New Local Organization Aims to Bring Heightened Sensitivity & Support for those Facing Infertility Challenges
By Rachel Goldsmith
This Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, Yesh Tikva, a relatively new organization started here in Queens, is promoting the “100 Shuls Project,” an initiative to create awareness about infertility. Their goal is to give a voice to this umbrella of medical conditions that the Jewish community often finds uncomfortable to discuss. At the time this article was written, 10 shuls in the Queens Jewish community had signed up to participate, and 115 shuls from across the US, Canada, and Israel are joining us in addressing this highly-sensitive topic.
Yesh Tikva offers emotional support to individuals struggling with infertility, while raising awareness throughout the Jewish community. These two goals go hand in hand. To quote from their mission statement, “facing infertility can be a very lonely journey.” Thus, they work “to provide those thrown into the world of infertility with navigational tools to cope emotionally and practically along this journey,” and to “to create a Jewish Community of support” by aiming “to increase the sensitivity of those who have not struggled to have children and to equip them with the resources to help and support those who may be suffering in silence.” Resources that have been created so far include online booklets and resources, platforms for sharing stories, and in-person support groups. Ladies who visit one of several NYC mikvahs may have noticed the Yesh Tikva posters that were placed in preparation rooms last fall. These posters hang in 38 different mikvahs throughout the country.
As a one-year old grassroots organization founded by Gila Muskin Block, it still largely run out of the Block’s apartment in Fresh Meadows, and they operate on a tiny budget. Members of the infertility community, after all, have their own medical expenses to think about. Medical insurers rarely offer coverage to fertility treatments – many of these urological and gynecological issues are still considered elective by the state, so patients are left to cover expenses on their own and often spend well into the tens of thousands each year. The organization’s advisory board is made up of professionals in the field: a reproductive endocrinologist from Cornell Weill Center for Reproductive Medicine, a psychologist, an LCSW, two yoatzot halacha, an acupuncturist who specializes in women’s health, and an infertility advocate. These dynamic individuals come together to offer a variety of types of resources to Yesh Tikva and to those who seek assistance through the organization.
According to Gila, the idea for Yesh Tikva developed from a personal need. With a need to find a Jewish fertility community that suited her needs, Gila started by creating a small support group of area women who were going through something similar. From there, her organization blossomed. Although there are a handful of infertility advocacy organizations, and even some organizations that are specific to the frum community, Yesh Tikva’s dual mission of emotional support for those going through the experience, along with helping the greater Jewish community learn how to support their friends and family members with infertility, makes this organization unique. They are serving over 300 people so far, based on the number of people following the Facebook page and checking their website on a daily basis. This particular project, ‘The 100 Shuls Project,’ is groundbreaking, in that rabbis from a variety of communities across the country have come together to speak out about the topic of infertility. “Talking about the process outside of the inner world of the people who are going through it” helps others learn how to be more supportive to their friends, family members and neighbors who may be struggling.
“As Nissan approaches we are reminded once again about the integral role children play in Judaism and its observance. The words we hear over and over again, “והגדת לבנך,” pierce like a dagger in the hearts of couples who struggle with infertility. They are a direct reminder of what these individuals want so desperately, a family, but are not able to have at the moment.” Those who experience infertility often feel like social outsiders, at least in some ways, especially in the family- and child-centered Jewish community. At best, they slip through the cracks; at worst, they endure many insensitive questions and comments from those who do not understand. If you are not yet familiar with our work and would like to learn more about the emotional impact of infertility and how to act sensitively towards those navigating it, please visit our website, www.YeshTikva.org, or follow us on Facebook. Gila also points out, “If you hadn’t heard about the 100 shuls project before now, it’s never too late to join in. Feel free to speak about infertility in your shul next Shabbos, instead. Any opportunity to raise sensitivity toward your fellow Jews is worthwhile.” Hopefully, next year, the number of participating shuls will double.
To help personalize this topic, one local member of the Queens Jewish Community submitted an article to Yesh Tikva reflecting on her experience of celebrating last Pesach without children, and she has updated it to share with the greater community. For privacy reasons, the author has opted to omit her name.
I have a close friend who once told me that she and her husband were having seder alone. At the time, I thought that sounded like the most depressing scenario ever, and I worked hard to convince her to spend a holiday meal with my husband and me. Having grown up at big family sedarim, I could not even fathom what a seder of two would even look like. I hate to admit it, but I was a little bit judgmental of them for being sooo antisocial.
Fast forward to five years later:
When others heard that my husband and I were having our seder alone last year, they quickly invited us to theirs, assuming it was because we had nowhere to go. B”H we had invites (and as baalei teshuva, we haven’t always had invites, so this is actually a big deal). Pesach is a holiday where people should be with their family. According to the Haggadah, the whole point of the holiday is to tell our children all about when we were freed from slavery in Egypt. Seders across the world are usually held in a room full of happy people, with children running around. But not in our home. As of now, our little family is comprised of only two.
My husband and I have reached a point where we no longer want to be bystanders, observing how others hand down the story of the Exodus to their children. We truly long to be teaching our own. When you’re enduring the test of infertility, most holidays are difficult. For many, myself included, Pesach is the worst. Over the past three years, Pesach transformed from being my most favorite holiday (really!) to being the most dreaded, most emotionally challenging time of year. This is the time when we’re supposed to be passing our traditions to the next generation… but we still don’t know if and when our next generation will begin to be built…
Pesach has always been a “north star” on the infertility compass for me. This year, we’re enslaved by depression and loneliness; next year, we should be in Jerusalem, making seder for a table filled with our own children. Two years ago, the week before Pesach, our reproductive endocrinologist told us that in order to work around the handful of diagnosed medical obstacles, we needed to prepare ourselves for a future of many in-vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles, a process filled with medications and operations; by Shavuos, we were well into our first IVF cycle. For two years straight, when we got pregnant from IVF, we were due during or shortly after Pesach, until those ended in miscarriage. Our eighth IVF cycle just ended in yet another early miscarriage, only a week ago. I would have been devastated by this news regardless, but now I have to worry about how I will face yet another Pesach of just the two of us.
I don’t intend to sound bitter or depressing. Sometimes, I am grateful for all the time Hashem has given us to devote to building our marriage. I also enjoy the luxury of uninterrupted time to curl up with a book, or (especially before Pesach) having my home remain just as neat and tidy as I’ve left it. But as much as I can try to think about the plus sides, they seem like a small consolation for this very big nesayon (test of faith).
So last year, we took back Pesach. Instead of another dreaded year of plastering on smiles and pretending to joyously celebrate the holiday, we decided to stay home, where we could openly cry to Hashem. I sobbed through my husband’s drasha on the four sons and, without anyone else there, I felt so free to do so. We read stories of tzadikim, miracles, and of future generations. We used the seder night as an opportunity to connect with each other and with Hashem, and to learn and pray, rather than just as a painful reminder of what’s lacking in our lives.
I know that many of my friends and compatriots in the “infertility club” don’t have this luxury due to family obligations. And I know that for many of you, seder night surrounded by your nieces and nephews is often a funny mix of awesome and painful, all at once. But if you have the chance to set aside a little time to step away from all the holiday chaos and just focus, and let your emotions run through you in full-force if you like, I highly recommend it. It’s liberating to be honest with your feelings, and to share them with others.
As for those of you who are blessed to have a seder table with children like olive shoots around it, know that my experience isn’t all that rare; as many as 1 in 6 couples experience infertility. It is almost certain that there are at least a few of couples in your own shul, probably even your own friend group, who are going through something similar. Please don’t belittle our plight by telling us how lucky we are, how uncomfortable your pregnancy is, or how expensive it is to have a large family. We are literally putting our entire bodies, souls, and savings accounts into this process, in the hopes of one day building our beis ne’eman b’Yisrael. Instead, just be grateful to have the opportunity to teach your kids about Yetzeiat Mitzraim. Even when children make a mess or have trouble staying at the table, remember that despite the challenges, they are a continuous blessing that one should not take it for granted. Say an extra “thank-you” to Hashem for your own blessings, try to be sensitive toward our feelings, and if you can, please daven that we’ll soon be joining you at mommy-and-me, on the playground, and amongst the sea of strollers outside of shul.
May we all experience open miracles and liberation from that which holds us captive!
Sensitivity Suggestions From Yesh Tikva’s “100 Shuls Project”
It is very important to note that no two people suffer or react identically to similar situations. The following are only suggestions; be sure to consider each individual and his/her experience and apply what you deem to be most appropriate.
Keep in mind:
- Do not assume anything; not everyone who does not have a child or has a large gap between children is navigating infertility.
- If someone reaches out to share his/her story, the best thing one can do is listen.
- When providing emotional support/guidance:
- It is important not to provide false hope, not everyone will have a child biologically.
- Adoption is not an option for all couples who cannot conceive, some will opt to live a childfree life.
- Be accepting and supportive of the decisions that individuals make. They have thought long and hard and done much research to come to these conclusions.
When hosting a meal or get-together, ensure that everyone is made to feel emotionally included:
- Be aware of the crowd.
- If there are individuals who are not married or do not have children, make sure that the conversation does not revolve around marriage and kids.
- Try to engage in conversations in which everyone can be an active participant.
It is important to engage friends or family members whom you suspect may be navigating infertility:
- A text message every so often just to say hello can go a long way in making someone feel that you care.
- Invite family members and/or friends to birthday parties, get-togethers and Shabbat or Yom Tov meals- if they are not up to joining, let them make the decision for themselves and do not make them feel guilty for opting out.
When engaging family members or friends:
- The best thing that one can do for a friend or family member is be a friend, listen when they speak, and offer a shoulder to cry on if need be.
- Unless requested, avoid sharing advice or tips on how to increase chances of conception.
- If a friend or family member does share their story with you, try not to bring it up every time you see them.
- Assuring people that everything will be okay is generally not comforting, as only God knows the outcome. Rather, assure your friend or family member that no matter what the outcome, you will be there for them in any way that he/she needs.
- Validate whatever feelings or reactions an individual might have, regardless of what you think about how the individual is handling the situation.
- Provide them the space to experience those feelings without feeling judged.
For parents and grandparents of those navigating infertility:
- Be sensitive to your child/grandchild’s challenge.
- Asking them when they will give you a grandchild is hurtful and a reminder of their struggle.
- Do not push your children to share information about their fertility challenges and treatments that they are not comfortable sharing.
- For those navigating primary infertility – ensure that your children feel special in their own right and no less important to you even though they have not yet given you a grandchild.
- For some parents/grandparents getting support may enable them to be more present emotionally for their child/grandchild.
At times, those struggling with infertility, be it primary, secondary or circumstantial, can become emotionally overwhelmed and may need some distance. It may come across as a personal offense, but it is important to remember that it is not personal.