Saraleah was 19 and a part-time student when she discovered she was pregnant. She didn’t know how it could have happened — until she flashed back to a party nine weeks earlier at which she was given a drink, realized it was vodka and then passed out.
Saraleah had been raped.
“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”
Rabbi Peter Stein of Temple Sinai in Cranston, R.I., is among ISA’s detractors, criticizing the group for its use of the term “your baby,” rather than the medical term “fetus.” That’s too narrow a perspective of Jewish law, he said.
“It doesn’t seem to recognize the challenges and reasons why some women would choose to end an unwanted pregnancy,” said Stein, who’s active in the Washington-based Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. He and others point to an ISA link to an abortion information page provided by the traditionalist group Aish HaTorah, which Rabbi Bonnie Margulis (who also is affiliated with RCRC) describes as an organization that “tries to convince non-Orthodox to become Orthodox.”
Pelman’s all-volunteer team audited training courses offered by the Rockville Pregnancy Clinic, which was founded by a group of churches with the aim of providing “positive alternatives to abortion for women facing unplanned pregnancies.”
With the help of volunteer social workers and doctors, ISA’s program includes information on birthing centers, health care, housing lists, adoption information and couples counseling. Care packages for expectant moms include Jewish books on pregnancy and childbirth, along with practical items such as Preggie Pops, which are designed to help ease nausea.
“We will be here to offer support every step of the way, through the birth and for a year afterward,” said Pelman, 31, who believes that ISA is the only Jewish group of its kind in the United States.
The all-volunteer ISA remains an online center, with a telephone help line that operates on a limited schedule. So far, Pelman’s group has worked with just a handful of women, including Saraleah.
Pelman believes that the non-Orthodox Jewish community has made abortion too acceptable and aims to bring more Jewish babies into the world.
Using abortion statistics from Planned Parenthood and the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, she estimates that Jewish women undergo some 10,000 abortions annually.
“If we’re able to make a difference to people who might want to keep their baby,” said Herzfeld, the rabbinic adviser, “that is a great way to add to the strength of the Jewish people.”
As for Saraleah, who gave birth in November, she writes that ISA helped her see her pregnancy in a different way. Her child, she said in an e-mail, is “a gift from above.”