February 18, 2014 was the day I came out. That’s what my friends told me, at least. I associate “coming out” with news from friends who came out as gay or lesbian, who wanted to stop repressing or hiding parts of themselves. My “coming out” was different. I posted something personal on the Sh’ma blog, “S Blog,” which touched a nerve in the community. I received 207 public comments:
“Thank you for sharing your story. It helps me to share mine.”
“Hearing your struggle gives me hope that others will feel less shame.”
“Reading your blog post should be a wake-up call to the community.” All I did was share that I have been in the throes of fertility treatments for 31⁄2 years and I am still not able to conceive.
The irony is, I didn’t think it was such a coming out. After all, I have talked openly about fertility with whoever would listen. But, overnight, I became an advocate for those dealing with infertility. I voiced what couldn’t or wouldn’t be shared by countless sufferers who often felt self-shame or alienated, as if something were inherently wrong with them because of their inability to procreate. Later, after I posted on Facebook, I was flooded with private messages: gratitude for raising this issue, suggestions on treatment (which were not really requested, but I figured they were well-meaning), and resources about infertility. I also received messages of outrage that Jewish communal funding provides almost no support for infertility treatment.1
Ironically, I’m a musician who works with children and families. My career includes performing musical concerts and providing educational workshops for Jewish families in communities across the globe. A deep hole in my core exists where a child should be growing. I’ve learned that it’s okay to share my sadness — acknowledge the loneliness and let it go rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.
Now that I have become a public voice, I feel responsible for creating a larger circle of awareness. I created a Facebook group for sharing resources; I approached the editor of Sh’ma about devoting an issue to infertility in the Jewish community; and I developed a collegial relationship with Rabbi Idit Solomon, founder of Hasidah, who is trying to one of the major issues of infertility in Jewish life — the lack of financial resources available to progressive Jews.
My fertility challenges continue to be a journey. The more I learn, the less I know or understand. Multiple doctors are advising me, and that can be extremely confusing. Some of my doctors simply explain to me what other doctors have advised. I have joined Facebook support groups and spoken with friends who’ve “been through it all.” I have read articles and studies about infertility treatments. I know more about fertility drugs, needles, IUI (intrauterine insemination), IVF (in vitro fertilization), and fertility protocols than I ever thought I’d need to know. And at the end of the day, I still am not a mother.
Each cycle of the year that passes now brings me more angst than comfort. Rather than looking forward to holidays, to a period of preparation — a check-in on my life, repairing relationships, setting goals, and exploring ancient liturgy and narratives and their connections to my modern life — I now dread the changing seasons. I dread the Torah readings in Genesis that resurrect our matriarchs who struggled with fertility. In those stories, God delivers; they become mothers. As I enter the fourth year of these narratives, I’m filled with cynicism, despair, sarcasm, and dread.
In the end, I am broken, but I will not give up. I do not plan to suffer silently. I am not ashamed, and I will not be alienated. In addition to continuing on my personal journey toward motherhood, I hope to channel my suffering into something helpful and positive for the community.
My plea to Jewish communal leaders is threefold, like the Birkat Kohanim, the threefold priestly blessing we give to children on Shabbat and holidays. In the priestly blessing, we ask God to offer protection, shining grace, and peace. To the Jewish community and its leadership, we ask:
Won’t you protect people with a deeper sensitivity around issues of infertility? Show greater sensitivity both in congregations and in the larger community to the pain of women and men who are challenged in their attempts to have children. Advocate for new programs — counseling, support groups, and inclusive actions.
Won’t you shine your face toward those who are suffering by listening and not offering advice? Your story may not be the same as another person’s story and it may not be what someone needs in that moment.
Won’t you create some peace for those who are struggling financially with the byproducts of infertility by helping to ensure accessible funding for those who need costly infertility treatments or adoption resources? Advocate for Jewish communal funds to be made available and for individuals to be helped privately, when possible. The financial costs of treatment are enormous (see box on page 3). Few states cover these costs. Most women and men in treatment undergo a few cycles of IVF treatment before applying to adopt. It’s not uncommon for an individual or couple to spend upward of $80,000 trying to start a Jewish family. I never budgeted for this hidden expense.
Some of us do not realize how prevalent infertility is in the Jewish community. But in every group I encounter, when I ask people to raise their hands if they or someone in their inner circle has struggled with infertility, every hand goes up. We can no longer ignore, evade, or sidestep this issue. It demands our attention and care.
1 For a more in-depth exploration of Jewish communal funding for costs associated with IVF treatments, see “The Birthrate Program: A New Strategy for Jewish Communal Growth” by Naomi Less and Rabbi Idit Solomon, Journal of Jewish Communal Service; Volume: 89; Issue: 1.