In July 2009, Soriya Cohen hosted Tamar* for Shabbat lunch in Miami. Tamar was 15 weeks pregnant, single, and functionally homeless, living on a friend’s couch. She was considering abortion because she had no place to go; she had left the baby’s father because he was abusive.
Cohen had heard about efforts to create an organization to provide Jewish support to women with unplanned pregnancies. She called Erica Pelman, a member of the DC-area Jewish community and the founder of the new organization, In Shifra’s Arms (ISA). Cohen and Pelman worked together to help Tamar access medical care and housing. Tamar became ISA’s first client and taught Pelman a great deal about the needs of vulnerable pregnant women. For example, Tamar did not have money to buy appropriate undergarments for her expanding pregnant waistline. Pelman provided her with a gift card to a maternity store; these gift cards have been a staple of ISA care packages ever since.
Expanding to Meet the Need
In Shifra’s Arms is named after Shifra, the biblical midwife who tenderly cared for Jewish women enslaved in Egypt thousands of years ago. ISA strives to follow Shifra’s lead by embracing Jewish pregnant women in need of support.
There is no “typical” client, Pelman said. Some are observant Jews, others are not. Some are married and have children but are overwhelmed at the thought of an additional child; others are single women struggling with the ramifications of a pregnancy outside of marriage. Some clients are trying leave abusive relationships. Many women say they are not prepared financially to have a baby. ISA helps each woman navigate her unique circumstances.
Over the past decade, ISA has developed four core services to meet common client needs: free one-on-one crisis counseling, material aid, financial aid and referrals to community organizations. The foundational resource is ISA’s confidential Jewish Pregnancy Helpline, which women can use to contact ISA’s professional counselors. Women can call the Helpline at 1-888-360-5872 or text the Helpline at 646-632-8547.
“Our organization offers help with overcoming the challenges of unplanned pregnancies without exerting pressure,” Pelman said. “Whatever our clients choose, we treat them with compassion and respect.”
Material aid may include care packages, maternity clothing, baby clothing and baby equipment. Financial grants go toward expenses such as postpartum support for those who do not have extended family help, monthly gift cards for diapers for the first year and a childcare grant for the semester a client goes back to school.
“When I called [ISA], I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I wanted to keep my baby [and not abort],” said Leora*, a single mother from Baltimore who became pregnant unexpectedly. ISA worked with a local volunteer to collect maternity clothes for her, and gave her financial aid grants for baby equipment and diapers.
“The help was life-changing,” Leora said. ISA “helped me be prepared on things my baby needed her first year…I was even able to save some money up for after she turns one.”
When a client needs specific services outside ISA’s scope of expertise, the organization will connect the client to relevant local agencies or organizations. For example, if a woman in Baltimore is pregnant and trying to leave an abusive relationship, ISA might connect the woman with CHANA for safety planning and crisis intervention. Or if a woman needs help finding a job to support herself and her baby, ISA may refer her to the Jewish Community Services Career Center. These community connections enable ISA to help clients cope with each and every challenge they may face.
ISA is expanding rapidly: In the past 10 years, the organization has helped over 160 women and children in more than 22 cities. More than 25% of those cases took place in 2019 alone, including three women in Baltimore. To accommodate this growth, ISA launched a major development initiative Dec. 2 to raise the funds needed to support and uplift even more women facing unplanned pregnancy crises. The ISA Birthday Wish campaign celebrates all of the people ISA has helped in the past decade, and seeks to raise funds so ISA can continue to offer free services for many years to come.
Nowhere to Turn
The impetus for creating ISA came 14 years ago, when Erica Pelman got a call from a dear friend, Samantha*, who revealed her unplanned pregnancy and intention to abort. Samantha felt ashamed to be pregnant out of wedlock and too ashamed to place the baby for adoption; the father was unwilling to take any responsibility. Samantha wanted to be a mother someday, but not like this. Pelman spoke to her and cried with her, but said she felt helpless because she didn’t know how to help her friend address the very real challenges she faced without resorting to abortion.
Years later, Pelman began to wonder what would have or could have happened if Samantha had more resources and support. What if the Jewish community offered resources to support women with unplanned pregnancies? What if the community responded with compassion, rather than judgment?
Finding no such organization, Pelman set out to create one. “I created ISA in 2009 to provide compassionate support and unconditional love to women facing unplanned pregnancy crises. Because women deserve to know they can count on the Jewish community for help both before and after birth,” Pelman said.
“We provide services from a woman’s first trimester to her baby’s first birthday, as well as sensitive follow-up after miscarriage or abortion. Whereas there are many organizations that specialize in adoption, abortion, and fertility, we are the only American Jewish organization that specializes in helping women navigate through the challenges of unplanned pregnancies to build a future for themselves and their children.”
ISA is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit with a mailing address in Silver Spring. Pelman, who serves as ISA’s executive director, and most of ISA’s board members reside in the DC area, but the organization does not have a physical office. Fraida Nathan and Fran Gutstein, ISA’s two professional counselors, both live in Chicago and provide one-on-one counseling via phone, text, and video chat.
“I typically have a hard time talking to people about myself, but I felt at ease with Fran,” said Hadassa*, a recent client from the Midwest. “I was able to speak to her about really painful topics that I kept bottled up.”
“It wasn’t so much that I felt validated — she prompted me to validate myself,” Hadassa said. “ISA was not a cute Band-Aid for me to look at and feel better. I learned life-long skills for overcoming uncertainties and embracing growth.”
In March 2019, Abby* called ISA when she was 10 weeks pregnant. She wanted to continue her pregnancy, but was considering abortion out of desperation because she and her husband were worried they could not afford a baby. Unlike Samantha, Pelman’s friend from years ago, Abby was able to find the support she needed. ISA gave her concrete financial aid and free crisis counseling. Her baby boy was born in October.
“Now there is hope,” Abby said.
* Names with an asterisk are pseudonyms to protect these women’s anonymity. All quotes and photos are used with the subject’s permission.
If you or someone you know needs immediate support, call ISA’s confidential Jewish Pregnancy Helpline: 1-888-360-5872. To learn more about In Shifra’s Arms, visit jewishpregnancyhelp.org.