By Maayan Hoffman
So much of the Jewish community’s recent focus is on families with young children. From PJ Library to Jewish preschools, day schools and summer camps, ensuring our Jewish future has become almost an obsession.
But what if you don’t need help keeping your children Jewish, but rather having Jewish children at all?
Infertility, in recent years referred to as “fertility challenges,” afflicts 15 to 20 percent or about one in five of all Jewish couples, according to a report by the Puah Institute. However, with the pressure to be “fruitful and multiple” (Genesis 1:38), as prescribed by the Torah, and the equally strong Jewish tradition of encouraging procreation to make up for lives lost in the Holocaust and other tragedies, couples suffering from infertility can feel isolated and alone.
“No one anticipates this is going to happen to them,” said Idit Solomon, founder and CEO of Hasidah (“Stork,”) which helps to build awareness about infertility within the Jewish community. “It is like the carpet comes out from underneath you – but it is a carpet you did not even know was there.”
Solomon, who herself experienced years of infertility – including years of therapies, procedures (11 In vitro fertilizations (IVFs) and transfers to have three kids), tests, enormous financial investment, losses and a label of undiagnosed infertility – founded Hasidah in 2011 to help others in similar situations.
“It was a response to my own experiences and wanting there to be something that was not there when I needed it,” Solomon said. Hasidah works to build awareness about infertility within the Jewish community, helps women experiencing network and connect with resources and with others going through similar challenges, and provides spiritual care. Hasidah also has a grant and loan program to help offset the cost of IVF (one type of treatment), which (in the US) can cost as much as $40,000 with no guarantee of success. (In Israel, IVF is free for a first child.)
As a Jewish communal professional, Solomon said she spent her days helping families keep their children Jewish and enrich their Jewish lives. She, however, was deeply lonely. She was uncomfortable speaking about her situation and likewise felt there was not anyone equipped with what to say in way of support. Hasidah now offers training to rabbis interested in learning how to offer this support.
“We need to create a more inclusive space,” said worship facilitator and Jewish educator Naomi Less, who likewise has struggled with infertility. She said liberal Jewish leaders talk a lot about “audacious hospitality, inclusivity, and the idea that it is not good to be alone,” yet often leave those experiencing infertility challenges in isolation, unwelcomed at family programs and events.
Another organization, Uprooted, offers a similar message: “Infertility isolates. The Jewish community should not.”
According to Uprooted’s co-founder and arts and education director, Dalia Davis, the Torah, which can and should be a source of comfort, could sometimes “be really disruptive” for people experiencing infertility.
There are multiple infertility narratives throughout Tanach, beginning with Sarah in Genesis 16 and then Rivka in Genesis 25: “And Isaac entreated the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord let Himself be entreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived.”
In Genesis 30, Rachel cries out to God, “Give me children, or else I die.”
Generally, the Biblical narratives follow a consistent story line: Woman cannot get pregnant, she prays to God, God answers the prayer, a baby is born.
“This is debilitating for people going through fertility challenges,” said Less. “My prayers are not heard, my prayers are not answered, or my prayers are answered and the answer is no.”
Davis said Uprooted tries to help women look at these stories in a different light, “freeing them,” to be a point of support and connection.
“Not everyone has a long, dramatic struggle, but so many people have had moments of struggle in this arena,” said Davis.
Solomon said that it is time the Jewish community invested in solutions.
“We like to give in categories – Israel, education, social action,” said Solomon. “Donors need to recognize that it is not out-of-the-box thinking to invest in bringing Jewish children into this world.”
Added Less: “It is time we get creative.”