When the book of Exodus begins, the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah quickly find themselves in crisis. Pharaoh, threatened by the prolific Israelite birthrate, orders the midwives to murder Israelite boys on the birthing stool.
Their choice is dramatic. If Shifra and Puah follow Pharaoh’s orders, they won’t be able to live with themselves. If they don’t, they risk not being able to live at all.
What happens in a crisis when neither choice is acceptable? While Pharaoh may have died long ago, the experience of feeling trapped arises in each generation.
A Modern-Day Crisis
Yael is panicked. She’s pregnant and her fiancé is pressuring her to abort. He feels it’s irresponsible to have a baby at this time in their lives.
Both Yael and her fiancé are in graduate school. Neither has any money. They depend on loans for rent and food. Neither feels they can rely on family for help with a baby. Dropping out of graduate school would be disastrous financially; pausing is not an option.
Yael is crying. She does not want to abort; being a mother is one of her dreams. But she also doesn’t see how she could handle a baby right now. Her school hours are so long, she’d barely get to see the baby for several years. The idea of putting her baby up for adoption crushes her heart. She has scheduled an abortion for next week, but she’s looking for a way out.
The first friend Yael calls is pro-life. This friend warns Yael about women who regretted their abortions and tells her how wrong abortion is. She uses Jewish textual sources about the preciousness of life to make her point. She pushes Yael to cancel the appointment. This response fails to alleviate any of Yael’s underlying challenges. Yael is not leaning toward an abortion because she loves the idea, but because she’s in crisis and lacks resources.
The second friend Yael calls is pro-choice. This friend tries to make Yael feel better about getting an abortion. She uses Jewish textual sources about the primacy of the mother’s life to make her point. She tells Yael that most women don’t regret their abortions and that she will have other opportunities to have children. This response also fails to meet Yael’s needs. Yael is not freely choosing abortion—she feels totally trapped.
What her two friends don’t see is that Yael doesn’t need anyone else’s ideas about abortion. She desperately wants another option—a lifeline out of crisis. I know this with certainty because Yael* isn’t theoretical. She called In Shifra’s Arms (ISA) in 2018 facing this exact crisis.
In Shifra’s Arms, named after the biblical Shifra, is a unique Jewish resource for women with unplanned pregnancy crises in the United States. ISA provides free confidential counseling, financial aid, material aid and community connections. As a non-political organization, we never take away options—we only expand the resources available. Over the last 10 years, we have helped Jewish women and children in more than 12 states.
As we’ve carried forward our vision for Shifra’s legacy, one crucial lesson we’ve learned is that the first choice any person makes when facing a crisis, including an unplanned pregnancy, is how to define the problem.
Shifra and Puah were trapped between killing and being killed.
How could they get out of the trap? Shifra knew her life was at risk. She couldn’t change Pharaoh’s orders and she couldn’t follow Pharaoh’s orders, but she could circumvent them. Where there were only two options, Shifra created a third. When Pharaoh questioned why the midwives failed to obey his decree, Shifra explained, “The Hebrew women are like animals… they give birth before we arrive.”
Shifra’s approach to crisis is: When there isn’t a choice you want, create another.
Normally, people don’t realize that how they define the problem is a choice in and of itself. But it is, and how one frames the problem directly affects the range of solutions available to solve it.
In Yael’s case, both she and her fiancé felt trapped: “We don’t have enough money now to afford to have a baby.” Her fiancé assumed the financial situation could not change, and therefore defined “having the baby” as the problem. Defining the problem that way led to the conclusion that the only solution was abortion.
Compassion in Action
When Yael called In Shifra’s Arms, our counselor started to explore a different way to frame the problem. There were no directives or lectures, just an open-ended discussion: If Yael wanted to frame the problem as accessing more money or reducing the expenses of having a baby, what would her options be?
ISA offered Yael financial aid for baby items, maternity clothes, diapers and more. In discussions with her counselor, Yael also started to see creative potential solutions for childcare and housing.
Over a few days, the impossible became possible. Yael and her fiancé chose to have their baby. She and her now-husband are loving parents like any others, smitten with their baby. “You all are amazing,” Yael wrote us. “In Shifra’s Arms changed my life. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without you.”
After 10 years of offering help, you can find Jewish women we held In Shifra’s Arms and children born In Shifra’s Arms across the United States. They’re thriving because they utilized ISA’s emotional and practical support while accessing their own resilience and vision.
Women like Yael need us to put aside arguments about abortion and make sure Jewish women in crisis can lean on our community for support. Through working together outside conventional thinking, miracles can happen.
If you or someone you know needs immediate support, please call our confidential Jewish Pregnancy Helpline at 1-888-360-5872 or text 646-632-8547. To learn more about ISA, visit jewishpregnancyhelp.org.
*Names and minor details were changed to protect privacy.