10/02/2012 04:25 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

Orphans and God

It's a late Indian summer night and the sounds of crickets are co-mingling with the whistles of trains going by. My sons are asleep and I am working. What is on my mind is what orphans think and know about God.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have come and gone. I am watching the Yahrzeit candles in their glass vessels flicker on the marble counter top. We have a family tradition of lighting these candles each for a loved one who has died. Barry, my brother, Harold, my father, and Ben's birth parents, and Des's birth parents are still going strong at the 30 ½ hour mark. We don't know for sure about Ben's parents, but since Des told us that his parents died, Ben feels comfortable thinking that his parents are dead too. The boys run this candle affair like a horse race...a very slow one, but it is a race with a finish that they won't see...and maybe I won't either.

Most kids grow up with the concept of God that their parents give them. Going to church or synagogue and holidays are traditions that are transferred to children and then children grow up and decide how that works or doesn't work for them as adults.

I have plenty of memories of the Jewish holidays and the many times I spent reciting from the Siddur for the Jewish New Year. Belief was not discussed much in my home, but I ended up believing in God. My rabbi may have influenced me because he was so passionate about Judaism.

What must it be like for a child to not have traditions like the holidays? Kids are loved on a holiday. They are spoiled with a favorite cake and they are dressed up and treasured in a pew. There are stories shared and lessons offered to children on holidays. Promises are made to Jewish children on Yom Kippur that they will be inscribed in the book of life for another year.

Holidays build family memories. I remember being with my parents in a temple. I recall being dressed too warmly on one year because my mother bought a new woolen outfit for me and it had to be useful for other occasions. So she bought a suit of woolen clothes and the temperatures were often still like summer for the high holy days. Mostly I remember being proud to be with my mother because she dressed fashionably and wore a hat in temple. I also remember my father wearing a very fine suit. He mostly wore chinos and a work shirt at the grocery store he owned in South Jamaica, Queens, but for the synagogue he wore a suit that had been made by his friend Sy Hertling. I can remember my mother and father going to visit Sy to choose a fabric for my father's suit.

Harold's candle just went out at 12:15 am. I made a note for the kids to see in the morning.

I remember saying that I believed in God and I thought that I knew who God was for me. How would an orphan know who God was or what God does? Orphans don't go to churches or synagogues. They might celebrate holidays in the orphanage and be given gifts at Christmas, but would they know who God was and what he did?

Who creates a spiritual life for orphans? Who can promise anything to an orphan? In some orphanages, the only education a child has is about Jesus Christ, but it is not a spiritual experience. Religious organizations come to Africa or Asia or Latin America and are in the business of saving souls and the orphan children are the beneficiaries of this evangelical or Christian process when orphanages and schools are built. I think that this is generous, but is it about God? It is a quick fix with good intentions, but there is likely no strategic curriculum to teach a deep sense of discovery about God.

I have seen nothing educational or inspirational about God in my trips to orphanages. It is a regimented routine in orphanages in Haiti. Kids are reading about Jesus and that is how they are taught to read. They don't have reading books other than about Jesus Christ. The words are mouthed and repeated and kids recite parables in French. The teachings are drilled, but there are no discussions.

Maybe I have not been in enough orphanages to know whether the concept of God is being taught to orphans innovatively and with the objective to search for faith in God. Perhaps teaching orphans about the God of many religions/cultures would help them grapple with abandonment and loss? I am open to it all, but maybe understanding God is less important than food, shelter, access to medical care, general education for survival and independence. Is God a luxury for orphans? Or is it a necessity that we have failed to achieve?

I moved the candles upstairs so that I could witness the extinguishing process as I finished this essay. Barry's went out, leaving the candles representing the families of Ben and Des. I fell asleep and both were still lit. Early in the morning I brought them back down to the kitchen, made breakfast and they finally went out after the boys were off to school.

Ben's family prevailed for the second year in a row, from what my boys remembered. This made Ben proud. This was not about God...this was finally about how each of them felt about their families. Their identity strengthens each year at this moment. This yearly tradition is complex and I will revisit this with them each year until we all understand it better. More about God and orphans in the future......

Dr. Jane Aronson
Founder and CEO, Worldwide Orphans Foundation