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Just One Life: Saving Worlds Every Day

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Deliberating over terminating a pregnancy is a struggle Rachel* never thought would face her. Life in Northern Israel with her husband and daughter was great until a business they invested in brought a huge financial loss and left them in debt. With her husband only earning a minimal income from a factory job, and much of that deducted to repay their loans, he and Rachel learned she was pregnant and considered terminating the pregnancy. A local social worker referred Rachel to Just One Life.

Just One Life was founded over 20 years ago, when a rabbi read a newspaper article that troubled him and decided to act. The rabbi was the late Rabbi Solomon Sharfman who had been the spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Flatbush. He read that annually, 20,000 women, mostly married, were terminating pregnancies in Israel. Rabbi Sharfman researched the situation personally, and found out that most of these women were choosing to end pregnancies due to socioeconomic stresses that they were facing. He decided that something must be done to save these lives that were being lost daily.

Madelaine Gitelman

In 1989, Rabbi Sharfman together with Jack Forgash founded the organization Just One Life, or in Israel, Nefesh Achat B’Yisrael. Some of Rabbi Sharfman’s former congregants, including Joel and Miriam Gold, were instrumental in its founding as well. Rabbi Macy Gordon was the director of the National Council of Young Israel and the first director of JOL, which was originally run under the auspices of NCYI. Madelaine Gitelman was hired as the executive vice president and head social worker and is today very much the heart and soul of the daily operations in Israel. Rav Avrohom Pam, zt”l, became the organization’s rabbinic adviser and spent “a lot of time ironing everything out,” according to Rabbi Martin Katz, director of JOL. About eight months after its founding, Rabbi Katz joined JOL to head up the operations in North America. “Just One Life has been my identity for the past 20 years,” says Rabbi Katz, his passion for the cause evident in his voice.

In JOL’s first year of operation, the organization successfully assisted seven families, according to Rabbi Etan Tokayer, spiritual leader of the Kingsway Jewish Center in Brooklyn who joined JOL as executive vice president in the Unites States in 2007. To date over 13,000 babies have been born with the help of JOL, including Rachel’s little girl born just a few weeks ago. Rabbi Tokayer explains that during Rachel and her husband’s initial conversation with Gitelman, it was clear to her that “both Rachel and her husband wanted this pregnancy to continue, but were very fearful about their immediate situation.”

Rabbi Etan Tokayer

“The offer of assistance and the ongoing relationship…enabled Rachel to become more positive about the birth,” he says. “During the pregnancy, she developed some health issues. Part of the monthly subsidy provided by JOL was used to purchase the special food that Rachel needed. The couple is thrilled with their new addition.”

The staff of JOL prides itself that 100 percent of its clients have kept their children, without any having been put up for adoption. The organization calls this “internal aliyah,” growing the Jewish population in Israel from within. Rabbi Katz notes that Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, zt”l, said that since 1948, almost as many babies in Israel were lost to termination as were killed in the Holocaust.

Both Rabbi Katz and Rabbi Tokayer are clear that their success does not lie solely in the area of financial support to these families. While JOL provides a small stipend, when needed, to alleviate some of the financial stress that may have caused these women to consider termination, Just One Life’s main goal is to empower each woman to be more independent and confident in the skills they need to be successful. Just One Life provides educational resources and classes to teach parents money management, family budgeting, and vocational skills that could help bring extra income to the home. “Just giving them money would be a band-aid,” says Rabbi Katz, explaining that the psychological and support services are what have made a lasting difference to these women, their husbands, and ultimately their children.

Yael, 34 and married with two sons, became despondent when she learned that she was pregnant. Her husband works for a building contractor, and she knew that because money was already too tight to cover their current expenses, that he would probably wish for her to terminate the pregnancy. Even though Yael’s employer would continue to pay her for three months after she delivered, the cost of a newborn seemed overwhelming.

Yael and her husband were referred to JOL. With the offer of financial assistance and some counseling, the husband was not only willing to support his wife’s decision to continue the pregnancy, but was also willing to be a more sharing partner in the household. In November they were glad to welcome their third son.

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