“I was in shock and felt like my life was over,” she wrote in an e-mail, asking that her full name not be used. “I was very scared because I had nothing and was trying to figure out how I was going to support myself and the baby.”
Abortion was never an option, she said. She looked into adoption but decided she wanted to prove herself as a mother. Her rabbi’s wife referred her to In Shifra’s Arms, a nonprofit organization in Silver Spring that provides assistance to pregnant Jewish women in crisis.
Erica Pelman founded ISA — named for Shifra, one of the midwives who saved Hebrew babies from Pharaoh in the biblical Exodus story — after a friend got pregnant in 2005 and planned to get an abortion.
“She was sobbing. I started crying,” Pelman recalled. “I felt so hopeless to offer her some other alternative. It was just heartbreaking.”
That phone call haunted Pelman, who previously worked in the Department of Labor’s Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
“It didn’t even occur to me at the time how many Jewish families would have wanted that baby,” she said.
In 2009, she recruited a board to create an organization to provide a Jewish alternative to Christian crisis pregnancy centers. The goal: providing counseling, financial planning, employment and educational assistance, information on Jewish adoptions, rabbinic counseling and even maternity and baby clothes.
One thing ISA doesn’t provide, however, is information on or referrals for abortion, which has angered some Jews. Eighty-four percent of U.S. Jews support legalized abortion in all or most cases, according to the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape Survey.
Jewish law is mostly ambiguous on abortion, allowing for the physical life (and sometimes the emotional health) of the woman to take precedence over the life of the fetus.
“The base line is that abortion is prohibited by Jewish law, but every situation is unique and different and needs to be looked at with great care and sensitivity,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the District’s Ohev Shalom — the National Synagogue, who is a rabbinic adviser to ISA.
“Some rabbis are more lenient than others are with what constitutes the health of the mother being in danger,” he said.
The group has rabbinic advisers from more liberal denominations, as well, said Pelman, who is Orthodox.
ISA came under fire in the blogosphere last year for linking to what its critics charged was misleading and negative information about abortion. The group has since removed the link from its Web site.
“It was distracting,” Pelman said, adding that if a woman chooses abortion, “we want her to know if there is trauma afterward, we will refer her to post-abortion help.”
She recognizes that implying abortion is traumatic is itself controversial: “No matter what we do, somebody is going to say we’re doing it wrong”