As readers of this column know, our aliyah experience has been studded with many “firsts.”  Baruch Hashem, as of a few weeks ago, I can proudly add a new one to the list: my first Sabra.

Before coming to Eretz Yisrael, I’d had a reasonable amount of experience giving birth, having, thank G-d, successfully accomplished this task four times back in the States. But that did not stop me from being jittery about the upcoming event here.  After all, this was Israel – a totally different country, with a different health care system and a different mindset.  I was warned by other mothers that the hospital experience is “just not the same.”  Don’t expect the same pampering that the nurses give you in the States. The delivery is done by a midwife, not a doctor, and though most agreed that the labor and delivery experience is quite positive, the stay in the mother-baby unit is decidedly different.  Here, they expect you to be much more independent, to walk to your meals rather than have them brought to you, to request painkillers rather than have them offered. 

Still, I figured, with Shaare Zedek Medical Center boasting one of the highest number of annual births in the developed world, these guys must know what they’re doing.  And so, that is where I headed on a balmy Sunday night in November, in the back of a blaring Hatzalah ambulance.

(We are a nation of chesed-doers, and the Hatzalah volunteers went above and beyond in their efforts to help me, even filling out my paperwork at the hospital! One of the volunteers – previously a total stranger – made the trip up the hill later that week to attend our Shalom Zachar.)

A few hours after arriving at the hospital, I gave birth to our first Sabra – and a Yerushalmi to boot!  As my sister-in-law pointed out, our little Mordechai is the first person, on both sides of the family, to be born in Eretz Yisrael in probably hundreds, maybe thousands of years.  Mordechai’s small shoulders are carrying the tremendous weight of history.  

Earlier apprehensions notwithstanding, my experience at Shaare Zedek was an overwhelmingly positive one. Shaare Zedek is one of the four Halacha-abiding hospitals in the country. This means that, aside from serving kosher food and being accommodating to religious needs, its policies and procedures are governed by Halacha.  While my hospital stay did not include a Shabbos, there are signs posted around the maternity ward announcing times for Kiddush, davening and Havdalah for the coming Shabbos. The hot water machine is specially designed for use on Shabbos. There are even posters hanging on the walls with the prayer for lighting candles, as well as signs with the Asher Yatzar prayer outside bathrooms, and a prayer for a woman in labor in the labor and delivery ward.

When I was brought into the hospital, all the staff wished me a “b’sha’ah tovah” – and after I gave birth, they all gave heartfelt mazel tovs. Their smiles grew even wider when I mentioned that this was my first baby born in Israel, and they gave me a second mazel tov, just for that.
Soon after giving birth, a nurse approached me with a nagel vasser cup and washed my hands.  Who knew from such things in America? I was particularly impressed with the staff’s sensitivity to tznius, modesty, which was expressed in various ways.  The staff in the maternity ward is almost 100 percent female, and they are very aware of the halachos of tznius, making sure the husband is behind a screen during the birth, and ensuring that curtains are drawn around a patient before examining her. 

This was in stark contrast to my experiences giving birth in the States, in which I was bothered by the staff’s lack of sensitivity in this regard. They would enter rooms without knocking, and examine you with doors open – I would have to ask them to close the door or curtain, which they would then do, as a special favor.   I recall asking for special long-sleeved hospital robes, and each time the nurse would look at me like I was crazy, then go searching in the back of the linen closet and dig one up.  In Shaare Zedek, all of the robes are long-sleeved and high-necked.

I loved that my baby was born into this world in an atmosphere of kedushah.  As my niece noticed when she came to visit, there are no televisions in the room. On the door of each room there is a large, decorative mezuzah with the words, “Alatz Libi BaHashem, My heart exults in Hashem.”  These words, from Shiras Chanah, the Song of Chanah in Shmuel I, describe the joy of a new mother who had been praying for years to have children and was finally answered – fitting indeed to be displayed in a maternity ward. 

 Here I did not have to feel self-conscious about religious performances as davening.  One morning, the chilonit maintenance worker came into our room to do her daily floor mopping. When she saw that my roommate was in the middle of davening, she quickly apologized and drew the curtain around her so that she shouldn’t be disturbed.

 I also did not have to feel self-conscious about the size of my family, and the fact that I dared to bring another baby into this world when I already had four at home.  In the hospital in America, when I gave birth to my third boy, the nurses made comments like, “you’re trying to give your husband a baseball team?” And when I was pregnant with my fourth, my non-Jewish co-worker gave me a blessing that I should have a girl, so that I could finally stop. (Never discount a blessing, no matter who it comes from – I did in fact have a girl.) Here, when the staff asked me what number baby this was and I said fifth, no one batted an eyelash. Indeed, when we left the hospital, the security guard at the door wished us mazel tov and a cheery, “See you next year!”   

All of my roommates, throughout my stay, were frum.  One was a first-time mother from Meah Shearim, who gave me a plateful of home-baked cakes, baked by her aunts.  Another had just given birth to her seventh, and was from a yishuv down South.  All new mothers who are able to walk around eat their meals together in a dining hall. Being in a hospital is a very equalizing experience.

Picture about 50 women, all from different backgrounds, all shuffling around in the same blue and pink hospital nightgown and bright pink hospital robe. Somehow, people seem a lot more similar to you when the outward differences in clothing are removed. The only telltale signs of distinction were the head-coverings – many wore snoods, some tichels, Chassidishe turbans, one or two Muslim headscarves, and a few were without any covering. And we all ate together.

An added benefit to giving birth in Shaare Zedek is that the hospital is Kohen-friendly, which was helpful for our family of Kohanim. One of the most visible manifestations of this is that if there is a dead body inside the building, the hospital posts a sign on the front door stating, “Azharah L’Kohanim,” warning Kohanim about the situation. If there is no sign, the Kohen knows the coast is clear.  When my husband came to visit me, there was indeed a sign on the door. The security guard told him that it usually takes about an hour for the status inside to change. My husband looked around for a place outside to sit in the meantime – and found a small shelter set up nearby for that express purpose, with a sign declaring it the waiting area for Kohanim!

What I loved most of all was that the view from my window displayed the mountains of Yerushalayim, and in particular, the back of the Bayit V’Gan neighborhood. This was a particularly meaningful view for me, as it was the same view, from a different angle, that I had awakened to in my bedroom in the Michlalah dormitory, 13 years earlier.  Did I ever imagine then that I would be here now?  I also loved that, after seeing that I was settled into my room after the delivery, my husband left the hospital, at three in the morning, and took a cab to the Kotel, where he learned until it was time for Vasikin. And he was not the only one.

As he said afterwards, “I knew why I was there. But what were all of them doing there?”  It was inspiring for him to see the early-morning regulars at the Kotel, the ones who come every day at 3:30 a.m. to set up the chairs for the large daily Vasikin minyan, and the ones who come out for the pre-Vasikin Daf Yomi shiur. How lucky we are to be part of such a holy nation! How lucky to live in the land where all it takes is a quick cab ride to be able to thank Hashem at the Kotel immediately after your wife brings a new Jewish neshamah into the world, in Eretz Yisrael!

Ashreinu, mah tov chelkeinu!