When I stood before my congregation, I had been asked to be one of 100 Jewish leaders giving sermons at their synagogues on the subject of infertility.
I could have talked in the abstract to my congregation at Ohev Sholom, as if infertility is something that other people experience. The idea of saying anything personal was nerve-wracking.
But one of the biggest challenges that couples face when they struggle to conceive is loneliness. That feeling that you’re the only one going through it can be hard to bear.
So this past Shabbat, I told my community: I had two miscarriages, before my husband and I found out about the chromosomal problem that was preventing us from having a healthy baby. I went through IVF.
And now that I am blessed to bring my infant son to our synagogue, I know that faith communities can do so much more to support members who are struggling with infertility.
Infertility is a long and aching experience. Each month crawls by, as the couple waits to see: Will this be our month? Will we finally get a positive test? Will the treatments work? Will we finally get to share the good news?
And for members of a faith community, there is another layer to these questions: Will we finally get to celebrate with our congregation?
At my synagogue in the District, which is called the National Synagogue, we are blessed to have so many babies born in our community, and so many opportunities to celebrate, at brises for boys and simchat bats for girls.
But for every baby that is born, there is at least one person in the room desperately wishing it was happening to them. While my husband I were struggling through our two miscarriages, uncertain of what the future held, being in a synagogue was very painful. There were so many times that I stood with families welcoming new babies, happy for the new parents, but also with tears in my eyes as we sang because it hurt so much and I so badly wished that I was the one celebrating.
And if one in six couples deals with infertility, then I know I was not the only one.
So how can faith communities be more supportive? How can we be a more sensitive space that helps make those couples feel less alone?
We cannot control biology. And we cannot stop celebrating births. But we can strive to be a community that is able to hold both of these needs together.
When we know that someone is suffering from something that we cannot fix, many of us react by disengaging, because we don’t know what to say. It’s much easier to be a community that celebrates births, without considering the babies who are not born. It’s easier to enjoy happy moments without recognizing that those times may be sad for others.
But if we value all members of our community, independent of their status as single or married, parents or not, then it is incumbent on us to reflect that in our actions.
To not make assumptions about why someone may or may not have children.
To not say to someone “Oh, I see you decided to stop after two children.” After all, we know that infertility doesn’t only affect people trying to have their first child.
To invite people in all different life stages, not just families, to our homes for Shabbat meals.
To remember that at our times of celebration, there are some in the room who are in great pain, and to take extra care to engage.
It is also important for clergy to get involved in this issue. At the National Synagogue, we have taken extra steps to ensure that the attendants at our mikvah — a Jewish ritual bath — are as sensitive as possible to those who come to use the bath. Our most recent attendant training a few weeks ago focused exclusively on infertility sensitivity. We have rituals for healing, and there are women who have used our mikvah after experiencing a miscarriage. We are building a page of our website that is devoted to fertility resources. We are trying deliberately to make our community one that offers support to those who really need it.
On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we read the story of Hannah in Chapter 1 of the Book of Samuel. Hannah is unable to conceive, and she weeps, and God eventually grants her a son. This story can be a source of pain to those having trouble conceiving, because it ends with a miracle pregnancy from God, which leaves many wondering where their own miracle is.
But there is one part of the story that speaks to the truth of infertility across the ages. And that is the way that Hannah was so alone in her pain. Another woman taunts her for remaining childless. Her husband cannot understand why she is so anguished by her lack of a child. A priest, seeing her silent weeping, does not know she is praying and instead accuses her of being drunk.
It is a cautionary tale for all of us, a warning never to make assumptions about anyone else. It also reminds us of the importance of having resources available to help those who are in pain. We can only imagine how different Hannah’s experience would have been if there had been anyone with her to support her.
Faith communities have a responsibility to remember this pain, so we can support the Hannahs in our own midst.
Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman is a clergy member at Ohev Sholom in Northwest Washington. She was the first female spiritual leader hired as a maharat at an Orthodox synagogue in the United States.