Rosh Hashanah, the start of the High Holidays, was fast approaching. I had promised myself that this year would be different. For years I have followed their activities with a mild interest, just an observer, as though their concerns were not my own, but this year, in the wake of recent media storms and false accusations, I promised myself that I would finally take a stand. I would go down to their Jerusalem office and see for myself. And I did. As I pushed open the doors of their rather nondescript office I took a deep breath – welcome to largest life saving industry in all of Israel – Agudat Efrat.
Efrat, the Society for the Encouragement of Procreation among the Jewish People, was founded by Mr. Herschel Feignebaum z”l a Holocaust survivor who sought to rebuild all that the Nazis, may their names be blotted out, thought to destroy – namely the continued survival of the Jewish people.
His vision was a shared one, with David Ben-Gurion the leader of the fledging State of Israel, offering substantial government grants to growing families.
I was surprised to discover that although Efrat’s offices appear unremarkable, its interior is a hubbub of activity. Piles of leaflets, documents and gifts occupy almost all their (spotlessly clean!) surfaces while social workers and volunteers go about their work.
After cornering Dr. Eli Schussheim the two of us searched in vain for a quiet, unoccupied spot to talk.
“I am so sorry about this” he said to me apologetically, not realizing how badly I felt the need to apologize to him.
Eventually we found ourselves a little niche that was anything but quiet. I took a few minutes to look through a Rosh Hashanah booklet that is part of their New Year mailing campaign. They aim to send one along with a Kriyat Shema to every Beit Knesset in the United States and the United Kingdom. This is the work of Dr. Schussheim, a cheerful, vivacious, well-loved doctor who has made it his business to save Jewish lives. Who, if not him, will stand in front of the heavenly scales on the eve of the Day of Judgment to silence our accusers?
Dr. Schussheim’s involvement in Efrat began over thirty years ago when a woman came into his clinic with her eight year old son whose hand had been gashed. The doctor treated the wound and before she left, the woman said the following:
“Thank you, Dr. Schussheim, I want you to know that I owe the life of my child to you! Many years ago I underwent a series of x-rays. A short time later I discovered that I was pregnant. The doctors were adamant that the x-rays had impacted my unborn child and that he undoubtedly would be born severely deformed. They advised me to terminate the pregnancy as quickly as possible. I did not know what to do and then someone suggested I come see you.
“You assured me that the doctors were quoting long outdated research information, which had been totally disproved by modern science. The X-rays had not impacted the fetus. I was not to worry. As a result of your reassurance I followed through with the pregnancy and this child is a living testimony to the accuracy of your words.”
This event changed Dr. Schussheim’s life. Dr. Schussheim is a veteran surgeon in Sharei Tzedek hospital and previously had been at Hadassah Ein Kerem.
“I studied medicine so I could save lives,” Dr. Schussheim says. “And here, with a simple piece of advice, I was able to save this child’s life. Let’s not forget that a human being is not an individual – I saved his life and the lives of all his future generations.”
Since then Dr. Schussheim first worked as a volunteer and now serves as the chairman of Efrat, an organization that offers support and physical assistance to women who are contemplating abortion for financial reasons.
I am surprised to hear that the majority of women who turn to Efrat are married.
“Their financial situation is such that the couple can barely cover day-to-day expenses,” says Dr. Schussheim “and the thought of another mouth to feed brings them to the brink of despair. They feel trapped. However, it is obvious from the fact that they seek our services that they are looking for a way to save their child; women who are determined to abort don’t come to us seeking an alternative option.
“And this is where Efrat comes into the picture. We examine each case on an individual basis and offer encouragement to the expectant mother throughout her pregnancy. We have a team of volunteers who will run errands, even going to the bank if necessary, or undertake other tasks that seem too overwhelming for her. Finally we offer financial assistance to those in need.”
As a mother of children myself I am warmed by his words, after all is there anything more precious than the smile of a child?
When we had finished talking, I visited the storeroom. There I was greeted by the smell of fresh wood.
A brand new bed stood to the side waiting to be claimed. Crates of dolls lined the shelves – a gift from Australia. Hundreds of baby boy suits, still in their packets, sat alongside stacks of single, and double, baby carriages. And lined up on the floor near the door were countless parcels waiting for pickup and delivery. Their addresses cover the length of breath of Israel, from Eilat to Jerusalem. I took a peek inside one of the packages and saw diapers, formula, bottles, and food items for an entire family.
I looked around me at the well stocked shelves, the parcels packed with love, and indeed the Rosh Hashanah cards with the simanim and I lifted my head heavenward in a silent prayer.
“Merciful G-d in heaven,” I said “take these packages, and the tears – those of anguish, and those of joy – and take all the babies saved by Efrat, and place them on the scale…”
In my mind’s eye I watched as the scale dipped lower and lower
“…and I have no doubt that Your beloved Jewish people will emerge triumphant.”
A sweet new year to all!