficult to give numbers but we do know there is a national shortage of Jewish foster families, says Mark Cunningham, chief executive of Manchester’s major welfare charity The Fed. The charity has received inquiries from local authorities in London, forced to look for placements in the north because there is not enough available locally. Understanding how important identity is to children in the care system is crucial in making their experience with a new family positive, says Sarita.
“Take our 16-year-old, who is an unaccompanied asylum seeker. We looked up where she was coming from. On the day she arrived we cooked her food from where she was from to make her feel at home.
“It is important for them to be a part of anything they want to be, but we don’t force anything on them. The most important thing you can provide any child is stability and security. Foster children have come from places that weren’t safe or stable.”
She keeps the cupboards stacked with food to cater for each child’s taste.
“It looks exactly the same as any other household. They fight about who sits where in the car, one will eat this, the other won’t eat that. They fight about toys, about space. The only difference is that we have a social worker to work with.”
The couple think of all the children as part of the family. “We don’t talk about them as foster children, we consider them our children. When Jamie was converted the boys were invited onto the bimah with the family.”
She is keen to point out that her multi-faith household does not mean compromising her own Judaism. “At home everything is kosher, and they live by our rules as it is a Jewish house. But unlike Jamie, the foster children are free to eat whatever they want, outside the house.”
Does she worry that this will one day encourage Jamie to rebel, because his siblings have different rules?
“Of course I worry. One day we might go out to dinner and Jamie says ‘Why can’t I have a bacon sandwich, because Adam or Ben can?’ But like anything, as your children get older and more challenging, you deal with it as it comes.”
The couple were drawn to fostering when they struggled to have their own children. Instead of giving up on a family life they looked at different options.
“Not being able to have children just isn’t discussed in the Jewish community and it is always something I have found frustrating because there are other options beyond IVF. There is a real stigma attached.”
Fostering has not only been a way for them to fulfil their dreams of a family, but to fulfil their shared religious values as well.
“We are providing a home to people who need one. The number of children in care has increased but the lack of foster carers remains the same.”
It was that lack, particularly within the Jewish community, that attracted Andrew Margolis and Caroline Schloss to the role, in 1993. The couple, 66, and 61 respectively, began fostering through Norwood and provided a home for sixteen Jewish children over the years.
“We got married later in life and knew we wouldn’t have many children of our own,” says Margolis.
Jewish children, like those from any other community, needed their help because of family breakdown, neglect, or issues of domestic violence.
“The biggest myth is that these issues only affect children from economically deprived backgrounds, or the strictly Orthodox community,” he says.
“It doesn’t. We had children from well-off families and across the religious spectrum of the community. We found there was always a shortage of foster carers within the Jewish community.”
The couple, who live in Muswell Hill, north London, say fostering provided their son Alex with an opportunity to mix with other children and learn how to share.
“He was an only child, so for him it was totally beneficial. He learnt to socialise, and play with others. It taught him to value what he had,” says Schloss.
“We had a girl arrive to stay with us with nothing but a plastic bag once. I remember him saying, ‘I don’t understand why she can’t be looked after by her own mummy’. It is no bad thing for children to learn and appreciate what they have and might take for granted.”
The couple, who no longer foster, are still in touch with many of the children for whom they provided a home.
“Of course you build up bonds. It is great to see the positive impact that you have,” says Margolis.
And his wife explains that the process of moving children on, either to adoption, or in some cases back to their original families, helped the couple with their own parenting.
“One of the hardest things parents find is to let go, but actually it can be a positive thing. Learning to let go of foster children, knowing they were going on to better things, helped to make that easier.”
Some names have been changed.
Anyone interested in becoming a foster parent should contact their local council.