Over eight 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 own precious, unique life and the precious, unique one growing inside her? Couldn't there be room for both? She is such a 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.
There are around 1.2 million abortions annually in the U.S.; more than 20% of all American pregnancies end in abortion. It is unknown how many are from Jewish women, though we do know Jews make up 2% of the overall American population. 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 unintended 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 approaches, they have helped more 40,000 women have children that would have not have been able to.
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 through pregnancy, 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. We have a professional social worker who works with all our clients. Many of our clients know they want to continue their pregnancy despite very difficult circumstances they face and the social worker helps them to create a practical plan for their personal and professional future, whether they want to raise the child or place for adoption. Our social worker is available to them throughout the entire pregnancy for coaching as well as after birth for additional referrals. For those who are unsure about what to do, the social worker creates a safe space for her to explore her feelings and options and make up her own mind. It is not our place to try to make her decisions for her. In addition, our organization also does not provide or take the place of medical advice or rabbinical guidance. However, it is our place to offer her practical, loving support that might help her address the challenges she is facing.
Our services can include emergency targeted financial assistance, maternity clothes, educational/career counseling, referrals for therapy, prenatal care etc. While we do not facilitate adoptions directly, 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 set college students up with internships if they’d like to get away for a semester before placing their baby for adoption. Through volunteers, we can provide some niche services. For example, we have set up a mother getting a divorce with hours of assistance to help her get her home ready for the baby and brought food to help ease her transition back to work.
Our volunteers come from a variety of religious and political perspectives.
In Shifra's Arms is exclusively a social service organization, not a political organization trying to change abortion law. We have supporters with a variety of views on the politics of abortion. We treat people with kindness, compassion and caring whether they choose parenting, adoption or abortion and throughout the process. Given that this is a hot-button 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." We listened, helped with maternity clothes, and offered some housing support while she made plans for the future.
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 supporters, volunteers, Board members, staff 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 eight 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.