Rebecca Ruberg and her husband, Rabbi Jeremy Ruberg, went through surgery, two miscarriages and one failed in vitro fertilization (IVF) cycle before welcoming their daughter last year.
“There were days when I didn’t know how I would get through,” said Rebecca, 32. “Sharing what we were going through was a protective mechanism we developed — we figured if people were more conscious about the struggles of infertility, they will hopefully be more sensitive to those going through it.”
Now, a new partnership between three Jewish women’s organizations — Hadassah, Jewish Women’s Archive and Uprooted: A Jewish Communal Response to Fertility Journeys — is aiming to bring stories like the Rubergs’to a broader audience using a storytelling mobile app.
The joint project, launched Wednesday, will introduce the theme of fertility journeys to Story Aperture, a mobile app developed by JWA to collect and share women’s stories, said JWA chief of staff Mikki Pugh. In the past, the app has been used to collect stories connected to different themes, including “Judaism and Race/Ethnicity” and sexual harassment, assault and workplace discrimination.
“As a community, we understand the power of oral history,” said Pugh, who explained that the app will provide users with a set of prompts that will help them frame their experiences. Users will have the ability to remain anonymous or share their stories more publicly.
“We want the powerful tool of storytelling in users’ back pocket,” said Pugh. “Putting a voice to a story is the way we start to break down taboos.”
Hadassah decided to join the conversation about fertility journeys with similar goals in mind. “We want to reduce stigma surrounding the whole topic of fertility,” said Janice Weinman, executive director and CEO of Hadassah. Previous to the new partnership, Hadassah launched reConceiving Infertility, a national information and advocacy campaign aimed to reduce stigma surrounding the subject.
According to a 2018 study by the Centers for Disease Control, 13 percent of women of reproductive age, or about 9.5 million women aged 15-49, have trouble conceiving or sustaining a pregnancy. Data produced by the Jewish Fertility Foundation suggests that rates of infertility among Jewish couples may be slightly higher than among the general population — with as many as one in six Jewish couples facing infertility compared to one in eight for the general population. Contributing factors may include the decision to start a family at a later age and the slightly higher rate of certain genetic conditions, including Polycystic ovary syndrome, that necessitate fertility treatments.
Weinman said Hadassah plans to publicize the new storytelling initiative among the organization’s 700 chapters and via Hadassah’s Fertility Treatment Clinic, with an IVF unit, at Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem.
“Our greatest emphasis is on building awareness that this is something many families struggle with — it’s not just a woman’s issue,” said Weinman, who said the storytelling initiative will also encourage LBGTQ+ families to share their journeys towards parenthood.
Ruberg, whose husband is the rabbi for Lifelong Learning at Temple Emanu-El in Closter, NJ, experienced infertility from the particularly exposed position of being a pulpit rabbi’s partner. She said the experience of infertility can be divided into three parts: the story of each respective partner and the story of the couple as a unit.
“There is definitely the notion that infertility is exclusively on the woman,” said Ruberg, the teen education and engagement consultant at The Jewish Education Project, was 27 when she and her husband began efforts to start a family. Because she was young, people “didn’t understand why I was freaking out,” she recalled. “But I understood that there are no guarantees on this journey.”
Even my closest friends couldn’t understand what I was going through.
After a year of trying without success, the couple went to a fertility specialist. A series of tests discovered that Ruberg’s husband also had fertility challenges that would need to be overcome.
Desperate for resources and others who could understand, Ruberg chanced upon the start-up, volunteer-driven organization Uprooted, which pairs those experiencing infertility with mentors to guide them through the painful process alongside other forms of support and advocacy. For her, working with a mentor eased the difficult journey.
“Even my closest friends couldn’t understand what I was going through if they weren’t going through it themselves,” she said. “My Uprooted mentor became my lifeline.”
Ruberg will be among the first to share her family’s fertility journey on the new storytelling app. “When you share your story,” she said, “you open the gates for others.”