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Help for Would-Be Parents

When my husband and I were dealing with fertility issues, we didn’t find much support from the Jewish community. That may be changing.

by
Jamie Betesh Carter
June 21, 2024

I didn’t just want to get pregnant, I needed to. We were up against the clock—yes, the ridiculous biological clock that I ignored for so many years, but the life clock, too. My husband and I met in our thirties and were eager to start a family right after getting married. But life had other plans for us. My father was battling cancer, and my mother-in-law was dying from it. And our journey to parenthood was anything but easy.

We went through this painful fertility process mostly quietly, by ourselves. Because in theory, while sharing your stress, stories, hopes, and losses may seem like it would be cathartic, sometimes answering people’s questions or having the added task of keeping them updated is more hurtful than helpful.

I would sit on our couch at home looking at our red “sharps” container, filled with the used needles that were trying to help me get pregnant. It sat on our dining room table, next to a big white paper bag filled with my monthly drugs: hormones, steroids, and antihistamines. We used to hide the sharps container in the linen closet when people visited. One time we forgot to hide it, and our friends all sat in our living room drinking coffee, awkwardly glancing at the container every few minutes.

Every visit to my parents’ house was full of loss. Loss because we weren’t pregnant, and loss because we weren’t sharing the happy news everyone so desperately needed.

“Is it because of me? Because you’re stressed about me having cancer?” my dad asked.

“Nooooo, it’s me,” I said. “I know something’s wrong.” But, I asked myself, was it?

We were on a tight timeline. We had two parents dying, emotionally, to welcome a grandchild—and dying literally. (One made it to meet the first grandchild, one didn’t.) This timeline, the term geriatric pregnancy, two autoimmune diseases, and the stress didn’t bode well for baby-making. Or maybe all that had nothing to do with it. We still don’t know.

It took 18 months for me to get pregnant, which isn’t even that long compared to some. And we had to pay tens of thousands of dollars for tests, procedures, and medications, all uncovered by insurance. Ultimately, IVF—in vitro fertilization—was what worked for us to have two beautiful, healthy children.

But along the way, infertility took many tolls on my body, mind, soul, and relationships. Feeling like you’re unable to do something you want more than anything else in the world makes you feel worthless. Carrying that grief, coupled with the rage caused by hormones, on top of the financial burden of the high cost of fertility treatment, can break a person. It almost broke me. How many times can friends and family stare, not so subtly, at your bloated belly before ultimately determining you’re not, in fact, pregnant while they blurt out, “Soon by you”?

I often thought, “Why is it that we feel like we’re doing this alone? Where is the support from the Jewish community?”

Along my journey, I emailed one Jewish fertility organization to inquire about a grant to help ease our stress around the financial aspect of trying to conceive, and they told me to check back in nine months when their next grant cycle began. “Nine months?” I thought. Telling a woman in her mid-thirties to wait nine months to even be considered for support was unacceptable at the time. And so I plowed through.

At first, I didn’t even know what I was searching for. For me, creating and building a Jewish family was just as much an innate goal of mine as it was a Jewish value I held high. I knew the Jewish community would offer support at various stages of life. Hillel and Chabad were there when I needed a Jewish outlet on my college campus. Birthright was there helping my peers and me experience traveling to Israel in our twenties. And I knew that when I finally did have children, the community would be there with synagogues and preschools and holiday events. But what about now? What about people at the life stage I was in, who needed communal and financial support to create the families they always encouraged us to build?

After being told to check back in what felt like a lifetime later by the one organization I found that offered support to people like us, I did more searching. I found a couple of organizations with goals of spreading awareness around infertility, and a couple of local organizations with goals of lending emotional support. But at that point in my journey, I needed action, and quickly. I needed people, like me, to jump in and help make us feel like we weren’t in this alone and that the Jewish community would help us achieve our goals of having children.

My husband and some friends served as my fertility nurses, often monitoring my medications and giving me shots that were too painful to do on my own. My best friend accompanied me to my egg retrieval when my husband had to fly home urgently as his mother transitioned to hospice. My parents, while fighting their own battle for my father to stay alive, saw the stress on our faces as we shelled out thousands and thousands of dollars, and they graciously handed us a check to cover much of the costs, because to them, it was money well spent.

I vowed that when I finally got pregnant or finally had a baby or was done having babies, I’d tell my story. And I’d dive into understanding where the Jewish community was when I needed it, and what it’s now doing to support people trying to begin or grow their families.

Why is it that we feel like we’re doing this alone? Where is the support from the Jewish community?

But to be honest, I got so busy living out my dream of being a parent to two young children that I almost forgot. Perhaps it was painful to revisit those dark, hopeless times I experienced while trying to conceive, or perhaps I was just too busy running after kids, wiping their noses and bottoms to take this on. But recently, a friend told me about an organization supporting Jewish people like us, trying to start families, and I knew I had to share my story and learn more about theirs.

Some people feel shame about their infertility issues, but not Jenn Leffell. Leffell was always an open book about her personal fertility journey. Having gone through IVF to have two of her three sons, she was always happy to speak with others about it. She was so generous that friends would often connect Leffell to others embarking on fertility treatments, as a way to lend support and hope. “I must have 75 people on my phone that I’ve spoken to about IVF but never even met,” she told me. (I thought, “I wish someone gave me Leffell’s phone number back when I was trying to conceive.”) At that time in her life, she was working in elder care, and while she knew of other organizations helping the Jewish community through fertility, such as PUAH, Hasidah, and Bonei Olam, she felt they were more reflective of, and focused on, the religious Jewish community, not to mention that some had narrower requirements of who they take on as grantees. (Personally, as someone who’s more traditionally Jewish than religiously Jewish, I didn’t see myself reflected in some of these organizations, so I didn’t look into them too much when I was searching for help.) Still, starting her own foundation wasn’t on Leffell’s mind.

A friend of Leffell’s, Alyssa Kolatch, reached out and asked Leffell why a fertility organization helping a more diverse local Jewish community didn’t exist. “I did a quick search and I wasn’t really finding anyone in our own backyard, meaning in the tristate area, that helps all types of Jews, regardless of their religiosity, marital status, or sexual orientation, with their fertility funding,” said Leffell. It was clear to Leffell that these existing organizations were doing amazing work for their communities and that she and Kolatch wanted to do the same for their own community. “Alyssa said, ‘OK, then let’s start a nonprofit,’ and I said, ‘No way, you’re out of your mind.’ But now here we are.”

The Stardust Jewish Fertility Foundation was founded in September 2021, with a mission to ensure that no path to parenthood is out of reach, by providing financial assistance to all types of Jewish couples and/or individuals who are struggling to begin or grow their families and can’t afford to do so. They emphasize inclusion, as they’re one of the only organizations to fund Jewish fertility regardless of Jewish denomination or involvement, sexuality, or marital status (they’ve provided grants to people from Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and other Jewish communities). The board of directors is composed of nine individuals, including Leffell and Kolatch, as well as another co-founder, Dr. Alex Peyser, all of whom have personal experience in or connection to infertility.

They understand that time is of the essence. That’s why they provide grants four times a year (or every three months), awarding up to $20,000 to Jewish couples and individuals trying to conceive. They also provide up to $20,000 in interest-free loans through their partner organization, up to 20 percent cost reduction at their partner fertility clinics, and special pricing at partner fertility pharmacies. The organization receives funding from individual donors and family foundations.

I asked Leffell more about how and why they decided to focus on the Jewish community. “For us, our goal is Jewish continuity, and specifically we want to help people make more Jewish babies,” she said. This, she says, is why they decided to focus on families who make Judaism the sole religion in the home. “We don’t care if the mom is Jewish or not, or if one parent is Jewish, with the caveat that you are going to raise your child in a Jewish home,” said Leffell. Stardust’s definition of Judaism is expansive: “We don’t need someone who goes to synagogue, but we need to see that applicants are connected to Judaism in some way.” The focus on inclusivity expands to family makeup as well. “We have a lot of single parents, as well as gay families who come to us who have felt really alone in their journey,” she said. “And until they found us, they really felt like they had nowhere to go.”

Leffell connected me to Chaz Naor, a recent grant recipient of the Stardust Jewish Fertility Foundation. Naor is a single gay man living in Manhattan. He works in higher education and theater production and recently welcomed a baby girl through surrogacy, with the help of Stardust. “I was approaching my late thirties, and I knew it was something that I wanted to do,” he said. “I realized, there’s never really going to be the right time, the right finances, the right apartment, the right job, and maybe not the right partner. And so I just went and started the process.”

Naor chose surrogacy as his path toward parenthood. “I think the biggest challenge for everybody, but especially somebody doing it without a partner, is the financial aspect. It’s really expensive, and it’s only getting more expensive,” he said. Having a child through surrogacy can cost anywhere from $100,000 to upwards of $200,000, and that often doesn’t include costs such as flights for the surrogate to and from the fertility clinic. He applied for and received a grant from Stardust that helped fund the surrogacy process.

Naor is still receiving hospital bills associated with the birth of his daughter, making it hard to know how much money he has spent in total. “There are so many things outside the science of it all, the list just goes on and on,” he said. “Every bit counts. That money that you save can now go toward something else, having to do with costs associated with either the pregnancy or the baby.”

As a single parent by choice, Naor feels grateful to have support from an organization like Stardust. “They really make it feel like a very judgment-free zone. I really appreciate the fact that they’re open to everybody and that they don’t define what a family is,” he said. “I’m so very grateful that they exist and that they chose me as a recipient of the grants.”

After speaking with Leffell and learning more about Stardust, I was inspired by what she built along with her co-founders. It was clear to me that Leffell’s lifelong passion for supporting her fellow fertility warriors, coupled with their focus on helping a diverse set of Jewish families, would open doors that some people thought were shut. I only wished they were around when I was going through my fertility journey. While digging around their site, I noticed their impressive advisory board included my own fertility doctor. I reached out to him to learn more about his involvement and to tell him how much he changed my life.

Brian Levine was the second fertility doctor I saw. His empathy and positivity are what assured me he’d help us have children. I wasn’t able to hide the sadness and the stress I was feeling watching our parents battle cancer during my appointments. At one of my first meetings with my initial reproductive endocrinologist, I asked if he thought the stress we were experiencing was playing a role in us not being able to conceive. I’ll never forget his response: “If people could get pregnant during the Holocaust, so could you,” he said as he stared into my eyes. Right after we left that doctor’s office I scheduled a consultation with Dr. Levine.

I spent a lot of time in his office. If I close my eyes, I can remember it so vividly. I could tell you which couches were the most comfortable in the waiting room, which treatment rooms were too cold and which were just right, and which babies on the photo wall I wished mine would look like. And I’ll never forget that during our first meeting, when my husband explained to Dr. Levine how his mother might soon be going to hospice and how my father’s cancer seemed to be winning as well, Dr. Levine responded by telling us he understood our pain, as he, too, lost his father at a young age. He didn’t mention the Holocaust. Instead, he asked me if he could give me a hug.

While our visits were usually brief, and focused more on my fertility treatments than on our lives and careers, it felt good to know Dr. Levine was passionate about helping the Jewish community. And it felt surreal to be able to sit down and speak with him while my children—now 3 and 5 years old—whom he helped us make, played in the background.

“With my patients, I always talk about the four legs of a chair, meaning: ‘What’s holding you up? What’s supporting you through this process?’” said Levine. “In the Jewish community, we have one giant extended family. And as a clinician, I’m humbled and honored to be part of people’s journey, but being involved with an organization like Stardust, who’s out there saying, ‘Let us be one leg of your chair, let us support you,’ is one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.”

Levine grew up in a home that he calls “Conservadox,” and he married a woman who was raised in Reform Judaism. Stardust’s broad view of what family and Judaism look like for different people is one of the things he most appreciated: “The fact that they look at the end goal, which is creating a family, and not at the process, straight, gay, single, coupled, divorced, means everything.”

Other than casually sharing High Holiday recipes, I don’t remember ever speaking about Judaism much with Dr. Levine. I was surprised to hear he regularly meets with rabbis and community members to discuss ways to make sure his clinic is welcoming and “kosher” for all sects of the Jewish community. “It is important to know that Judaism openly supports family-building. Doesn’t matter what affinity, orientation, single, coupled, etc.,” he said. “Starting, growing, or completing a family is truly viewed as a mitzvah no matter how it happens.”

“And what I’ve learned over my 12 years now of doing this is that Judaism is amazing and is an optimistic religion,” he said. “Judaism embraces IVF. Of course, there is some confusion about some things, like if you use an egg donor, does she have to be Jewish by birth? If you use a surrogate, is the child Jewish? There’s all these interesting questions that go on. But that’s the amazing part of our religion: There are no set answers—there’s dialogue.”

Levine and I could talk for hours, and while I wanted to continue far longer than we had time for, I began ending our conversation by asking what, if any, changes he’s seen in the world of fertility since Oct. 7. “I actually think there’s been a beautiful outcome of Oct. 7,” he told me. “It has accelerated many individuals’ innate burning desire to want to build the Jewish community by growing our families.”

I couldn’t help but end our conversation by asking him why I couldn’t get pregnant, as if he secretly knew the reason and was withholding it from me. “You did get pregnant,” he said. “You just needed a little help and support.”

After my conversations with Leffell, Naor, and Levine, I was happy to see how far the Jewish community has come in terms of supporting people on their fertility journeys, and I hope that support only grows and grows as time goes on.

And my doctor’s words meant more to me now than ever before. It doesn’t matter how long or complicated my journey to parenthood was. This was the journey I was supposed to have, and it’s what led me to our two miraculous children. Looking back, I had the best support: from my family, my husband, my friends, and my doctors.

I’ve never written about my fertility journey before. Is it because that’s all behind me? Is it because it no longer matters? Is it because I was scared to? I don’t really know. But the more we speak about this and help each other, the more we’ll be able to handle these difficult journeys some of us have.

Here’s what I know, five years into this crazy ride of parenthood: Had I not gone through this long and arduous process, had I gotten pregnant any other month, on my “own,” the natural way, the easier way, I would not have the two children who I know were meant for us.

But here I am. Braiding my 5-year-old daughter’s hair the night before her preschool graduation while listening to my 3-year-old son say, “Mommy, I lul you!” (He can’t yet pronounce his V’s.) And I think, had it been any other month, or any other moment that I got pregnant, without science, the “natural” way, the way I thought it was “supposed” to be, it wouldn’t have been them.

Jamie Betesh Carter is a researcher, writer, and mother living in Brooklyn.

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