By Ruth Balinsky Friedman
In March 2016, I decided to “go public” with my fertility journey. This decision was born mostly out of a lurking feeling of dishonesty. Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue, in Washington, D.C., where I have served since 2013, had been invited to participate in Yesh Tikva’s Infertility Awareness Shabbat, which is now an annual event. Having had personal struggles with fertility in the preceding two years, I was aware of the importance of this event and knew that my shul had to participate. Once we were participating, I felt that it would be meaningless if I addressed this issue from a third-person perspective, as something that happens to other people.
A common sentiment expressed in the infertility community is the frustration—even anger—at the fact that fertility issues are usually invisible. Infertility isn’t typically accompanied by visual indicators, and our culture tends to keep it quiet. This silence contributes to the pain of the experience and the isolation that it creates. If I didn’t say anything about my own life, I knew that I would be part of the problem, not part of the solution.
That Shabbat morning when I got up to the bimah to give my d’var Torah I remember being so nervous that I didn’t look up from my notes for most of the sermon. I was so worried that my congregants would think I was oversharing, and that my gut had been wrong and I should have just kept my mouth shut. Gratefully, the audience’s reaction swiftly abated my nervousness and validated my decision. People approached me to share their own stories of infertility. They thanked me for sharing publicly and giving voice to what they had struggled with on their own. Perhaps most importantly, a few congregants remarked that by speaking about my own challenges from the bimah, I had instantly demystified a topic that so many people consider off-limits for public discourse. “Just like that,” someone declared, “you removed the stigma.”
When I gave that d’var Torah, I was two and a half years into my current seven years at Ohev Sholom. People had approached me earlier to ask the occasional question about pregnancy, birth control, and reproductive technology. I had taught a number of women and couples the laws of niddah and halakhic approaches to sex. Congregants knew that they could come to me for open and honest conversations about sensitive topics. But despite this existing openness, the reactions I received indicated that my decision to speak honestly with my community added additional levels of sharing.
Two Types of Responses
There were two main categories of reactions. The immediate ones were the individuals (mostly, though not exclusively, women) who reached out to share their own stories of infertility. They were grateful to see this experience being discussed in the public sphere and wanted to share that this was something that they had gone through, too.
The second category represents more of a general shift than an immediate flood of responses. I have noticed over the weeks, months, and years since that people have felt that they can come to me with questions about their own reproductive treatments and struggles. Sometimes it is for emotional support, and other times for halakhic advice. Some are congregants, and others are from different shuls in different cities. They approach me specifically because they know that I “speak their language.” If they have a question about an IVF procedure, they don’t first have to explain how the procedure works. If they are struggling to get a clean hefsek taharah (an internal vaginal exam that confirms the cessation of bleeding and the onset of the seven clean days) on day five and are concerned about missing their fertility window, they know that I can relate to the anxiety and speak from a place of empathy. Being able to get advice from someone who already has a background in the reproductive details means you can bypass that stage, thereby saving the person a lot of emotional energy.
When Firsthand Knowledge Helps
By no means do I intend to suggest that the only person qualified to answer questions about a particular issue is one who has firsthand experience. Rather, the lesson that I take from my experience is that for rabbis to properly support people, we need both the general knowledge about the field and the ability to cultivate genuine empathy with what this person is going through. I recall a few situations over the past seven years that demonstrate what happens when this is not the case:
The time that our mikveh opened on a Friday before Shabbat for a woman who needed to immerse on time. She did not live within walking distance to a mikveh, so she could not go on Friday night, and she could not delay until Saturday night because she was on fertility medication and could not lose a day with her husband. She lived in a nearby city where none of the mikvaot would open for her to immerse during the day. Luckily, her rabbi knew that our mikveh would open, so he put us in touch and she was able to immerse before Shabbat. Although it was very frustrating that no mikvaot nearby would open for her, the fact that her rabbi understood her situation and knew that I did as well meant that she was able to get what she needed.
The time that I helped a family who were experiencing a late pregnancy loss to secure a burial plot for the remains of their fetus. The loss had been devastating and unexpected, and they struggled with the thought that the remains would be disposed of by the hospital and not be buried. The general custom in Orthodoxy is not to bury the remains (though my sense is that this is changing slowly). However, I knew of a couple of Orthodox rabbis who had experienced late pregnancy loss. I consulted with them, and they both vehemently agreed that if the family wished to bury the remains, they should be able to do so, as this is an important component of the healing process. And so we worked with the cemetery to secure a small plot where the family could bury the remains.
The time that a couple approached me with questions about securing a shomer for local fertility treatments, which is a practice recommended by many rabbis. They had received the p’sak (directive) from their own rabbi that they could pursue treatments only if they secured a shomer. They didn’t know how to proceed, so they called me. Having gone through IVF myself, I recognized how enormously stressful it could be to try to navigate this process outside of the New York area, where the use of a shomer is not commonplace. I spoke with a local rav who has experience in this field, and he shared that there weren’t any labs in the District of Columbia that work with shomrim, and that it was okay for them to proceed without one.
This last story has always stuck with me. A well-intentioned rabbi delivered a p’sak without understanding the facts on the ground and the reality of what he was prescribing. Because the couple was able to engage the help of local advisors who understood the sensitivities involved, they were able to get an answer that spoke to the actual circumstances. How many people have suffered unnecessary emotional pain because they consulted with rabbis who were not fully informed and/or sensitive to their circumstances, and thus provided inadequate or incorrect guidance?
One of the lessons we discussed in yeshiva was that no she’elah (question) exists in a vacuum. Every question that is asked is not just a function of the halakhah, but also of the circumstances surrounding the person asking it. To best serve our communities, rabbis should know the halakhot of infertility, and also be aware of the sensitivities that accompany these questions.
Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman serves as maharat at Ohev Sholom—the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. Her responsibilities include overseeing the conversion program, supervising the operation of the community mikveh, directing adult education, providing pastoral counseling, teaching in the community, and more.
People approached me to share their own stories of infertility.
For rabbis to properly support people, we need both the general knowledge about the field and the ability to cultivate genuine empathy with what this person is going through.
Every question that is asked is not just a function of the halakhah, but also of the circumstances surrounding the person asking it.