Almost seven years ago I received a call from a dear friend that left a permanent impression on my heart.
Something was off in her voice from the second I picked up. She hesitated.
“I'm pregnant and I'm not going to keep it.”
She was sobbing. Most of the rest of the conversation is a blur for me. She had already to decided to abort. She was just letting me know because we were such close friends.
I heard her heart breaking. I felt my own breaking, too. I wanted desperately to offer her help, a way forward without having to resort to abortion. My attempts were futile, my own emotional upset clouding my vision. I could offer nothing of use to her.
Growing up in the American Jewish community had not prepared me or her for this. Not even as a possibility. We both grew up politically “pro-choice,” as is 74% or so of the American Jewish community. But what about the “choice” to continue pregnancy, to give birth and give life to the one in her womb?
Placing the baby for adoption seemed like an embarrassment to her family.
It just didn't seem like that could be a “real” option for her. “Staying pregnant” seemed like it would make her a failure, maybe ruining her future. She was in her early twenties. She had barely finished college. Her life was far from together -- her Mr. Right Now boyfriend was not good marriage or father material. Placing a baby for adoption didn’t seem like an option because, among other things, it seemed like it would be an embarrassment to her family. She had dreams and none of them involved motherhood -- not yet.
But did she really have to choose between her precious, unique life and the precious, unique one growing inside her? Couldn't there be room for both? She is such an wonderful person, truly one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. Any boy or girl she could possibly have had growing in her womb would have been amazing.
Was there anything - any offer of support - that could have made a difference for her or for other women in her position? Either for parenting or adoption? I asked myself these questions not from judgment, but from love and a broken heart.
In the United States, my research suggests that there are around 10,000 Jewish abortions per year. This may seem high, but there are around 1.2 million abortions annually in the U.S.; more than 20% of all American pregnancies end in abortion. After Jewish maternity homes closed down in the 1970s there has been no coordinated effort in the American Jewish community to offer alternatives to women struggling with pregnancies, particularly ones outside of marriage.
There are also 15,000-30,000 abortions annually in Israel alone. In Israel, abortion is often driven by lack of economic resources to have a child or more children. Two organizations in Israel, Efrat and Just One Life, assist women struggling with unintended pregnancies who are considering abortion. Each offer specific methods for helping women address their economic challenges as well as providing emotional and psychological support. Over the last 30 years, through two different and yet effective approaches, they have helped at least 40,000 women have children that would have otherwise been aborted.
Inspired By Shifra
Shifra and Puah were the Hebrew midwives whom Pharaoh instructed to kill Israelite boys on the birthstool. The Torah records: “They feared God and did not do what Pharoah asked” (Exodus 1:17). Instead, they did everything possible to help the Israelite women give birth.
Shifra became the namesake of In Shifra’s Arms, a new American Jewish organization dedicated to assisting women struggling with unplanned pregnancies. Shifra is the symbol of “the Hebrew midwife” who guides women toward birth and beyond, even in the face of the darkest circumstances.
Our goal is to help women struggling with unplanned pregnancy to create a positive future both for themselves and their child. From our perspective, the pregnant woman is precious and so is her child; the problem is the lack of preparedness and/or finances. It is not our place to judge her or her circumstances or to try to make her decision for her. The Jewish community has an obligation to offer her practical, loving support that helps her address the challenges she is facing.
We can help women either prepare to raise their child, or to place their child for adoption with loving, capable Jewish couples. These services can include maternity clothes, educational/career counseling, mentoring, referrals for counseling, healthcare, etc. In Shifra’s Arms intends to have housing services within the next year, through private homestays. We make referrals to Jewish adoption resources and make sure if a woman considers that route, she gets all the emotional/psychological counseling she needs during the process and after birth. We can even set college students up with internships if they’d like to get away for a semester before placing their baby for adoption. Our services are provided by volunteers and professionals working pro-bono. We are now mostly based in Washington, DC, but more volunteers are joining us in other Jewish communities around the country. Step by step, clients face the challenges and the changes that pregnancy and birth bring, and grow stronger in the face of them.
Our volunteers come from a variety of religious and political perspectives.
In Shifra’s Arms is not a political organization trying to change abortion law. We do treat people with kindness, compassion and caring regardless of whether they choose parenting, adoption or abortion and throughout the process. Given that this is a hotbutton issue, we have received plenty of criticism. However, our experiences helping real people in crisis have confirmed again and again that this need exists.
One of our first callers came to us because she found herself, as a 19-year-old college student, impregnanted by a family friend who had gotten her drunk and was now pressuring her to abort. She was in the middle of exams and had just lost the job she was using to help support herself in school. She was certain that when her family found out, they too would tell her to abort.
She needed help and she needed someone to listen. When she called In Shifra's Arms, she was crying. "I don't want to abort. But I don't know what to do."
Here's a message we got from her shortly before the birth of her daughter:
“After a number of conversations, I realized that [the In Shifra's Arms volunteer I was speaking with] was an angel sent... to me to help me get through this very hard time and learn to love myself and my life again... My life was never going to be the same, whether I was going to give up my tiny baby for adoption or keep her and raise her… You showed me that you don't need to know somebody for 10 years to show them you care for them... I have chosen a name for my baby and though I will name her and I wanted to share [the name and its meaning] with you. Her first name, Eliana, means ’my God has answered me‘... I would like, from the bottom of my heart, to thank you for the ongoing support you are providing me...”
Our volunteers come from a variety of religious and secular Jewish backgrounds and political perspectives. What brings us together is our mission to serve and the belief that women struggling with unplanned pregnancies should have support available to help them overcome their challenges and create a positive future for themselves and their children.
I’ve come a long way since that day seven years ago when my friend turned to me and I had no idea how to help. There are many, many more Jewish women out there who need the community’s support. Let’s help them.
BIO: Erica Pelman is founder of In Shifra’s Arms (inshifrasarms.org), a Jewish Unplanned Pregnancy Assistance organization. She currently is a stay-at-home mother, but formerly worked for the U.S. Department of Labor.