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.
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.”
“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.
Rabbi Katz explains that the success of Just One Life comes from the network they have created in Israel of “top of the top” professionals, including Dr. Shimon Glick from Ben Gurion University Medical School in Be’er Sheva. Gitelman had to “knock on a lot of doors,” as Rabbi Kats puts it, until she and Just One Life earned respect from the medical community. Now, 90 percent of referrals come from social workers at the local welfare department or women’s health clinics throughout Israel. “Madelaine Gitelman is the grandmother and great-grandmother of these children,” says Rabbi Katz.
Often called upon to speak at Universities and to other social workers and students of social work, Gitelman is very well respected in her field. Rabbi Katz explained how she knows how to approach and speak to expectant mothers of all backgrounds and cultures. “She never makes them feel guilty – the choice is made by the mother.”
Gitelman’s caring, understanding, and professionalism are the keys to her success in connecting with women in distress. While some women may feel that termination is something they could never consider, Gitelman explains that for others, “an untimely pregnancy can upset the fragile balance in their lives and leave them feeling overwhelmed and lonely. An on-going supportive relationship is the key to strengthening the pregnant woman and preparing her to receive her new baby with improved self-esteem and a renewed sense that she is capable to succeed in welcoming a new addition to her family. No two women are alike, nor is their ability to cope with a difficult pregnancy.”
Yael and Rachel, along with countless other mothers, depend on the voices Ms. Gitelman and her team of social workers not only during the pregnancy but after delivery as well. Just One Life has established a Mother and Infant Center in Jerusalem. The center offers workshops, lectures, and support groups to new moms. Workshops such as baby massage, time management, and parenting are very popular. “Each activity is accompanied by a healthy breakfast and time devoted to interaction between mothers and staff. For the participants it is the highlight of their week,” says Gittleman. She further explains, “Many of the women we help were not the beneficiaries of positive and caring mothers. Many are eager to learn new and different ways of relating to their infant. The purpose of the activities is to enable and teach mothers some of the skills that will enable them to feel confident in their role.”
While most nonprofit organizations try to contact beneficiaries for testimonials, JOL realizes that due to the sensitive nature of the issues they deal with, many mothers do not want to talk about that difficult period in their life. They also don’t want their children to know that they had considered termination. One mother, who had been in a Jerusalem building along with her husband when it collapsed, openly shared her gratitude to JOL at a fund raising dinner held in Israel. According to Rabbi Katz, “they were basket cases,” unsure that they would be able to cope with a pregnancy and baby while dealing with surgeries and recovery from the trauma they experienced. At the dinner, the photographer took a picture of Rabbi Katz holding their baby and he has kept it in his jacket pocket ever since. “When other people complain about the bad economy, I show them that picture and tell them that, ‘my dividends keep going up.’ ”
According to Rabbi Katz, the cost of helping bring one baby into the world is about $1,800. JOL is available as a resource to women everywhere. Their social workers have been known to travel in difficult times to difficult places in Israel to visit clients and bring them supplies. Whether in a bomb shelters, or on the phone from the United States, women know they can speak to the social workers from JOL and get the support they need in confidence and without judgment.
For more information or to make a donation, visit www.justonelife.org.
*Names of families and individuals who have benefited from JOL have been changed to protect their privacy.
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