Jewish Crisis-Pregnancy Helpline Expands, Reigniting Debate Over Choice


When Mirasha Moore, a 28-year-old single mother living in New York City, found out she was pregnant last February, she typed four different search terms into Google: Orthodox, pregnant, unmarried, help.

“Growing up, I was told the only appropriate time to have kids is when you’re married,” said Moore, who grew up in Los Angeles in a close-knit Orthodox community — she attended an all-girls high school and a Jerusalem seminary after graduating.

After moving to New York four years ago, she joined the thriving Orthodox singles scene on the Upper West Side. “There’s a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy around sex,” she said. “Everyone is having it, but no talks about it.”

“There’s a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy around sex,” she said. “Everyone is having it, but no talks about it.”

Two lines on a pregnancy test took her story in a different direction. She decided to follow the pregnancy through to term, remain unmarried and remain Orthodox.

“I’m still the talk of the town,” said Moore, today a member of the lively Orthodox community in Washington Heights. When taking her son to synagogue on Shabbat morning, she has become accustomed to navigating uncomfortable questions and gossip. “‘She’s the one with the baby, right?’”

Her initial Google search for help and support led her to In Shifra’s Arms (ISA), a crisis pregnancy helpline for Jewish women that provides therapeutic counseling, financial aid and follow-up services to women facing unplanned pregnancies.

Moore first spoke with an ISA counselor by phone early in her pregnancy, when she felt pressure to abort. (Moore stressed that her family was loving and supportive throughout.) She visited an abortion clinic, despite a strong intuition from the start that she wanted to continue the pregnancy.

“People are terrified to tell their parents,” she said, referring to some of her single Orthodox friends who have gotten pregnant. “Our schools, our communities, they make one thing clear: Sex outside marriage is not ok.”

The intense shame that accompanies continuing a pregnancy to term while unmarried causes many Orthodox women to “quietly have an abortion, to save face,” said Moore.

After first connecting with the organization, she spoke with the ISA counselor on a weekly basis until the birth of her son. After the birth, the counselor followed up with her frequently through her son’s first birthday, providing guidance, support and occasional resources.

The organization, which says it is the only resource of its kind in the country, launched in 2009 in a suburb of Maryland.

Now, the national organization is making a push to attract clientele in New York, with perhaps the largest concentration of Orthodox women in the country. A fresh text hotline (with a New York number), trained counselors and a focused social media campaign have spearheaded expansion efforts, said ISA founder Erica Pelman.

“We’re not just there for women in a moment of crisis — we commit to being there for the entire pregnancy, for the year after and if they choose to put the child up for adoption,” said Pelman, an Orthodox mother of four. Pelman was inspired to start the organization 11 years ago after an unmarried friend chose to abort a pregnancy for lack of support and resources. “I couldn’t help thinking that things might have turned out differently if she had someone to call,” said Pelman.

Shifra, the organization’s namesake, is one of the midwives who saved Hebrew babies from Pharaoh in the biblical story of Exodus.

Today, the previously volunteer-led organization has four part-time employees, including two clinically trained social workers, and an operating budget nearing $100,000 made up of private donations. In the past, ISA has spent up to $5,000 on an individual client, said Pelman.

The organization serves a range of women in all stages of pregnancy, including married women coping with domestic violence, unmarried women facing unplanned pregnancies, and women who believe they cannot financially support another child — since last year, one half of new callers are married women, many of whom feel “embarrassed” about asking for support, said Pelman. (According to the 2013 Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews, Orthodox individuals marry younger and have at least twice as many children as  Jews from other denominations — an average of 4.1 compared to 1.7 children. Among those who have children, 48 percent of Orthodox Jews have four or more offspring.)

Since its founding, the organization has counseled nearly 100 women, with two-to-four new callers a month and 15 longterm cases.

(Though Pelman stresses that the organization is intended to serve women from all streams of Judaism, the organization’s clientele appear to be primarily Orthodox.)


Still, what some consider a thinly disguised pro-life agenda continues to cloud the organization’s progress, even among progressive Orthodox circles. The group has come under fire for linking to studies that falsely claimed abortion causes breast cancer and suicide (ISA immediately removed the links) and failing to provide information or referrals for abortion.

Pelman, responding to the criticism, counters that the organization offers abortion and miscarriage follow-up services. If a client asks for specific information or referrals for abortion, the organization encourages the client to speak to a doctor because ISA is “purely a social service organization” — the same goes for information on birth control and C-sections.

“No client has ever had any problem finding a doctor to speak to,” said Pelman, who stressed that ISA has no political bent.

But in a political climate increasingly unsympathetic to reproductive choice, activists remain on guard. As efforts on Capitol Hill to ban taxpayer-financed abortions and slash funding for Planned Parenthood persist, advocates for reproductive justice — a cause that cuts to the heart of many Jewish women’s organizations — continue to decry crisis pregnancy centers of any religious hue. (Christian crisis pregnancy centers, which outnumber abortion clinics in the United States, have repeatedly faced legal action for using what abortion rights advocates claim to be deceptive and manipulative tactics to prevent women from pursuing abortions.)

“We stand in opposition to any organization that promotes deceptive tactics towards caring for women,” said Zadoff.

Aviva Zadoff, chair of the New York reproductive justice initiative for the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), said that she plans to step up efforts to “combat the deceptive tactics of crisis pregnancy centers” in the coming year.

“We stand in opposition to any organization that promotes deceptive tactics towards caring for women,” said Zadoff.

A recent social media campaign by ISA that says: “Sometimes even a pregnancy that starts as a crisis can end with a miracle,” and pictures a smiling woman embracing a newborn baby, demonstrates ISA’s agenda-driven tactics, said Zadoff.

“The assumption of that advertisement is that the right choice is to follow a pregnancy through to term,” said Zadoff. “Any organization that starts with an agenda and is not honest about that agenda is harmful to the health of women.”

Emily Kadar, government affairs and advocacy manager at the National Institute for Reproductive Health, remains suspicious of ISA, though she has softened her position towards the organization in recent years. (In 2010 and 2011, Kadar penned articles harshly criticizing the tactics and mission of ISA.)

“Facing an unplanned pregnancy, a women needs all the options laid out for her in an unbiased way,” said Kadar. “There should not be pressure one way or another.”

She fears that ISA — though it claims to respect a woman’s best interests — mirrors tactics used by other crisis pregnancy organizations in which “above all else, they want to make sure there is a child at the end of the experience.”

“Facing an unplanned pregnancy, a women needs all the options laid out for her in an unbiased way.”

Responding to this concern, Pelman said that “not pushing anyone into anything” is fundamental to ISA’s approach.

Still, though Kadar has “some pretty serious concerns” about ISA’s services, she acknowledged that ISA is filling an important role for the Orthodox community.

“For women in the Orthodox community, there has been a vacuum around this issue,” said Kadar, who identifies as a secular Jew. As a community outsider, she is hesitant to judge. “I don’t want to dismiss that.”


The Orthodox view of abortion is complex and frequently ambiguous, though it relies heavily on the tenet that the life — and sometimes emotional well-being — of the mother takes precedence over the life of the fetus. Opinions vary greatly on what constitutes a danger to the life of the mother.

Rabbi Lila Kagedan, an Orthodox rabbi and bioethicist who holds a master’s degree in theology and ethics from Harvard, explained that “while there is no one size fits all” answer regarding abortion, Jewish tradition holds the ultimate safety of the mother “very dear.”

The biblical injunction in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply” is directed at at a man and not at a woman. One explanation for this seeming inconsistency is the physical risks pregnancy and childbirth pose for a woman, Kagedan explained.

“While being ‘fruitful’ is an ultimate goal and an ultimate value, it is suspended should a woman’s life be in danger,” said Rabbi Kagedan.

“While being ‘fruitful’ is an ultimate goal and an ultimate value, it is suspended should a woman’s life be in danger,” she said. (Rabbi Kagedan’s comments were selected from a recent NCJW and JOFA-sponsored panel on reproductive justice and used here with permission.)

The controversy over In Shifra’s Arms touches home for Orthodox feminists, many of whom are frequently caught in the crosshairs between Orthodox law and progressive causes.

“We’re not the Catholic church,” said Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), rebutting the frequently peddled misconception that Orthodox law does not permit abortion. “When we don’t protect choice, the choice to follow halacha [Jewish law] is in danger.”

Rabbi Yitzhak Breitowitz, the rabbinic advisor for ISA, seems to hold a more conservative view on the matter. The conflict between “secular law that recognizes the right to choose and the halacha, which is strongly discouraging of abortion,” forces a “delicate balance,” he said.

“It’s fair to say In Shifra’s Arms wants women to consider all the alternatives and hopefully, hopefully not abort.”

“The issue often is that women have unwanted pregnancies and they don’t have the resources — or so they think at least — to be able to raise the child,” said Rabbi Breitowitz, an Orthodox rabbi and retired lawyer living in Jerusalem. “They want to pursue abortion as a first option.”

ISA tries to step in and “make women aware of the different options,” he said, specifying adoption. He referred to abortion as a “last resort.”

“It’s fair to say In Shifra’s Arms wants women to consider all the alternatives and hopefully, hopefully not abort.”

(Pelman said she aims for a diversity of viewpoints among her board members and advisors — former board member Rivka Sidorsky, contacted for this article, described herself as “adamantly pro-choice.”)


Lori Prashker-Thomas, a Jewish birth mother and a volunteer for ISA, was compelled by her own pregnancy journey to get involved with the organization. At age 23, Prashker-Thomas found out she was pregnant. At that point, she had broken from her religious family and did not know who the father was.

“It was a really bad section of my life,” she recalled.

Though she originally wanted an abortion, when she showed up at the clinic she found she “couldn’t go through with it.” She decided to put her daughter, today 21, up for adoption with a Jewish family.

“There was no Jewish organization at the time to help me through anything,” said Prashker-Thomas, today a photographer living in suburban Pennsylvania with her husband and second daughter. She is still in close contact with her first daughter, and has a good relationship with the adoptive parents.

“No one speaks about it,” she said, referring to unplanned pregnancies and abortion. “It’s just understood that this is not the Jewish way. And if it happens to you — people look the other way.”

Moore, today a single mother juggling the complex web of childcare and work, said speaking to a counselor during her pregnancy and after giving birth gave her “hope and strength.”

“When I called, I was at my most vulnerable,” she said, recalling the intense social pressure she faced to abort. The ISA counselor “knew what I was up against,” including the complex tenets of Orthodox law that further entangled her situation.

She has since become a sounding board for other women facing similar situations. “Pregnancy [outside of marriage] shouldn’t be so taboo that women think its better to have an abortion,” she said. ISA strengthened her resolve, she said.

When, nearly two decades later, Prashker-Thomas found out about In Shifra’s Arms, she quickly got involved. “I wanted to do anything I could to help.” Had the organization existed when she needed support, her journey might have been much less painful, and lonely, she said.

“When I gave up my baby, I had to deal with the tremendous sense of loss. I constantly questioned myself — did I do the right thing?

“I was alone,” she said. “Nobody deserves to be alone.”