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When Jews Can't Multiply: Pain of Infertility Hits Hard for Many

Reprinted with permission of Washington Jewish Week.

August 10, 2006

Melissa Ford can't help crying during the portion of the Passover seder about how the "barren women of Jerusalem will rise up and have children when the Moshiach comes."

Fall synagogue readings of Genesis can be tough, as well, she says--with Sarah waiting 100 years before giving birth to Isaac, and Rachel telling Jacob, "Give me a child or I'll die!" triggering painful memories.

"I relate to Sarah and [am] worried for her, even though I know the end of the story," Ford says, adding that she can't fathom the 100 years that Abraham's wife waited.

Her own infertility lasted 18 months, an experience that will always be a part of her. It is something women "don't let go, even if they've had children," says Ford, who now has 2-year-old twins.

While she and others who have struggled with infertility believe that the Jewish community generally deals with the issue as well as any religious group, they see room for improvement--particularly in the way synagogues sometimes put such a strong emphasis on children.

Infertility--defined as the inability to conceive after one year of attempts (six months if the woman is over the age of 35) or the inability to carry a pregnancy to live birth--affects 6.1 million people in the United States, or 10 percent of women of the reproductive age population, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

With recent surveys showing that many Jewish women are marrying later in life and putting off having children until well into their 30s, the percentage of Jews affected could be even higher.

"It's an epidemic in the Jewish community" and "the reasons are well known," says Rabbi Michael Feshbach of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Md., who dealt with infertility, including two miscarriages, with his wife before the birth of their three children.

But in a religious community where the biblical invocation to "be fruitful and multiply" is emphasized, not being able to conceive a child can bring questions.

Olney, Md., resident Ford, 32, notes that Jews are "pretty open about talking about" having children. Questions about children start at the wedding and inquiries like "are you guys trying?" and "when are you going to give me a grandchild?" are commonplace, she says.

But such well-intentioned inquiries can sting for someone having trouble conceiving, says Michelle Batabba Avda of Woodbridge, Va., who grappled with infertility for five years before giving birth to a daughter eight months ago.

For part of those struggles, she lived in a predominantly Orthodox Jewish community in Boston. "Everyone has lots of children," she says, and is always asking "aren't you pregnant yet, why don't you have children yet?"

She longed for children desperately, and such questions made her feel the impact of her infertility "that much more strongly."

"It's really hard" to be childless in a community that emphasizes family so intensely, agrees "Hannah," an Orthodox woman from Montgomery County, Md., who did not wish to be identified. After 11 years of attempts, she and her husband have since adopted two children.

Hannah says, though, that she and her husband "are very upbeat people" and that they made a point to "get out there and not mope."

"You make sure not to become reclusive and participate in everyone's joyous occasions," she says. "We were going to put a smile on our face ... as difficult as it was."

She notes that some in the community offered comforting advice, while others would choose them for the honor of the kvater--the person who brings the child into the room for a brit.

Tradition says that a childless couple given the honor will receive a special blessing to have a child, and Hannah says that she and her husband received that honor "many, many times."

Yet, events like a brit or a baby naming can be the most painful for infertile couples, says Ford.

While she and her husband, Josh, ended up attending most of them, "there's a lot of tears leading up to the event" and sometimes on the way home, as well.

"It's hard to want that so badly and still see the joy," she says.

"Some people find it selfish because we have a culture of 'tough it out,'" says her husband, 34. But in some cases, he notes, one can be a "better friend [by] not being there."

Feshbach didn't just have to attend such life cycle events--as a rabbi, he officiated at them. But he was able to cope with that by reasoning that "it's not as if they got our baby."

"I personally was able to be very happy at every baby naming I was at," he says.

Even though "for the most part, the Jewish community is very supportive of infertility," Melissa Ford finds a "divide between women who have children and those who don't."

For men, the entree into adulthood seems to be their first job, but for females, it is having kids, she says.

"There's a certain status given to women with children" which has subsided somewhat in recent times, but is "still a benchmark by which many women are judged," says her husband.

And thus, trying to have a baby often becomes a topic of discussion at synagogue. Melissa Ford says that other congregants at Washington, D.C.'s Adas Israel's egalitarian minyan were the first to give her advice on infertility.

She joked that the Shady Grove Fertility Center in Maryland sometimes looks like "Adas [Israel] minyan, part two."

But her husband says the emphasis in synagogue on family can sometimes hurt.

"The synagogue tradition, all the children come up onto the bima. ... That was a really painful time," says Ford, director of the Washington Jewish Film Festival. "It was painful to see it, week after week. You feel your infertility then, feel you're left out of the celebration."

He also felt a sense of powerlessness during the process.

"From a male perspective, what's so frustrating is you can't fix it," says Ford, adding that guys usually want to be "problem solvers," but there is "very little you can proactively do."

Ken Reid, 47, of Leesburg, Va., had a similar feeling. "You have no control [of it]," he recalled.

He says going to meetings of Resolve: The National Infertility Association and talking to others with the same issues helped a great deal.

"You can't sit back and do nothing," he says, but have to "make things happen" and make decisions about what course of action is best.

One answer can be adoption. Hannah says the community was quite welcoming to her adopted children, who were born Jewish--a choice she and her husband made because, she says, "in the long term, it would make adjusting to life easier" for her children.

"Kids always ... search for [their] identity," and by adopting Jewish children into a Jewish family, "we don't feel we've deprived anyone of their own heritage."

Not every Jewish couple is able to adopt other Jews, though. Now the father of twins who will be 10 next month, Reid and his wife had pursued avenues for adoption before conceiving.

But it can be tough to grapple with that, he says, particularly because so many couples have to go overseas or find a birth mother willing to place their child for adoption.

As he says an adoption attorney quipped, "You're not going to find many pregnant Jewish girls in Potomac to give up a baby."

Noting that congregants in his synagogue, Shaare Shalom in Springfield, Va., have adopted babies of other races and ethnic groups, Reid points out that the Jewish community is "accepting" and that "it doesn't matter [how one] looks, they will certainly be welcomed into the community."

Feshbach agrees, noting that "there is a blessing that has come out of [infertility]--the blessing of adoption."

The synagogue now "looks like a mini-United Nations. The face of 'Who is a Jew' ... is very different than it used to be. ... What it means to be a Jewish family is very different than it used to be."

As for what the Jewish fertile world can do to lessen the pain of the Jewish infertile, Reid cites a way to make adoption easier for families.

Accompanied by a shift in his political outlook in the past decade from left to right, Reid says his family's struggle with infertility "drove home the point" that abortion is wrong.

"There's a million people getting pregnant" and having abortions each year and "there's no effort to marry them with couples" who can't have a baby, he says, leading to many couples going overseas.

Others suggested that synagogues could sometimes be more aware of the emotions among the infertile.

Feshbach says the Rosh Hashanah haftarah reading, which details Hannah's struggle with infertility before giving birth to Samuel, is "so painful for some people" that he is considering substituting an alternate portion.

While it eventually turns out OK for Hannah, people have told him they "don't come to synagogue when it is read" because of the emotions it stirs.

(Hannah is just one of five women who suffer through infertility in the Bible. In addition to Sarah and Rachel, Rebecca and Michal fall victim to it, with Michal, who laughed at David when he was naked, being punished by God with infertility.)

Avda says her family's struggle was more difficult because "we didn't have good Jewish support at the time," although they are now starting to build such support at Ner Shalom Congregation in Woodbridge.

She hopes synagogues would be more aware of the feelings of childless couples. While shuls will often plan activities for singles and families with children, young married couples without kids often seem to get left out. And "families who want to have children feel it even more," she says.

Feshbach stresses that he is focusing on making the synagogue as welcoming to the childless as those with children.

"I believe we have to focus on spiritual community in synagogue life just as much as pediatric Judaism. ... Ultimately, the synagogue community has to be a spiritual experience for everyone there ... a place where we can become whole" that goes beyond the religious school, says Feshbach.

"It takes a village to raise a child," he says. "There are plenty of child raisers among us who do not have a child, and they, too, are a blessing."

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." A selection from the books of Prophets that is read following the weekly Torah portion. There is a Haftorah for each Torah portion. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Yiddish for "godfather," often the individual who carries a baby in for his bris (circumcision). Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."

Eric Fingerhut is a staff writer at Washington Jewish Week.

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