Navigating Infertility: Resources, Reflections, and Rituals

June 1, 2023Kate Bigam Kaput

When you’re experiencing infertility, it can be all too easy to feel like you’re completely alone. As the world moves around you, bustling with adorable children and pregnant friends, you may feel like you’re the only person who wants to be a parent and has yet to see it happen.

“This chapter of my life taught me many things,” says Adina Olberman, who experienced pregnancy loss in 2013. “One of them is that infertility, miscarriage, and pregnancy loss are extremely common; another is that most people don’t talk about it.”

Recently, though, more people have begun to share their personal experiences, slowly lessening the social stigma around discussions of infertility.

Finding a supportive community

“It's different now than when I went through infertility,” says Rabbi Sari Laufer of Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles. “There were message boards and groups, but they weren’t specifically Jewish. Now, there are many more resources.”

One online community, I Was Supposed to Have a Baby (IWSTHAB), was created in 2019 by Dr. Aimee Baron, a Jewish pediatrician who experienced six pregnancy losses.

“I knew the statistics about how many people deal with infertility and pregnancy loss. I wanted people to feel less alone, like they didn't have to hide anymore. And I wanted other people to understand what it feels like so they can better support people in their lives who are going through this.” - Dr. Baron, IWSTHAB founder

IWSTHAB is nondenominational, encompassing all streams of Judaism and aspects of infertility. Dr. Baron interviews experts, shares stories, holds space, and provides resources to support people facing infertility.

“We see ourselves as providing emotional support via social media,” Dr. Baron says, “but we also funnel people out to where they need to go to get support on the ground. We work with Jewish fertility organizations around the world.”

Calling on our matriarchs’ stories

Jewish support is especially important because Jewish life can be child centric. We are taught that ‘from generation to generation’ is the foundation of a thriving Jewish population. If you want to have children but cannot, it can feel like you’re letting down not only yourself or your partner, if you have one, but the Jewish community.

Rabbi Laufer points out that Torah includes powerful stories about our matriarchs’ infertility struggles: Sarah, who became a mother at 90; Rebecca, who struggled to conceive; and Rachel, whose infertility caused a rift between her and her sister, Leah.

Trying to navigate Jewish spaces amid loss

While Torah recognizes infertility, it also celebrates parenthood in ways that can be painful to those struggling to have children.

“Jewish institutional spaces can feel lonely,” Rabbi Laufer says. “I acknowledge that as a rabbi and as a parent; I try to be sensitive to it from the bimah and beyond. But the reality is that in many spaces, programming is designed for people with children, and there is oftentimes the assumption that everyone will eventually have kids.”

If you can’t bear the thought of going to a consecration service, sit it out and go to Saturday morning Torah study instead. You could also go and sit in the back, leaving before you have to interact with anyone.

“It’s important to remember that even if the service is a happy one, you don’t have to be happy during it,” Rabbi Laufer says. “Maybe you're mad, or sad, or worried. Maybe you don’t feel like saying praise. But God can hear that from you and be OK.”

She suggests speaking with your clergy, if you’re comfortable.

“You can make an appointment to tell them what you’re going through,” she says “You can even say, ‘I don’t expect you to do anything different. I just wanted you to know.’”

Navigating Jewish ritual

There are few Jewish rituals for coping with infertility, miscarriage, or pregnancy loss.

“This kind of loss was different,” Olberman says. “Jewish traditions had always been central to my life, but there seemed to be no tradition for grieving the loss of a baby we'd never met. I had no funeral, no shivashivaשִׁבְעָהSeven-day mourning period that begins on the day of burial. , and no friends visiting.”

Rabbi Laufer says that while undergoing IVF treatments, she found comfort at a mikvahmikvahמִקְוֶהA ritual pool or gathering of waters used for ritual immersion to mark a significant life cycle moment, celebration, or transition, or as a component of the conversion ritual. In some Jewish communities, married women immerse each month at the conclusion of their menstrual cycle. Customarily, a bride immerses in a mikvah prior to her wedding and today, both brides and grooms might immerse prior to their wedding. Some people immerse to prepare for Shabbat or holidays. There are many creative rituals for using the mikvah at any significant lifecycle moment. Immersion in a mikvah is also a final step in the conversion process; a natural body of water also can serve as a mikvah. Plural: mikvaot. . Historically, Jews have used the mikvah for immersion after around ritual impurity, but today, many Jews have reimagined mikvah immersion.

“While I was dealing with everything my body could and couldn’t do, I found I liked the idea of using mikvah as a self-care practice,” Rabbi Laufer says. “It offered a way to honor my body, instead of all the times I blamed it and felt anger toward it.”

Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker writes about how prayer can bring healing, too:

“Even when our struggle may continue, perhaps it becomes easier to bear, or we gain wisdom we had not had previously, or we are able to help another because of what we are experiencing. Through our prayers, perhaps the pain of infertility is eased in some way…Perhaps through our prayers we will find comfort in our discomfort, and some kind of healing.” - Rabbi Dunsker, “The Opening of Wombs”

Accessing support

When you’re going through infertility or loss, finding support from others can help you find hope during dark times.

Dr. Baron was so moved by the stories she saw shared on social media that she ultimately created IWSTHAB to provide digital fertility support through a Jewish lens.

“It seemed like a beautiful space to find support,” she says. “I loved that you didn’t have to show up to a support group—it was right there in the palm of your hands at 3:00 in the morning.”

Of course, in-person support groups can be a lifeline, too:

“Our journey toward healing began with a perinatal loss support group at our local hospital. I connected with dozens of other families who had lost babies in many ways. They helped me to feel that I was not alone, and together we found the strength and courage to slowly move forward with our lives.” - Adina Olberman

Ask your doctor, therapist, hospital staff, or local Jewish Family Services for information about support groups near you. Organizations like Hasidah, founded by a Reform rabbi, offer peer support programs and other Jewish resources. RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association also maintains a directory of support groups and resources.

You are not alone

There’s no guidebook, Jewish or otherwise, on what to do when you’re experiencing infertility, miscarriage, or pregnancy loss. It’s valid to feel devastated, angry, hopeful, or jealous... you might even feel all this simultaneously.

You are not alone in experiencing infertility and loss. Whoever you are and wherever your journey takes you, there are resources and communities that can help you feel supported and embraced.

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