Hey OOTOB readers,
I was introduced to Erica Pelman, and I’m so excited about her work. I love when the Jewish community meets the needs of its members in unexpected (see what I did there?) ways and I’m proud to feature an interview today with Erica. Please note that abortion is a delicate issue in Jewish law and it’s not black-and-white.
OOTOB: What is the purpose of the organization that you run?
Erica: The purpose of In Shifra’s Arms is to nurture Jewish women who are struggling with unplanned and difficult pregnancies. We help them navigate through the challenges they face and build a positive future for themselves and their children.
OOTOB: How did it start and how did you become affiliated?
Erica: Thirteen years ago, a close friend of mine had an abortion. It was extremely painful experience for her – she was a single college student. It was an extremely painful experience for me – because I love her. At the time, it felt like there was no other choice. I wondered later about what support would have helped if she had wanted to have her baby. In 2009, I brought a small group of women in the DC area together to found In Shifra’s Arms.
Initially, we expected to attract the same demographic as my friend: 20s and single. Over time, however, I have discovered that the need is much broader. We hear from married women struggling with marriages, finances and stresses of other children. We hear from women who are homeless and unemployed (yes, this does happen to Jewish women). We hear from single women in their 30s – when the pregnancy is ill-timed but they believe this might be their only chance to be mothers. We hear from women in abusive relationships. Some of our callers are considering abortion, many are not but they still need support. Our work is to nurture them and offer practical assistance. We accept women at any trimester and offer support throughout the first year after birth.
We also provide caring follow-up to women in the case of abortion/miscarriage, and we work with the client to try to address the underlying issues that led to the crisis pregnancy – it’s often much more than simply about birth control. Here’s one such story.
OOTOB: How do you reconcile your views on abortion (politically or religiously) with the work you do?
Erica: My goal has always been to bring together a team of people from across the political and religious spectrum and I have succeeded. For a non-Orthodox woman’s perspective, for example, check out Lori Prashker-Thomas’ piece, Vulnerable Pregnant Women Need More than Abortion Access. Our success is rooted in two reasons. First, we create very clear boundaries about what we do and what we don’t do. We do not provide halakhic or medical guidance on abortion, but we do support women to consult rabbis and doctors if they think they need to. Second, we (the people on our team) share a motivation which is not political. We are motivated by love and compassion for pregnant women who are feeling vulnerable. That is what makes our organization work. In Hebrew the word for compassion, rachamim, is rooted in the word rechem – Hebrew for “womb.” That means that the model for what compassion is how a woman (under normal circumstances) feels towards her baby in the womb. To me, it’s a spiritual mission to offer her compassion when she needs it.
OOTOB: Have you experienced any pushback or hate for your work?
Erica: Yes, sadly. People have a hard time understanding that we are not political. Journalists frequently have been unwilling to quote our team members from the religious or political left, because they are trying to paint us as politically on the right. For example, Lori published her piece in Times of Israel. It clearly is powerful – it got 1100 shares. But she published in TOI because papers refused to publish it. It doesn’t fit a pre-set political narrative. In addition to being criticized on the left, we have also been criticized by people on the right when they find out that.. we’re not political and don’t tell women what to do. I find when I speak face-to-face to people, they get it – but people who don’t want to get it, won’t.
My main point is people need to get out of the theoretical and deal with real women, and with addressing their actual immediate needs.
OOTOB: What is the most poignant story you have dealt with?
Erica: That is such a hard question! Here’s one that I love: a woman called us who was very upset that she was pregnant. She felt at war with her body. The main reason she didn’t abort was because her husband asked her not to, but she felt very upset. She had suffered significant post-partum depression after her second child, had a successful career, and didn’t feel like she had money or emotional space for another baby. My counselor, who works with our clients over the phone, gave her space to be honest about her feelings and work through them. We got her some beautiful pregnancy clothes so she could feel good in her own body. She spent months working through her anxiety and depression, but when her baby came around, she fell in love (in her words):
“My little boy is seriously the HAPPIEST thing I’ve ever met. Actually, he’s the happiest person ANYONE has ever met! I definitely cannot take credit for his demeanor (just like I can’t take blame for the others!), but due to his non-stop smile, I’m able to survive. Maybe it was all the sugar I ate during pregnancy? 🙂 He’s just SO sweet. Honestly…no one can believe it. He will go to anyone, smile at anyone, giggle whenever he’s changed, and just loves being alive.”
OOTOB: What are the best and worst parts of your work?
Erica: Two things are tough. First, there’s no handbook for what we are doing. We are reaching out to a market that is very quiet and private and it’s been challenging to figure out how to best reach women who need us (so far Facebook has been effective, and I am hoping this blog will help). Second, I work as a volunteer Executive Director. I have four young children, two of which I also am responsible for by myself for 40+ hours a week. Therefore, I always can name many things I could be doing much better. But my job is to keep moving step by step and keep serving G-d with joy.
The best parts: first, I love the people whom I work with. Our professional counselors are amazing women who have their own successful therapy practices in addition to being ISA counselors. They really give their hearts to our clients. We also have wonderful board members and volunteers that make In Shifra’s Arms happen: raising money, managing administration, sending care packages and more.
The other – most important – best part is knowing that what we are doing can make a deep impact.Women regularly call after being abandoned by their baby’s father and/or after feeling pressured to end their pregnancies. In either case, the message they have gotten is that they don’t matter and neither does the one (or two!) in their womb. Both with our words and deeds, we demonstrate to the women who call that they matter. That love that they receive helps to give them freedom to do their best for themselves and their children.
OOTOB: What would you like my readers to know? How can they help?
Erica: The easiest thing is to get involved with our #LeanOnShifra initiative to help us raise awareness. One easy part is to change your Facebook profile to the “LeanOnShifra” frame. Women can also send in songs and videos letting women know it’s okay to ask for help, it’s okay to #LeanOnShifra. It’s also very helpful to encourage your local rabbinical leadership (including Rebbetzins) to share about our work within synagogues and Jewish networks (WhatApp groups, listserves, blogs). It is also very helpful to help us place articles in local Jewish papers and websites. Details about our services is on our website: JewishPregnancyHelp.org and people can send messages to me via the website.
Beyond just this campaign, we are working on developing a full marketing team. We need people specifically with skills, time, talent to help us market our services in all the major urban areas in the US. Our webmaster just retired, so are looking for a replacement. There’s a lot of room to grow and make a difference and we welcome passion and talent!