Not a dry eye in the hall. Bet you’ve heard that phrase before, but how often do you really see a room full of guests sniveling collectively to keep composure at a seemingly routine family event?
Eleven years of waiting, hoping, praying for a child came to an apex at a recent brit milah in an obscure Jerusalem neighborhood synagogue.
Ir Ganim-Kiryat Menachem is best known for the culture clash between the old-timers and the newcomers. The older residents are comprised of Jewish families from Arab countries which had been forced out after centuries of living in thriving communities. In Israel’s infancy they were settled in quickly-constructed shikun (cheap public housing) buildings in the 50’s and 60’s and have since been joined by Russian immigrants who came in the big waves of aliya from the former Soviet Union. They have carefully guarded their secular lifestyles. Add into the mix immigrant families from Ethiopia with their own culture and traditions. The new faces on the blocks are the young, sincerely observant families lacking the means to choose more established religious neighborhoods. Together this makes for a tasty Salat Yisraeli with a touch of pilpel harif (hot pepper).
Both mother and father came from strongly devoted Jewish families. They married young, the click between them was fast and strong and, as their beliefs and education would presume, they expected to raise a family, much like their own large, warm, loving families.
But it just didn’t happen for them. Year after year went by, they watched as siblings gave birth to baby after blessed baby. Cousins, friends, colleagues delivered newborns one after the other, endless family gatherings centered on strollers, toys, discussions of maternity departments, then kindergartens, then schools, and they remained on the sidelines as it seemed everyone else was living their own dream but they themselves.
It is assumed that married religious couples are trying to conceive, and part of the cultural norm in religious circles is not to ask about such intimate private matters. In some circles one does not even comment on heavily pregnant bellies, to avoid any reference which may be immodest. It is also assumed that the couple is seeking medical help to help achieve fertility, but beyond the technical treatments to conceive, what is not obvious to the outsider is the anguish they are going through as individuals, as a couple, as adult children in their respective families, and as part of their wider communities.
They felt ever more isolated, while each family event became a painful reminder and seemed to shine a spotlight on their disappointment, causing those who most loved them to be at a loss for how to help them cope.
Relief came through a careful reading one Shabbat of a sheet that gets distributed in synagogues. The ad brought them to seek out Adva, an organization started three years ago by a couple who had experienced long infertility and eventually succeeded in conceiving. Sara and Doron Befler have since devoted themselves to helping others through the difficult emotionally and physically taxing process of starting a family when the conventional ways fail.
The father credits the Beflers, saying, “They were our light in the dark. We met with other people going through the same process and discovered that we were not alone, we found people that we could share our experiences with. Other people from the neighborhood were scared to make contact with us because they did not how to handle us.”
Improving the social network for the couples is just one way Adva helps. Despite having limited resources, they are reaching out and developing projects to meet the needs of these couples.
Religious communities are accustomed to helping each other when a mother brings home a newborn.
Unlike when bringing home a baby that most realize is a stressful time, the struggles of the infertile are often privately carried and unknown to others. These couples need to expose their needs and the gaps can be closed – but only by letting people into their private pain. When exhaustion and hormones make cooking for Shabbat (or any other time) seem insurmountable, Adva finds volunteers to bring meals. They involve the parents and families in getting to know the ways that unintentional hurts can be rectified, in both directions.
So one bright and beautiful spring morning we gathered to share in a piece of the miracle we witnessed. And how we gathered! So many well-wishers came to welcome this long-awaited first-born son to the world, to his place in the Jerusalem sun.
A framed picture of the father’s family displayed the portraits of the now 8 generations of Jewish men that stretched back before this 8-day-old infant’s arrival, to his father, grandfather, and recently- deceased great-grandfather and so on, many in the rabbinical garb of their times as an indication of their piety.
Of the eight Jewish men in the frame only the infant was born in Israel, the first Yerushalmi after generations of men who fervently prayed ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’ as had just been repeated at the Passover seder the week of his birth.
And when the proud dad completed his first Devar Torah given as a father, he turned to his wife, still uncomfortable from the C-section delivery, and said “This is the song I sang to you at our chuppah eleven years ago and I will sing it for you again now.” The somewhat less-young chatan sang out Chapter 128 of tehillim a capella, including the poignant words
Your wife will be as a fruitful vine in the innermost parts of your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table.
(See clip here for a rendition of this from a different wedding.)
Even the most stoic faces in the room were wet with fresh tears.
And so it was to be. This year in Jerusalem.