A few decades ago, an agency that provided housing and other services to Jewish girls and women expecting babies out of wedlock was closed by the umbrella organization that had sponsored it for decades. The apparent reason was that there were no longer any Jews among the agency’s clients. And the apparent reason for this demographic shift was that, in an age of readily available birth control, Jews were using it effectively. In an age of legal abortion, they were taking advantage of the law to end unwanted pregnancies.
Fast-forward several decades, and the pendulum seems to have swung back: An organization that specifically serves Jewish girls and women with unplanned pregnancies not only exists, but has gone national from its local (District of Columbia-area) roots.
In Shifra’s Arms (ISA), a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan organization, was founded by Erica Pelman in 2010 and received its nonprofit status two years later. The name derives from that of one of the two midwives mentioned in the Tanakh (in Shemot/Exodus) charged by Pharaoh to kill the Israelites’ newborn boys—and who were known for their courage in defying his order.
“In Shifra’s Arms is the only Jewish unplanned pregnancy organization in the United States,” said Ms. Pelman. “It serves and is supported by, all segments of the Jewish community, including the Orthodox.” As the organization’s web site declares, In Shifra’s Arms chose the symbol of the midwife because, through the ages, midwives have cared for countless women amidst the challenges of pregnancy, birth, and beyond.
The organization’s mission is to help struggling pregnant women build a positive future for themselves and their children.
It offers both counseling (by phone) and referral to practical resources throughout a woman’s pregnancy for a year after a child’s birth. Long-term services are also available, such as assistance to new mothers in formulating a realistic plan for after the baby is born while meeting their personal and professional goals. Pregnancy care packages, consisting of maternity clothes, baby clothes, and supplies, are also offered.
The practical resources may relate to health care, housing, and legal, educational, and employment assistance, as well as post-abortion or post-miscarriage therapeutic referrals. For women who are interested in putting a baby up for adoption, Jewish adoption information is available upon request. “ISA does not act as an adoption facilitator,” said Ms. Pelman, “but it can educate women about options and connect them with such facilitators.”
A major organization that In Shifra’s Arms works with in this regard is the Jewish Children’s Adoption Network. This coming fall, the organization is planning to offer an adoption group to provide information about the process. “Some women feel forced into abortion, and many don’t want it,” Ms. Pelman said.
“Our counseling is client-led rather than formulaic, and is conducted by a counselor with extensive professional training,” she added. “We treat all women with the same kindness, compassion, and respect they deserve, regardless of the circumstances or choices they end up making.”
Counseling is free. If a woman feels the need for in-person sessions, ISA will refer her to a local agency, as clients come from all over the country.
‘A Very Tough Time in My Life’
Lori Prashker-Thomas felt very much alone when she became pregnant in 1995. She was afraid to tell her parents and had no real support—including from the father, as she didn’t know who he was. “It was a very tough time in my life,” she said.
Within a week after learning of the pregnancy, Ms. Prashker-Thomas had packed her bags and moved to a job more than 1,000 miles away so her parents would not find out about it. Convinced that she would be unable to take care of a baby financially or emotionally, she decided on what seemed to be the only rational course: to give the baby up for adoption.
Ms. Prashker-Thomas selected an adoption lawyer from the Yellow Pages, asking for both a Jewish adoptive family and an open adoption. She gave birth alone in the hospital, and a few days later, signed away her parental rights.
The attorney had not been honest with her or the adoptive family about her desire for an open adoption, so it never materialized. However, in 2014, Ms. Prashker-Thomas, now happily married, received a note from her daughter saying she’d like to meet, and they eventually reunited.
In an article in Kveller, Ms. Prashker-Thomas wrote: “Jewish women deserve to know that they can count on our community during pregnancy and afterwards. They need support whatever choice they make.”
Ms. Prashker-Thomas is now part of that support system, serving on the board of ISA as vice president. However, she fervently wishes the organization had been in existence when she became pregnant.“I don’t know that I would have made a different decision,” she said, “but I wouldn’t have been alone while I made it. I had nobody.”
How In Shifra’s Arms Came to Be
Erica Pelman’s decision to launch the organization was deeply personal: She had a close friend who was pregnant, with a boyfriend who wasn’t “father material,” and was planning an abortion.
“It was really upsetting,” Ms. Pelman said. “I was pro-choice, but felt, where are the options? I could offer her love and support, but there were no resources in the Jewish community to help her.”
At the time, Ms. Pelman herself was at a crossroads about what to do with her life. She had just left her job and was having “conversations with God,” asking: What do you want me to do? “There were several issues I could work on, such as clean water, peace in the Middle East, and crisis pregnancies in the Jewish community,” she noted.
The choice seemed serendipitous when Ms. Pelman gave birth that same week. Moving into a new community in Washington, D.C. and into an Orthodox shul, she found support for her idea—to create a model in the nation’s capital that would spread to other communities.
She started seeking clients. Some came due to an article she had written for JOFA and through other press coverage. She started recruiting volunteer workers, but it soon became clear that ISA needed a professional counselor; it now has two.
Ms. Pelman’s vision changed somewhat with the needs that emerged. “I had expected much-younger women, but in the beginning, we were getting women, mostly in their 30s,” she said.
There was also greater diversity than she had expected. Some of the women were well educated; others were homeless. “There was a wide range, so we had to customize what we do,” she said.
An Unexpected Issue: Domestic Abuse
In Shifra’s Arms also became involved in an issue it hadn’t expected—domestic abuse by men of their pregnant girlfriends and wives. “Some partners may even become abusive upon learning of a pregnancy, due to jealousy or high levels of stress,” Ms. Pelman pointed out. “For men who are already abusive, it is very common to see increased frequency and greater severity of abuse during pregnancy.”
In fact, unplanned pregnancy sometimes results in part because of abuse, when a partner refuses to use birth control as a form of manipulation or control.
Twenty-five percent of ISA’s clients are in abusive situations, of which ISA is not always aware.
On the other hand, some relationships are positive but aren’t leading to marriage, for whatever reason, even after the baby is born. Melissa (a pseudonym) has a sixteen-month-old son who brings her joy, but when she discovered she was pregnant, her reaction was very different.
“It is very uncommon in Orthodox Judaism to have a baby when you are not married,” she said. “Although many Modern Orthodox men and women have sex before marriage, that is not spoken of.”
She chose a different path—to have her baby. “I decided to consider what my options were, and was not going to let ‘How it might look to have a baby when Orthodox and not married’ decide it,” Melissa said. “I knew what I wanted to do, but also knew how I expected people to look at it.”
At first she told no one except the baby’s father—not her family or friends—about her pregnancy, until she was sure of her decision. She found In Shifra’s Arms by Googling “Jewish, pregnant, and not married.” She also came across an article on the web about a woman who had used the organization’s services.
In Shifra’s Arms supported Melissa in her decision. A counselor called her on a weekly basis, unless she asked for more time, so she could discuss her feelings and the situation. “Once I decided on what option to take, ISA helped me plan how to tell my family,” Melissa said. “They sent me books about pregnancy and the first year of a baby’s life and sent me maternity wear. They asked if I needed help with other logistics and job planning.” She also has the steady support of the baby’s father.
Although in Shifra’s Arms serves primarily single pregnant girls and women, there’s an occasional exception. Although she is married, Risa (a pseudonym) had a “crisis pregnancy” because she had “just gotten into a rhythm at work” and was managing the couple’s two other children. “Even though every bill was paid each month, we had no money left for savings or anything else,” she said. “I could not imagine how we’d pay for necessary baby items, daycare, and so on. I also never imagined my life with three kids, and wanted nothing to do with a larger family. The financial piece was really the most stressful, though.”
The pregnancy wreaked havoc on Risa’s body, and she entered a severe depression, stressing her husband as well.
After finding In Shifra’s Arms on Facebook, Risa had a phone meeting with a counselor approximately once a week. “This helped keep me on track and to realize that I’m not alone, and there was someone to listen. They also sent me gift cards to get some nice-looking maternity work clothes. I’m so glad I found this organization.”
That’s a sentiment shared by those who have benefited from the services of In Shifra’s Arms.
Patterns of behavior change, and it is clear that today, Jewish women, including Orthodox women, sometimes find themselves pregnant unintentionally. Having support and guidance as they make difficult choices is a blessing.
ISA can be reached by phone at 866-360-5872 and by text at 202-573-7611.
Barbara Trainin Blank is a freelance writer based in suburban Washington, DC.
 http://www.myjewishlearning.com/the-torch/shifras-calling/, December 28, 2015.
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