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Reconceived

In Israel, where abortion hasn’t been the wedge issue it has in the United States, tensions are building between secular traditions and religious groups, which want to increase the Jewish birthrate

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“Unwanted pregnancy?” reads a flyer from Efrat posted in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv. (Yossi Gurvitz/Flickr)
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Mali Aharon’s enormous family has just finished a feast at her sister’s home in the coastal Israeli city of Netanya. Stacks of dirty plates cover the long dinner table, and children scamper up and down a spiral staircase in the center of the house. Aharon, 35, sweeps back her thick brown hair and smiles. “My dad wants to tell you a story,” she says in perfect English as she places a hand on her father’s knee. “And he wants me to translate it.”

Leaning back in an armchair, Aharon’s father begins in Hebrew, and Aharon quickly follows in English.

“Before I was born, my mother got pregnant and decided to have an abortion,” she says, rewording the story as though she were the one telling it. “They were young and didn’t have any money.” One afternoon, on their way to an abortion clinic, the couple sat waiting at a bus stop, full of apprehension. An old Moroccan woman sat down next to Aharon’s mother and knew instinctively that something was wrong. “You are not God,” the woman told Aharon’s mother after she found out what was troubling the couple. “Go, go home, for your own good.” As Aharon’s father tells the anecdote, he mimes the old woman, waving his arm as if shooing away a dog.

“They took it as an omen,” Aharon says. The couple never got on the bus.

Years later, when Aharon became pregnant in 2005, she stood at the same way station as her parents, figuratively speaking, paralyzed by fear. But she had no husband and no wise old woman to make her decision for her. She was broke, alone, and didn’t know what to do. A friend told her about an organization called Efrat, a nonprofit organization in Jerusalem that seeks to prevent Jewish women from having abortions. Started by Holocaust survivors shortly after World War II, Efrat is founded on the belief that no Jewish woman should have to abort a child because of money troubles. The organization will help a needy mother like Aharon financially for the first year of her child’s life. To many Israelis, Efrat’s mission sounds suspiciously pro-life, but Efrat likes to see itself as “pro-choice,” more an instrument of education than coercion.

But the Efrat approach is a hard sell, not unlike the efforts of anti-abortion groups in the United States. Images of developing fetuses line the inside of pamphlets that Efrat distributes to women who are seeking help. One cover pictures a stork dangling a blanketed baby from its beak. A question in big, black letters stands out above the bird: Mommy, why won’t you let me live?

“We show [the woman] information, show her she has a human being,” says Eli Schussheim, who took over the organization in 1978, when abortion first became legal in Israel. “The fourth week, the baby has a heart, the sixth a brain, the eighth, it has all of its organs. It awakes a natural feeling in a mother.”

While abortion in Israel is usually not the hot-button issue it is in America, it has lately become a focus of political controversy. At the start of March, a liberal member of the Knesset put forth a bill to abolish Israel’s abortion committees, made up of doctors and social workers who review individual cases and approve legal abortions. The bill did not pass. Efforts to change the status quo have also come from the right. At the end of 2009, Israel’s chief rabbis sent letters to every rabbi in the country, asking them to forbid their congregants from aborting a child.

Schussheim of Efrat goes even further. He sees abortion in Israel as a kind of Holocaust of Jews’ own making—a plague, he says, that causes more loss of life than wars or natural disasters. In his view Efrat is a vital effort to preserve and multiply a diminished population and to ensure that Israel remains fundamentally Jewish. “After we lost millions of people, I think we should do more to encourage the birthrate,” he says. “We should do more to save the lives we have already started.”

While Schussheim argues that what Efrat offers is education, Irit Rosenblum, the head of an Israeli family-rights organization called New Family, thinks the group’s agenda is a lot more insidious. One of Efrat’s most virulent critics, Rosenblum advocates for civil marriage and women’s rights in Israel. According to her, Efrat is invading women’s privacy and cajoling them into a decision. In 2004, a member of the Knesset attempted to outlaw Efrat’s existence, calling its work equal to harassment. “They are trying to tempt [the woman], to pay her,” Rosenblum says. “The temptation around it is very ugly, I think.”

Efrat’s cramped office is tucked away on a tree-lined street in residential Jerusalem. The floor is covered in industrial gray carpet, and the wooden desks are worn and shabby. But against this colorless background, hundreds of photographs showcased on the walls leap out vibrantly. Photographs of the children that Efrat has “saved,” as it says, are pinned to every inch of every wall, and laminated letters of thanks accompany many of them.

“They showed me more than I wanted to know,” says Aharon. When she came to Efrat, she was 25 and living very hand-to-mouth. She had just moved to Arizona to work in customer relations for an Israeli company, because she had always wanted to live in the United States. She hadn’t had her period in nine weeks, but the women at work said that was normal when transitioning to such a hot, dry place. Eventually, she went to a doctor. Her fears were confirmed.

“I can’t be pregnant,” she recalls telling a friend.

“I’m sorry, Mali, but you are,” the friend said. Aharon was not in a steady relationship, but she knew who the father was: her on-again, off-again flame of seven years—the tumultuous love of her life. They had slept together the night before she left Israel for the United States, but he was living the life of a bachelor. What was she going to do?

Aharon returned to Israel and moved in with her mother. She knew she couldn’t have an abortion—she’d already had one before, when she 22. Three months into that pregnancy, her doctors could not detect a heartbeat, and she’d made the decision to abort. “When he was gone, I was glad he was gone,” says Aharon. “I kind of thought, ‘Good, he doesn’t have a heartbeat. Fine.’ ” But the abortion ultimately caused more emotional fallout than she expected. “A year and a half later, I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she says. “I felt so sorry.” She wonders now that if maybe she had waited, something might have changed. Maybe the baby would have been healthy.

According to a recent report from Israel’s health ministry, some 20,000 legal abortions occur yearly in Israel. A New Family poll conducted this year estimated that another estimated 25,000 are done illegally. “We have the possibility, every year, to save 45,000 children,” says Schussheim. “And I must tell you—we have not one case of regret.”

Efrat gave her reassurance that everything would be OK, she says. And when she delivered her healthy daughter, Yuval, the organization gave her everything she was promised—a crib, a stroller, a year’s supply of diapers and baby food, and $300 a month. “I needed that money,” Aharon says. “I had nothing left here.”

Tied into Schussheim’s demographic concerns are religious concerns. Schussheim believes Israel’s Chief Rabbinate should be involved in the abortion committees along with doctors and social workers, for the sanctity of life is a fundamentally religious concern. Unless the mother’s life is in danger, abortion is forbidden. “The rabbinate must be involved, like the pope,” says Schussheim. “This is something very serious, and this issue is very important in this religion.”

“According to Judaism, this is an order—to give birth to children,” says Rosenblum. She feels that religion plays too prominent a role in the discussion of abortion in Israel. “Religion is religion and it shouldn’t be involved in the state,” she says. “But unfortunately, in Israel, there is no separation.”

Although Aharon says her decision to keep Yuval wasn’t directly religious—“I just know killing is wrong,” Aharon says—she does say her traditionalist Jewish family raised her to believe that abortion is immoral. The members of the family are religious to varying degrees: Her mother covers her hair, her nephew wears a tall, black hat, and her younger sister wears long skirts. And the sheer size of Aharon’s family exemplifies a value that has long been handed down in Jewish tradition.

As plates are cleared from the table in Aharon’s sister’s home, the children’s energy does not seem to flag. Yuval and her cousins run around the living room in circles. But Aharon brings out dessert, and that does the trick. Yuval stops at her mother’s side, eyeing the chocolate cake. Aharon reaches for her and sits her down at the table. She has big brown eyes, coffee-colored skin, and frizzy hair. She looks more Brazilian than Israeli, Aharon jokes.

After the meal, Aharon sits on the roof deck of her sister’s home, the salty ocean breeze whipping through her hair. “About two weeks ago, on a crazy morning, I thought: I wish I was single—no kids, no husband,” she says with a smile. “I could just pick myself up, pack a bag, and go.” She pauses for a moment and then shakes her head.

“But there is no way I’d live without her,” she says. “It’s just not worth it.”

Simone Gorrindo, an alumna of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, is a freelance journalist and editorial assistant at Amazon’s Kindle Singles.

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esthermiriam says:

Put this story together with this one, about Israeli policy on IVF: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/18/world/middleeast/18israel.html?pagewanted=1&ref=middleeast
add the pressures toward segregation and/or invisibility of women in public, and it starts to get a little scary.

Lansing Reed says:

So you believe that a voluntary organization that is dedicated to helping pregnant women while saving Jewish kids from abortion is “scary”? Honestly, what is the matter with you?

Efrat is a great organization, well run, efficient, and effective. I encourage everyone to donate and help their efforts.

babawawa says:

I have often wondered why there isn’t an Efrat here in the US, especially back in the 1980s and 1990s when there was so much violence and protests at abortion clinics. Efrat makes so much sense – often women who weren’t raped abort because they can’t handle the logistics of it all. Whey don’t anti-abortion people offer to help, not stigmatize women. I think Efrat is a brilliant idea, and very empowering.

“A New Family poll conducted this year estimated that another estimated 25,000 are done illegally”

“New Family” is the scary organization and like all extreme left-wing groups, almost all their data is a lie. I know them very well, and I know also the subject. This is a quasi-theological anti-religious group dedicated to the destruction of the traditionnal family in Israel.
Happily it has almost no success with that, on the contrary. Israel is the last “family value” developped country in the world. People marry, have a lot of kids, and are happy.

Abbi says:

Too bad the author didn’t mention that some of the heaviest consumers of abortion (is that the right term?) are religious Jews who don’t want to have offspring with genetic defects. So the part about the rabbanut getting involved will pretty much go nowhere.

Very interesting article. But it needs more facts. What is the law about abortion in Israel? if there are 20,000 legal abortions and 25,000 illegal ones, it must be pretty strict. That more women abort illegally than legally in a modern democratic country is pretty shocking, actually.
It would be interesting to know, too, what happens to the women who go to Efrat. A year’s support is nice, but what happens afterwards?

@ Abbi
You have sources for you weird claim ? I guess not/

@ Katha
Of course they don’t have facts because this 25,000 number is a pure lie as most claims from “New Family”. Over 98% of abortions demands are allowed in Israel. Israel is one of the countries with the lowest abortion rate (among developped countries).

I have a problem with women having no regrets over not having terminated being used as “proof” that abortion is wrong. They’re not mutually exclusive. Also, regret over terminating a pregnancy is not a given. See http://www.ImNotSorry.net. The angst-and-regret thing is a myth.

Rebecca says:

It looks like both Efrat and New Family have a very limited view of halacha and abortion.

I learned this in a fair amount of depth, but it was many years ago, so apologies in advance for any missing citations. If anyone else can provide them, much appreciated.

First, abortion is not only permitted, but mandated in order to save the mother’s life. (see Mishna, Oholot, 7:6-8.) The fetus is not seen as a full human being (as in Catholicism).

For example, see Exodus 21:22 on how a person who strikes a pregnant woman and causes her to miscarry has to pay damages, rather than the penalty for manslaughter (exile) or murder (execution.) We see that the fetus has value, but not full human value. The commentator Rashi says explicitly: “the fetus is not a person.”

The Babylonian Talmud Hullin 58a says: “the fetus is part of its mother’s body.”

The Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 69b says: the embryo is “just water” until 40 days. This would support permission for very early abortion.

Maimonides restricts abortion to saving the life of the mother (when it is mandated)

Some Tosafot (commentaries on the Talmud) forbid abortion (Tosafot on Sanhedrin 59a) while others permit (Tosafot on Niddah 44b.)

In practice, halacha basically follows two camps:

One mandates abortion to save the mother’s life, and forbids it for all other reason.

The second also mandates abortion to save the mother’s life, but would consider it for other situations, on a case by case basis.

Whichever way one holds personally, it’s an oversimplification to cite one side and say, “this is what Judaism says.”

Also, is anyone else horrified at Schussheim’s statement,“The rabbinate must be involved, like the pope”?

wonderful points altogether, you simply won a new reader. What might you recommend about your post that you just made a few days in the past? Any certain?

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Reconceived

In Israel, where abortion hasn’t been the wedge issue it has in the United States, tensions are building between secular traditions and religious groups, which want to increase the Jewish birthrate

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