By Becca Shimshak
Creating life can be next to impossible, and going on with one’s daily life definitely impossible.
Life is so fragile from beginning to end. We are all familiar with the fragility of end of life—even if we may not be fully comfortable facing the emotions that surround death and loss, we at least have terminology for this life phase and it is socially acceptable to discuss that seemingly insurmountable life challenge in public. In fact, our tradition and culture has incredible coping mechanisms for those going through the loss of a loved one, most specifically days dedicated for people to just sit with us, hold our hands, listen to our stories, let us express our emotions, cry on their shoulders and talk through how we are going to rebuild what so many call “the new normal.”
And yet, at the other end of the life continuum, life can be just as fragile; creating life can be next to impossible, and going on with one’s daily life definitely impossible. I am here today to share my struggle and assure you that if you understand how to help a friend get through the loss of a loved one, you can be present for your friends and for your community as they navigate family-building.
My story began with the backdrop of my mother being diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic melanoma and given nine to 12 months to live. No one remembers those numbers except for me—for someone who was trying to conceive my first child, these numbers just kept not adding up. Even if I figured out how to get pregnant immediately, my mom may not get to meet my children, watch their personalities blossom or make hamantaschen with them. My internal life was shaken—dreams shattered, disappointments pervasive; my heart ached for a child and for the security of my own mother’s vitality all at the same time. How was I going to get through this? I craved sharing my fertility challenges as well as my mother’s illness with those around me, and yet it was clear that people felt far more equipped to support me through my mom’s illness than through the tumultuous experience I was having with infertility.
A few months later, in my role as director of Jewish and student life at Gann Academy, I found myself standing in the back of a crowd of teenagers from Haifa touring Mayyim Hayyim. Mayyim Hayyim is Boston’s impressively progressive, spiritually engaging and intentionally designed ritual bath where people from all different walks of Jewish life come to engage with the ritual of immersion before Shabbat, monthly, for an adoption or to connect with their own personal Judaism at times of their choosing—a bat mitzvah, a big birthday or overcoming cancer.
Light was streaming in through the beautiful windows; deep, rich brown wood surrounded us and artwork on the wall portrayed a family naming their child at the mikveh. I stared at the couple, embraced in a colorful tallit(prayer shawl) honoring this little delicious, new life that had arrived in the world and clearly made their dreams come true. And I couldn’t help but feel a pit in my stomach. Students around me were speaking Hebrew, listening to the tour guide and just overwhelmed by the cacophony between their pre-existing understanding of the mikveh and their learnings of that day. I looked at the shelf below the photograph of the blossoming family and saw a sheet of paper in one of those plastic photo frames: “Are you struggling with infertility? If so, email us at email@example.com. We are a group of women who meet in Brookline to support one another hoping to get pregnant.” Discreetly, I pulled out my phone and took down the email address.
I contacted the group and, of course, all of the women got pregnant, so they stopped meeting. But if I was interested in being paired individually with another person who was going through infertility, they would make the introduction for me.
And the rest is history. I proceeded to meet another Jewish communal professional who was struggling. We would meet for coffee, send each other long emails of encouragement, introduce our husbands to each other and trade secrets of getting through this process. I assure you that I would not be blessed with the lights of my life, Zoe and Isabella, if I hadn’t seen the light at Mayyim Hayyim that day and found solace and comfort in the Jewish community. Supporting each other through pregnancy losses, different diagnoses, new doctors, IUI, IVF and even through those months of pregnancy—after a journey like this, when every day feels like a miracle, and you hope/pray your babies will go to term.
We don’t know what the outcomes in life will be, but the more we identify how to apply our tradition’s best practices of chesed (good deeds) and caring, the more we recognize parallels amidst all of the challenges thrown our way. In partnership, we can become a more inclusive kehillah kedosha(holy community), furthering our tradition for tomorrow, helping people see Judaism as a source of strength and comfort, even at our darkest hours.
To this end, I collaborated with my former colleague Dalia Davis and established Uprooted: A Jewish Response to Fertility Journeys so others can have strength to persevere. Uprooted utilizes a community-wide, multi-pronged pluralistic healing method charging leaders to initiate the conversation while mobilizing community members to advocate for this issue.
Please join us for our Boston launch on Sunday, April 7, at 4 p.m. at Temple Israel Boston for our performance piece, “TRYmester: Jewish Fertility Journeys Out Loud,” that articulates this struggle through music, dance and theater. The following day, we invite you to join us at Mayyim Hayyim on Monday, April 8, from 12-8 p.m., for “Fertility Journeys: A Training for Clinicians, Clergy and Lay Leaders.” We hope to see you then!
Written in memory of Marc Slotnick z”l.