Jewish continuity is the idee fixe of American Jewish communal discussions. We talk about it. All. The. Time. We debate whether the best route forward is investing in Jewish camp, Jewish day school, or Birthright trips.
Interestingly, these discussions typically don’t touch upon Jewish fertility. Yet, they should, because it is clearly a source of distress for a sizable subset of the Jewish population. Fifteen to 20 percent of Jewish couples face fertility challenges, a rate higher than the standard one-in-eight couples cited for the general American public.
If we want a next generation that will grow the Jewish people, American Jews must refocus the continuity debate. We must come together to discuss the best way to ensure that all interested Jewish adults can become parents, because as things currently stand, those dreams elude too many.
HOW TO HELP
The “best way” is likely a combination of approaches that address the needs of men and women facing different challenges, at various stages of life. Here, to kick off the conversation, are some suggestions for how the Jewish community can be helpful:
Those who work in this area widely agree that infertility remains shrouded in stigma. According to Dalia Davis, a co-founder of Uprooted, a group that offers mentorship to Jews on their fertility journeys, “The best way to get rid of the stigma is to normalize things.” And the best way to normalize the fertility challenges adults can run into, from trouble conceiving to repeat pregnancy loss? Talk about it; write about it; host panels about it at large, communal and philanthropic conferences.
Davis also suggests that we replace the medical term “infertility” with “fertility journey,” because infertility is “often used as a diagnosis; it’s limiting and means ‘you can’t do this,’ and what you tell yourself impacts how you are going to move forward,” including your odds of success (defined differently by every individual).
If you know someone who’s facing such challenges, and you’re unsure what to say, consider consulting RESOLVE’s infertility etiquette page. The national infertility organization has advice about how to act and speak supportively around friends or family members, who may be on their own fertility journeys.
Be Sensitive at Life Cycle Events.
When someone faces fertility challenges, attending a bris or baby naming can be painful. Rabbi Idit Solomon, who founded Hasidah to build Jewish families through financial support for IVF, shared the advice she gives while training Rabbis:
When you’re at a baby naming ceremony, assume someone in that room is trying to have kids and can’t. Add a few words about how this is a miracle, and not everyone can have this. The person affected feels remembered. Maybe even the new parents had their own struggles, and those are honored. Everyone is reminded that it’s true, [fertility] doesn’t always work. . . . We don’t talk about the difficulties, but most people go through something.
Alternatively, Dalia Davis recalls, “When I had my twin daughters’ baby naming, we made a blessing for people who are still struggling, that it’ll come to a positive end. It helped create awareness for everyone in the room.” Many congregants also thanked Davis afterward for publicly raising an issue they themselves had faced (privately).
Create More Relevant Rituals.
Judaism is a ritually focused religion. We have specific blessings and prayers for just about everything — save pregnancy loss and other fertility challenges. So, what’s a Jew to do, when she’s experienced a loss and seeks the comfort of her religious tradition?
Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman, a spiritual leader at Washington’s National Synagogue and a board member of infertility support group The Red Stone agrees, “This is an area that needs a lot of work to make the resources much better,” but notes, “it’s gaining more attention nationally and in the Jewish community.”
In a phone interview, Mayyim Hayyim Executive Director Carrie Bornstein and Mikveh and Education Director Lisa Berman described rituals and resources for fertility and healing that their mikveh, which serves Jews across the Boston area, has developed in recent years. Hopefully, more people and organizations will join these ritual creation efforts, filling a liturgical gap with sensitive and relatable rituals, promoting healing for Jews at all levels of religious observance.
In vitro fertilization (IVF) is incredibly expensive, running “about $15,000 [per cycle]. In general, $10,000 for the procedure and $5000 for the medications,” Dr. Jerald Goldstein, the founder and medical director of Fertility Specialists of Texas, emailed.
Depending on maternal age, that number can quickly multiply: “Under 35 years of age for the female, the success rate is about 60% live birth rate, whereby at the age of 42, it is about 20%. So, most people under age 35 get pregnant the first time, whereby older women are more likely to require several cycles,” Dr. Goldstein wrote.
However, along the spectrum of fertility treatments — typically starting with the less invasive Intrauterine Insemination (IUI)— IVF is considered effective, which helps explain why the Israeli government so generously subsidizes it.
It’s time for American Jews to talk turkey. IVF hasn’t been a communal funding priority to date, but if there’s enough public support, it could be. Every local Federation could launch a dedicated fund to help local families fund fertility treatments, including IVF. Another related option is injecting funds into other Jewish fertility support organizations nationwide.
IVF isn’t for everybody. Some people don’t want to go the medical route. For others, IVF isn’t a viable option. Among those still interested in pursuing parenthood, adoption is the other common path.
American Jews already adopt at twice the national rate, but adoption — especially international adoption — can be incredibly costly. According to Betty Betz, International Programs Case Manager at the Barker Adoption Foundation, fees for an international adoption typically run between $30,000 and $40,000. If we want to help prospective adoptive parents open their homes to more than one child, including sibling groups, offering more communal funding would be helpful.
DISCUSS AMONGST YOURSELVES
These ideas are clearly not an exhaustive list, but they are an important starting point for a necessary communal discussion. Family may be a central Jewish value, but starting one’s own family can be harder than we might initially imagine.
If American Jews care about continuity, we should focus not only on welcoming and educating the young Jews who are already with us, but also ensuring that many others are able to join our extended family. It’s time to brainstorm about solutions that offer support and healing, as well as maximize the number of parents among those Jews currently on their fertility journeys.
Toward that end, next month, I’ll start exploring some ideas for reaching younger adults, who are probably not yet thinking seriously about parenthood.
Written by: Melissa Langsam Braunstein