In Shifra’s Arms: Pregnant and worried women need to be able to count on our community

Breaking communal silences and correcting communal blind spots must be done, even when it’s hard. When I began talking about how our community needs to reach out to American Jewish women who are pregnant and lack critical social support or financial stability, I was met with cynicism.

“Does this actually happen to Jewish women?” many asked. “Maybe some get pregnant inconveniently — but do they actually want or need help from the Jewish community?” “Don’t they just have families or doctors who can help them?”

Between 630,000 and 780,000 Jewish women in the U.S. are capable of becoming pregnant at any given time. Several years into our venture creating In Shifra’s Arms (ISA), it is inarguable: Yes, there are Jewish women who are pregnant and want help. And No, they do not always have the support they need. This issue may not match American-Jewish self-perception, but it’s real.

The original idea behind In Shifra’s Arms was to create a local model for how to serve pregnant Jewish women in crisis. However, our first Helpline call was from Miami, our second was from Canada. Our small organization has consistently heard from pregnant Jewish women (and their family members) all around the U.S.

Most of the callers have been non-married women in their twenties or thirties. Others have been in rocky marriages or separated. Their educational and Jewish backgrounds have been diverse – from women lacking a college degree to women with prestigious masters and doctorates, from the unaffiliated to the Orthodox.

For each unique call, we take a “client-driven” approach. If the caller just wants to speak once or twice while she determines her next steps, we listen with compassion and respect. If she wants intensive support, we can work with her throughout her pregnancy and the year after birth.

We are here for her, regardless of her situation or its outcome. One in four of our clients are in abusive relationships. Even if she is not in an abusive situation, her relationship with the father is often unstable. Her financial or employment situation often is too, even if she is well educated.

When the first network of support isn’t enough or needs strength, our community must step up. The Talmud (Yevamos 79a) asserts that compassion is one of the defining features of a Jew. From my personal experience with Jewish communities, including Conservative, Orthodox and Renewal, this is consistently true. And yet, in the area of pregnancy crises, there has been a devastating blind spot.

ISA is currently the only Jewish social services organization dedicated to this work in the U.S. and we’re relatively new. While there are Israeli organizations offering support to pregnant women in crisis, Jewish American communities have assumed this isn’t an issue in our own backyard. There has been no “line-item” in our collective community budget for this, but there should be.

We must offer help to struggling women both during their pregnancy and after birth. One of our clients was laid off soon after she returned from maternity leave. A single mother with little family and no child support for the new baby, she was in a dire situation. It is usually hard to get a new job; it is extremely hard to do when home with a newborn.

In additional to financial assistance, ISA organized volunteers through a local Jewish list-serve to provide a great deal practical support from baby items to negotiating debt reduction. Thanks to our community’s effort and her own tenacity, she now has a new job and is building a future for herself and her children.

In another case, we received a call from a Jewish woman in her 30s who had just escaped an abusive boyfriend and had lost her job in the process. The fact she was several months pregnant with the abuser’s child made things even more complicated.

Desperate to find a place to stay, she went to local Jewish agencies and domestic abuse groups who did not have a place for her at the time. She tried staying at a maternity home, but she felt extremely uncomfortable there because they required participation in non-Jewish religious activities.

When she called us, she already knew she wanted to keep the baby- despite her dramatic situation. Her only question: would the Jewish community come through for her?

Thanks to our generous donors, In Shifra’s Arms was able to pay for her to have temporary emergency housing with a Jewish family, identified with help from a local rabbi. Soon after, with intensive support from our Helpline Counselor, ISA was also able to help her move and begin her life again.

After the birth of her baby, she wrote us: “You were amazing during a very difficult part of my life. …[my son] is the best thing that ever happened to me. I know I have a difficult road ahead of me, but I also know that I will be able to build for myself and my son a wonderful life. I am forever thankful…”

The Hebrew word for compassion, rachamim, comes from the word rechem, which means womb. The connection that a mother feels for her developing child is the model for all compassion. All the more reason why- if she’s pregnant and worried, we must let her know she can count on us.

About the Author
Erica Pelman is the Founder & Executive Director of In Shifra's Arms (ISA). Prior to creating ISA, she worked at the US Department of Labor for seven years on workforce development programs. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Rockville, MD with her husband and their four children.