In a month when a predominant image is a Jewish mother, we would be remiss not to ask, outside of a theological but in a very practical context: What does a Jewish woman do who is faced with an unplanned pregnancy, who needs help and support if she wants to exercise her free choice to have her baby?
In Shifra’s Arms is the first of its kind: a Jewish group whose primary outreach is to Jewish women facing unplanned pregnancies.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: How did you get involved with In Shifra’s Arms? Why do you feel a responsibility to these women?
Erica Pelman: I co-founded In Shifra’s Arms with a small group of women in 2009. I was initially moved to start the organization because of my own experience a few years previously. A friend of mine (also Jewish) became unexpectedly pregnant. She did not feel as though keeping the baby or even placing the baby for adoption was a viable option. I love her dearly, and we are very close. When she called, she was crying — it was a painful and eye-opening experience for me. In the years since, I came to realize that there was no specifically Jewish place for a woman in her situation to turn in the entire United States. So we decided to start one. My friend has given us her full support and offered guidance at various points.
Pelman: We started developing the idea in 2009. We relied on volunteers until we were able to hire a social worker in 2013. I was hired officially this year.
Lopez: What does “Jewish support” for a woman who comes to you look like?
Pelman: What makes our support Jewish is that we are motivating people from the Jewish community to acknowledge the issue and take action to help our clients. We use Jewish list-serves to solicit donations of baby/maternity items as well as services, such as pro-bono legal counsel from the Jewish community. We collaborate with other Jewish agencies and some rabbis to help those they refer to us.
By creating new opportunities for the Jewish community to support pregnant women in crisis, we are opening eyes and hearts to something that most have not considered a communal need until now. Jewish groups and organizations help people with cancer, people with Alzheimer’s, people with substance-abuse issues, people with physical disabilities, people with developmental and mental disabilities, victims of domestic abuse — everything you can think of. And they do it so well! But until we came along, there was this huge gap. We’re working, step by step, to fill it. For the women who call us, it means so much to know that their own community cares about them. That in itself is a source of strength.
Lopez: How long is In Shifra’s Arms involved in the life of a woman who comes to you?
Pelman: It is very important to us to be available long beyond when a woman first discovers she’s pregnant. Of course, some women only need or want short-term emotional support and counseling. This could be because the pregnancy ends or just because that is all she needs. Others want much more. We are available to help them throughout pregnancy and through the whole year after birth.
This means that sometimes a woman might call us about an unplanned pregnancy or crisis late in her pregnancy because that’s when she needs the most help. One single mother (via unplanned pregnancy) was in a dire situation when she was laid off after maternity leave and was facing eviction from her home. Needless to say, it’s very difficult to get a new job when you also have a newborn. We provided a great deal of unique support she could not get elsewhere in the Jewish community.
Lopez: Who is Shifra?
Pelman: Shifra is one of two midwives in the book of Exodus. The other one’s name is “Puah” and we thought “In Puah’s Arms” didn’t sound so great. Kidding aside, we like Shifra because she was courageous. She cared for and protected women and their children, including the baby who would turn out to be Moses.
Lopez: What kind of crises has In Shifra’s Arms encountered since its start?
Pelman: Pregnant women who call us are in crisis because they lack the emotional, social, and/or financial support that they need to have the baby. They are generally single or in rocky, unstable relationships or marriages. Fully 25 percent of them are in (or getting out of) outright abusive relationships. Par for the course in these unhealthy relationships is that the fathers usually are not supportive of the pregnancies.
“Rochelle” called us on the verge of permanent separation and divorce. When her husband found out she was pregnant, he pressured her to end it. She had a good job, but she was overwhelmed by the prospect of having to bring a new baby into the world alone while caring for her other child. Yet she did feel connected to her baby, had always wanted another child, and felt like this could be her last chance. She chose to move forward despite the pressures she was under. We provided her loving support during pregnancy and after birth. For example, we had a volunteer from the community spend many hours at her house helping her get ready for the baby. In the end, she had a gorgeous baby girl and was thankful for her daughter and our help.
We initially designed the organization with single women in their twenties in mind, and we have heard from them. However, the majority of our clients to date have been in their thirties. We are based in Silver Spring, Md., but we receive calls on our national toll-free number from Jewish women across the United States from a wide variety of economic situations and Jewish backgrounds. Because of this, we haven’t had a cookie-cutter approach. We work together with local Jewish agencies and rabbis to fill what gaps are most helpful to assist the client.
Lopez: Despite your Jewish focus, do you serve all?
Pelman: Our outreach exclusively focuses on the Jewish community because that is the need that we can uniquely address. However, we do have non-Jewish women call, and we of course care for them with the same love and respect.
Lopez: Who is on the other end of the helpline? What does the preparation for that look like? What does your “Baby Prep” coaching look like?
Pelman: We have a professional social worker who is an excellent listener and offers tremendous support. She has expertise in a number of women’s issues as well as a background in working with women in domestic-abuse situations. Consistent with social-work ethics, our counselor is very committed to the caller’s autonomy, giving her a space to make decisions for herself, and does not presume to know what she should do. She provides our short-term crisis counseling as well “Baby Prep” coaching.
“Baby Prep” coaching is for clients who want longer-term support. Beyond a couple of phone calls and referrals, we can help them to create a safe and healthy environment, build a strong network of support, and pursue economic and career goals. Our aim is to empower them to create a positive future for themselves and their children — and to let them know that they are not alone.
We can provide Jewish-specific adoption referrals when anyone is interested in them. We do not take the place of an adoption agency, but we can provide some additional support beyond what an adoption agency can do.
My personal background is in workforce development, so I am particularly committed to dealing with the economic dimensions of this — how our clients can move along career paths that will bring them to economic stability for themselves and their children if they don’t already have it.
Lopez: What do you find that a woman with an unplanned pregnancy most needs?
Pelman: To be heard. And listening means no agenda, no judging. Just caring. Even if she does eventually need a lot of practical things that we can help with, our first and foremost service is just listening.
Listening to her deeply gives her the opportunity to experience some calm amidst the storm. It also gives her the space to hear herself — her own heart’s guidance.
Lopez: Is In Shifra’s Arms a place where people of any and all and no political opinions come to help women, together? Have you seen that happen?
Pelman: Each of us has been drawn to our organization for deeply personal reasons. One board member was born, unplanned, to a single Jewish mother. Another struggled with infertility and became a mother through adoption (which, by the way, is very common in the Jewish community). Another simply cares about this from the perspective of being mother and grandmother to many girls. Others of us have direct experiences with challenging pregnancies ourselves or with people close to us.
That being said, our board and volunteer base bring together people across the political and Jewish religious spectrum, including liberals and conservatives, secular and Orthodox. It’s a wonderful group. We’re in this, creating the model, together — in some ways defying what others might think is possible.
We all agree that we must provide unconditional compassion and respect to the women seeking our help, both before and after the pregnancy, regardless of outcome. We also believe that the Jewish community needs to step up to the plate. If a woman decides she wants to move forward with a pregnancy despite difficult circumstances or if she faces some crisis like a job loss while pregnant, we must be there for her in a substantial and committed way. For the American Jewish community, this is a unique message.
Lopez: What have you found most frustrating in your Shifra work? What have you found most inspiring?
Pelman: One frustration is that many in the Jewish community are unaware of the need that is out there. It’s very much a hidden issue. Yet even though we are very small, as I mentioned before, we have heard from Jewish women all over the country and occasionally abroad who want our help.
On a personal level, I am the mom of three young boys and I am a part-time executive director for an organization that probably needs (even if it can’t afford) a full-time staff to help develop it. So, like so many other moms, I am pulled in many different directions. It never feels as though I’m doing enough. However, it’s clearly nothing compared with what our clients are going through, and that helps me keep perspective.
One woman called us who was pregnant and homeless. She had just escaped an abusive relationship and had lost her well-paying job in the process. She had to start her entire life over while pregnant. No doubt being pregnant made everything else even more challenging. She realized that her best option was to leave everything behind — literally moving across the world to be closer to her family in Israel. In Shifra’s Arms made that possible. At the end of the day, after everything she had been through, she told us, “My son is the best thing that ever happened to me. I know I have a difficult road ahead of me, but I also know that I will be able to build for myself and my son a wonderful life.”
One of our first clients has graduated college and is currently in graduate school. I got to see a message that she wrote to her daughter for her fourth birthday. It was so profoundly loving. She is still so grateful for the help that we provided during her challenging unplanned pregnancy. It’s inspiring to me that we can provide help during a critical period that can reverberate for years to come.
Lopez: What does the Hebrew word for compassion have to do with In Shifra’s Arms?
Pelman: In Hebrew the word for compassion, rachamim, comes from the word for womb, rechem. This means that the first Jewish definition of compassion was modeled on the relationship between a mother and her child. Sometimes, pregnant women want and need to receive our compassion in action. It is deeply Jewish to give it to them. Compassion is what binds our team together.
Lopez: What do you want a woman who is scared and pregnant reading this to know?
Pelman: You are not alone. We’re waiting for your call. You can find out more at www.jewishpregnancyhelp.org.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.