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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Op-Ed: At Passover time, remember those struggling with infertility

I recently attended the bris of my friend’s son and it was the first such occasion at which I was not crying tears of sadness for myself. Two years ago I was at her older son’s bris, and I remember pretending my copious tears were of joy. In reality, all I could think was: How come everyone else gets to have the very thing that I want most?

It would take me three years, 10 doctors, nine rounds of in-vitro fertilization and four miscarriages to finally get and stay pregnant.

And there I was, in my second trimester of pregnancy, listening to my friend deliver a speech at her son’s bris, and all I can think was: What about everyone else who can’t have children? Even though I’m out of the precarious first trimester, when risk of a pregnancy loss is greatest, the pain of my long, winding fertility journey is still too raw for me to forget everyone I’ve left behind.

Every Passover we read the section of Exodus where the Torah reminds us to remember the convert, the orphan and the widow: “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20), it says, adding, “If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry.”

To the convert, orphan and widow, I’d add the fertility challenged.

There are 6.7 million of us in America, women with an impaired ability to get pregnant or carry a baby to term, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it’s high time the Jewish community pays more attention to those longing for a child. That is, women having trouble conceiving, women who have miscarriages or stillbirths, couples who have to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for fertility treatments, single people seeking to become parents, people going down the long and expensive road of adoption.

These people — we, for I include my husband and myself in this — need the community’s help. Yes, there are a number of local organizations such as the Jewish Free Loan Association, Making Miracle Babies Fund and Hasidah that have sprung up in recent years looking to provide financial aid or resources for infertile couples, but we need more. More money, yes, but also more emotional support. And awareness.

A woman wrote to me recently that she was diagnosed with cancer at age 35, so she had her eggs frozen before she underwent chemotherapy. Now, at 42, she is cancer-free but cannot carry a child, and cannot afford the $100,000 to hire a surrogate to carry it for her.

Surely there should be some central place where families in need of a surrogate could be connected with generous souls willing to do such a mitzvah, where Jewish couples who have gone through IVF can donate their leftover embryos to others trying to have a baby (a Jewish equivalent to the Christian organization Nightlight) or even donate eggs when they freeze their own. (Even though Jewish law is divided on whether a Jewish egg donor is preferable to a non-Jewish one, for those who want Jewish egg donors it can cost an extra $8,000.)

National Infertility Awareness Week begins April 19, and this year’s theme, fittingly, is “You Are Not Alone.”

When you go through infertility, IVF, miscarriage, egg freezing, surrogacy and adoption, you shouldn’t have to keep it a secret. This is the time when people need the most support, especially from their communities. As anyone for whom having a baby hasn’t come easy knows, a strong support system is key.

The Jewish community has taken on many crises: intermarriage, assimilation, young leadership engagement, etc. There are so many programs (and much funding) out there intending to retain people, keep them Jewishly engaged. In other words, Jewish continuity. But how can we have Jewish continuity if so many of us are having trouble having children?

One doesn’t have to donate a womb, an embryo or an egg to help out. The community can develop more programming for the fertility challenged, their friends and family, helping them share their stories, directing them to other resources, and in general helping them feel less alone.

Recently I received a letter from a pregnant woman telling me how she’d been so upset at her friends struggling with infertility because they’d distanced themselves from her, but after reading about my struggles, she better understood their pain. (Now they’re all mothers!)

Sometimes at joyous life-cycle celebrations — a bar mitzvah, a wedding, a bris — it can seem like everyone else’s life is proceeding according to plan: love, marriage, children, rinse and repeat.

A closer look may show a different picture. So let’s remember this Passover, as we recall the suffering of the past and the suffering of the present, the power of community to lessen the pain.


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