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Home > Family & Lifecycles > The modern dimensions of Jewish infertility

The modern dimensions of Jewish infertility

JUF News
September 28, 2000

Names have been changed to protect privacy

CHICAGO—On a sunny afternoon in May, Ellie opened the door of her downtown apartment.

A hush pervaded the room: the kind that comes from the sweet, rhythmic breathing of sleeping babies.

"You're lucky it's quiet!" said Ellie with a chuckle, gesturing toward the floor in the main family area where her 7-week-old twin boys lay sleeping, one on his belly on a colorful baby blanket, his little bottom up in the air; the other, asleep in his baby seat, his tiny head resting on his chest.

Complete bliss. But it came at a cost–a great one. Ellie and her husband, both 30, had gone through two years of emotional and physical turmoil just to conceive and give birth to their sons. "I think people have no idea what we went though," she said.

After trying to conceive on their own for six months with no success, Ellie and her husband visited infertility specialists at one of Chicago's major hospitals. There they began with the basic tests and medications, including those that stimulated ovulation, until their doctors recommended that they try in vitro fertilization (IVF).

In that process, eggs were aspirated from Ellie's ovaries, fertilized with her husband's sperm in a petri dish, then placed back in her uterus with the hopes of implantation. To make sure she'd be producing multiple eggs, Ellie had to receive three daily injections-one in her abdomen and two in her hip-which meant that every day at noon, she and her husband had to dash home from their respective offices to administer the shots.

All of this, of course, took a toll on the couple.

"It's disruptive to your life because twice a day I had to make sure that I was in a place where I could receive my injections. It often meant cutting short time with friends and family," Ellie said. "It becomes your whole life; it's all-consuming. Imagine that it is everything you focus on, absolutely nothing else matters."

But the struggles she and her husband went through to start a family were compounded by the implicit expectations of the Jewish community to fulfill the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply, and to carry on the legacy of the Jewish people, especially in the shadow of the Holocaust.

"Even at our wedding, we had people coming up to our parents saying, 'May you have grandchildren soon,'" said Ellie, adding dolefully, "but having kids isn't so easy."

Yet despite the pressure on Jewish couples to have families--a pressure that is often magnified in the more observant communities where the commandment of pru urvu (procreation) is taken very seriously, and families often have up to 10 children--there is a shame born out of admitting to any kind of infertility. The way Ellie sees it, conception is something very private.

"And to not be able to have kids is an embarrassment in a way. As a woman, especially, you feel like you aren't measuring up."

So Ellie and her husband decided to go through everything alone. They didn't even tell their families until after the first IVF cycle failed. And then Ellie broke down. "It was a very lonely and desperate time," she remembered.

The couple had even begun looking into adoption, when the second IVF succeeded. Fortunately, after being put on strict bed rest for two months and delivering at 34 weeks, Ellie gave birth to premature, but healthy boys. It's no wonder that after all they've gone through, Ellie views the birth of her sons as nothing short of a miracle.

"I'm so lucky. I'm blessed," she said. "If you have the strength and this is something you want to do, it's worth it. Because once you have kids, everything else is insignificant."

Rates and results of Jewish infertility

There are currently 6.1 million Americans experiencing some kind of infertility, according to RESOLVE, a national organization for those affected by infertility. Due to a variety of causes linked to both men and women, people can experience primary infertility (trouble in conceiving and carrying a baby to term for the first pregnancy) and secondary infertility (trouble conceiving and carrying to term an additional child).

For the Jewish community, the numbers are especially daunting. The latest studies show that Jews are disproportionately affected by some kind of infertility, with one out of three Jewish women experiencing fertility problems, according to Jewish experts. Statistically, this means that 30 percent of all Jewish women--as opposed to 20 percent of non-Jewish women--are suffering from infertility.

The reason why Jews have higher rates of fertility challenges is because the chances for infertility increase with age. Jews, as a whole, tend to pursue higher degrees, marry later, and therefore start families later, which puts them into higher risk groups for infertility. Given the low birthrate among Jews since the Holocaust, such a high incidence of Jewish infertility has led to a "demographic crisis in the Jewish community," according to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, an expert on infertility in the Jewish community, and author of the book "Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics."

After hearing Dorff speak at a national conference for Jewish educators, Leah Silberman Bernstein, a social worker and the director of marketing and planning for Chicago's Community Foundation for Jewish Education, decided to address the issue of Jewish infertility. She organized a group of Jewish communal professionals, including gynecologists, psychologists, and social workers, which later joined forces with Jewish Family and Community Service (JFCS), A Jewish Federation agency.

JFCS had already been applying for grant funding to form a support group for Jewish women affected by infertility, and other reproductive challenges. The result is a new family life education group, "Facing Fertility Challenges," organized by JFCS, and supported in part by a grant from the Jewish Women's Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, which holds meetings in Chicago and suburban locations.

For Bernstein, such a spiritual therapeutic support group has been a long time in coming. "I've been talking with people informally for the last year just to see if they thought a Jewish support group was necessary. The response has consistently been, 'I know so-and-so who has been touched by this issue.' In fact, over the last year and a half about 15 women in my own network of peers have been struggling with fertility," she said.

"Yet, even though it's so common, there is an embarrassment about miscarriage and fertility--these issues still have a mystique about them, because in a way, it feels like there is something defective about our bodies. Here we think we have all this control and that our bodies are supposed to function in a certain way and then they don't, and it feels really bad. It's hard to express, but emotionally it's a vacuous experience, because for a lot of people going through this, nothing has necessarily died, [but] it's what hasn't happened that you're hoping for."

As one of the facilitators, Bernstein sees these groups as a way for the Jewish community to offer strength to Jews in need.

"I feel that at such a time of abandonment and loss, my goal is to have our people supported by our people. Using many of our own Biblical heroines as an example, this is a time where we can work toward forming an even stronger relationship with God," she said.

Such support, says JFCS Family Life Educator Robyn Kaplan Seidman, is essential because it offers Jewish women the chance to talk about their fertility challenges within a Jewish context. "What makes this unique is, it provides Jewish couples with an environment to talk about Jewish values and pressures," said Seidman, who is a facilitator and the contact for the program.

Most importantly, however, it gives people a chance to share the emotional burden many of them have been grappling with alone.

"In many ways, fertility challenges parallel the concept of bereavement: it's a loss. And while it's an individual process for each couple, most people going through this experience a sense of denial and shock, as well as depression and sadness. What a support group does is help women to understand that they are not out there all alone," she said.

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