Month after month we prayed for a blessing, and month after month we were met with disappointment. Where we had hoped for a new life growing inside me, a feeling of emptiness grew instead. After a couple of years, we sought medical help and were quickly thrown into a world of tests and invasive procedures. As the emptiness and uncertainty continued to grow, so did a looming feeling of loneliness.
Going to shul became an emotionally painful experience as everywhere I turned there were reminders of the children I longed for and feared I would never have. Sweet children leading Adon Olam during services, precious newborns being held in their parents’ arms, toddlers dressed in little vests and frilly dresses- these images heightened my awareness of the deep brokenness I felt. At times my emotional state manifested itself physically in my body – an anxious sensation in my stomach or a tightening in my shoulders as I walked through the hallways of synagogue. When going to shul become too tough, I opted to stay home in my pajamas, drinking coffee and reading magazines, instead of joining the community in prayer. While this felt good for my emotional and physical self, my soul still longed for support and connection. I wished that my Jewish communal experiences could be a source of strength instead of a platform for pain.
I have had a strong connection to Jewish faith and ritual since I was a young child. I love how Shabbat, holidays, and prayer add sacredness to the mundane routines of day-to-day life. I’ve found that Jewish lifecycle events provide an avenue to honor the passage of time, be it through celebration, gratitude, grief, or support.
However, with each baby naming, Brit Milah, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, or wedding that I attended, I questioned: How can Judaism strengthen me as I experience our “lack of a life cycle event?” As I dreamt of welcoming our potential children into the Jewish community with meaningful ceremonies, I craved a connection to my faith during this period of uncertainty.
During this time I also began to feel a sense of social isolation. It seemed as though everyone around me was blessed with growing families, and I found that the majority of my friends’ conversations centered around pregnancy and children. Beyond my deep desire to share in those experiences, I believed that I had nothing to contribute to those conversations. I started to feel myself closing off from others, a well of tears often on the brink of overflowing.
The isolation magnified my emotions. Sadness closed me off from others and grew stronger as it fueled the loneliness. I was in a constant loop of despair. I didn’t like the dark feelings growing inside me, so I spoke to close friends, therapists, and eventually I found other people who struggled with infertility.
As I reached out to others, I realized that while being in this situation was not our choice, coping with this process was within my control. In a rather helpless situation, this realization empowered me. Talking to people about infertility brought me strength, support, and hope. Even my friends with small children and pregnant bellies made space in their hearts to be there for me, and I am eternally grateful for their kindness. In short, I learned that people are able to rise to the occasion when given the opportunity.
When I began opening up to others, I also became more open to my faith. I felt validated by characters in the Bible who struggled with infertility, and I was inspired by their various coping methods. I found certain prayers, blessings and psalms to be meaningful ways to express my uncertainties, fears, hopes, and dreams to the Creator of Life. I turned to God with numerous emotions – I prayed that my husband and I would be strengthened and that our doctors would have the tools to help us expand our family.
Yet even with this newfound social and spiritual openness, I still felt disconnected from Jewish communal and ritual life. Especially after several failed IVF cycles, I needed an outside force to give me the strength to keep going. While we were doing everything necessary to physically prepare my body for our upcoming IVF cycle, I desired a way to prepare myself spiritually as well.
And so, I turned to my friends and my faith.
On a rainy night in Michigan, a group of women from various parts of my life gathered together around our dining room table. They were mothers of grown children, new mothers of babies and toddlers, and single women. They were friends from our synagogue community, colleagues from work, and my former roommate. Some personally identified with the struggle of infertility, yet all of us joined in a supportive evening of sisterhood.
After I shared a Dvar Torah, each person read a verse from the Bible that related to fertility and then lit a candle. There were eight verses and candles in total – eight being the reduced gematria (numerical value) of the word neshama (soul), and a number that represents the concept of lemala min hateva (beyond nature). Lighting each candle was a symbol of hope that a new soul would be brought into this world. Additionally, the candles rested on a tray filled with star confetti and sand, reminiscent of God’s promise that the Jewish people would be as numerous as the sand and the stars.
We recited a chapter of Psalms and said some prayers taken from traditional Jewish texts. One of my friends facilitated a meaningful art project to help everyone convey well wishes for our upcoming procedure. Several women expressed thoughtful insights and reflected on their own journeys with infertility. We shared some laughs, a few tears, and many hugs. As the women left and returned to their homes, their supportive presence remained with me.
Our Jewish treasury is rich with inspiration to support us through complex human experiences. Developing this ritual gave me a pathway to direct my emotions and helped me spiritually prepare for the upcoming procedure. The creative process challenged me to take more ownership over my Jewish experience, by searching and innovating when I experienced an absence of meaning.
The social and spiritual connectedness I felt that evening gave me strength to approach our next embryo transfer with positivity, hope, and peace. While I wish that we never had to endure the struggles of infertility, I appreciate everything I learned on our journey to parenthood.
Three and half years later, I often think of that night while I watch our beautiful twins engage in art projects at the dining room table. I gaze at their sweet and curious natures with a deep sense of awe and gratitude. I think of our precious children when I thank God for the “miracles that are with us each day” in the modim blessing of the amidah.
I hope that sharing this ceremony will help bring strength and hope to others who are struggling with feelings of emptiness or lack of connection. I pray that all those experiencing infertility and other struggles will find the support they need. And I also pray that during dark and uncertain times, people can allow others to be a source of light and presence.
May we all recognize when it’s important to seek the presence of others and realize as well when we need to be present for others. This, in my understanding, is the essence of true community.