Jewish transgender man gives birth and embraces life as a single ‘abba’


When Rafi Daugherty went to the hospital for the birth of his first child, he posted a sign on the delivery room door.

“I am a single transgender man having my first baby,” it read. “I use he/him/his pronouns and will be called ‘Abba’ (Hebrew for father) by the baby. Papa, Dad, Daddy, Father … are also ok.”

Rafi, 33, wanted hospital staff to be prepared for what they were about to see: a man laboring in bed.

“I didn’t want them to assume that I identified as female because I was having a baby,” he said.

After eight hours of labor, Rafi was holding his 7-pound, 10-ounce daughter: Ettie Rose, named, in the Jewish tradition, for Rafi’s maternal grandmother and great-grandmother.

Since bringing Ettie home from the hospital, Rafi’s days have been filled with frequent feedings — unable to nurse, he gives his daughter donor breast milk  — and diaper changes and stroller walks around his Denver neighborhood.

Nearly five months on, Ettie is a thriving infant with an impressive collection of plush seahorses.

“We got a lot of seahorse toys, for obvious reasons,” Rafi told JTA.

Obvious, that is, if you happen to know that male seahorses carry and birth their offspring.

Rafi holds his daughter, Ettie, at her simchat bat in October. Photo by Amy Ashford

Male pregnancy first made headlines in 2007, when Thomas Beatie, a transgender man, became pregnant — and went public with his story, posing for magazines and appearing on “Oprah.” Back then, there were virtually no resources for pregnant transmen. (“I had nothing to go by; the organizations I reached out to had nothing,” Beatie told JTA.)

That’s slowly changing thanks to nascent research, as well as the emergence of closed social media groups devoted to transmasculine birthing and infant-feeding.

Furthermore, transgender rights and inclusion are increasingly a part of public — and Jewish — discourse. That’s due in part to the recent transition of the Olympic gold medalist and reality TV star now known as Caitlyn Jenner, and the prominence of transgender characters on hit series such as “Transparent,” where the protagonist is a Jewish transwoman, and “Orange Is the New Black.”

In November, the Union for Reform Judaism issued a resolution affirming its commitment to the full equality of transgender and gender non-conforming people. The flagship Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist seminaries welcome transgender students, and the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College have ordained transgender rabbis.

Rafi, who grew up Orthodox, said he’s been warmly welcomed by Colorado’s progressive Jewish community. One independent minyan organized a postpartum meal train for Rafi, and a large Conservative synagogue hosted Ettie’s simchat bat, or Jewish welcoming ceremony.

“I have dreamed of being a parent since I was just a small child,” he said at the ceremony in October. “It’s something that has been a part of me for as long as I can recall. I remember carrying my baby dolls around and dreaming of the day that they would be real and not just fabric and plastic.”

That day would have come sooner, he explained, but he felt he had to be “the most authentic and fulfilled human that I could be before trying to raise kids.” For Rafi, that involved transitioning from female to male — something that had long seemed out of the question, given his religious upbringing.

Rafi, before his transition. Photos ourtesy of Rafi Daugherty

Growing up, Rafi attended a haredi Orthodox Bais Yaakov school in St. Louis. (Like many in the transgender community, Rafi is guarded about his birth name and asked that it not be published.) On Purim, he sometimes dressed up as a boy, donning a kippah and tzizit ritual fringes.

At night, young Rafi would pray to God to turn him into a boy. But because he was brought up to believe that gender is immutable, he didn’t think he had any agency in the matter.

Rafi was 21, living in New York, and in recovery for alcohol and drug addictions when he first met a transgender person.

“My immediate thought was, ‘Wow, if I wasn’t Orthodox I would totally be transgender,’” Rafi recalled during a 2012 speech to Congregation Bonai Shalom in Boulder, Colorado. “But I didn’t think God made mistakes and I always wanted to be a mommy, so I tried very hard to stay female.”

But in 2007, Rafi came out as a male. He had a renaming ceremony, becoming Rachamim Refael “Rafi” Yehoshua Ben Zechariah Leib, at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBTQ synagogue in Manhattan. Rafi turned 25 a few weeks later and began taking testosterone. His voice became lower and hair sprouted on his chin. He then underwent chest reconstruction surgery, but opted against other procedures, such as a hysterectomy.

“I was created with a body that could create life, and I didn’t want to damage that ability,” he said.

Living as a man, Rafi was finally comfortable in his own skin.

But his transition was met with resistance from his Orthodox mother and then-stepfather, and his haredi Orthodox brother. Rafi didn’t see his mother for three years after his transition, though they have since reconciled, and his older brother has refused contact since 2007. In an interview, Rafi’s mother described herself as a doting grandmother — she attended Ettie’s simchat bat — who is trying to respect the life choices of both her children. She acknowledged, though, that she holds out hope that the daughter she raised will go back to living as a woman. (She asked that her name not be published to protect her family’s privacy.)

After college and graduate school — Rafi has a master’s degree in crisis and trauma studies from Tel Aviv University — he settled in Denver. Rafi began working as a community organizer, then a regional manager, for the Jewish LGBT advocacy group Keshet. In 2014, he took a job at Ramah Outdoor Adventure, a Jewish camp affiliated with the Conservative movement; he is now the director of camper care.

“We welcomed Rafi as a Jewish leader, and one that pushed us to live our value of being open and accepting,” said the camp’s executive director, Rabbi Eliav Bock.

Summer session 2015 at Ramah Outdoor Adventure, which serves children in grades 3–12, coincided with the third trimester of Rafi’s pregnancy. Rafi was met with a round of applause when he told the camp staff his news. But he asked his colleagues not to discuss his pregnancy with campers, who, Rafi said, “just thought I was a fat dude.” By the end of the summer, with Bock’s blessing, Rafi disclosed to the high school-age campers that he was pregnant.

Rafi became pregnant by artificial insemination. The sperm donor is a friend whom Rafi described as “a tall, dark and handsome gay man, who is half South Asian” and half white.

“He’s expressed gratitude to be part of this journey for us,” Rafi added, “and not have to deal with the diapers and the crying.”

In 2014, the journal Obstetrics and Gynecologypublished a groundbreaking study that drew on data from 41 people who had been pregnant and given birth following a female-to-male transition. The study showed use of the male hormone testosterone did not seem to prevent conception, though some respondents who conceived reported being turned away when they sought prenatal care and facing insensitive comments from health care providers.

Rafi did run up against records software that wouldn’t allow hospital staff to enter the name of a father without first entering the name of a mother. He was ultimately successful in changing the birth certificate to reflect what Rafi called “the truth of our family”: that Rafi is Ettie’s father.

In recent months, Rafi has become accustomed to the assumptions people make when he and his daughter are out and about: that Ettie is adopted, for example, or that Rafi has a spouse at home. (Rafi is single, but open to a relationship; he said he’s attracted to “androgynous to masculine” individuals.)

“I’m getting used to saying, ‘I’m transgender and I gave birth to her,’” Rafi said, “so that Ettie can be empowered to know her story and share her story, and not feel like it’s something embarrassing or weird.”

A couple’s surrogacy mitzvah


Orit Harpaz loved being pregnant with her son Theo, now 9. The Sherman Oaks-based photographer got pregnant quickly, had no trouble carrying the child, and delivered at home with her husband, Gal, also a photographer, at her side. At the same time, she watched her best friend struggle through an unsuccessful in vitro fertilization and then research adoption. When the friend raised the idea of pursuing surrogacy, Orit, without hesitation, offered to do it herself. 

“Seeing how painful it was for her and how something that came so easy to me and was such a joy to me, that was what triggered the idea,” Orit said in an interview.

The friend declined. But the idea stuck with Orit, fitting with her desire “to do a mitzvah, to do something really selfless and kind for someone else.” And so, last year Orit gave birth to a healthy boy, Aaron, for another family.

Every marriage has its challenges, its high and low points, agreements and disagreements, but not every marriage is tested by the emotional charge of creating a new life on behalf of someone else. And, to be sure, the surrogacy was a decision the couple made together and was clearly not something that Orit and Gal entered into casually. Already married for 14 years, they were also intimately familiar with the process. One couple they were very close with had had five children via surrogates. It was a completely “rosy” picture, Gal said. Still, when Orit first raised the idea in earnest, he was unsure.

“I was worried about going through a pregnancy for someone else, about complications,” he said over coffee in the couple’s breakfast nook, his wife at his side. “I was worried about what kind of toll it would take on our family, and Theo’s involvement. But once I saw it was something ingrained in her, it didn’t take too much for me to come around.”

“The way we work is,” Orit said, “I’ll have an idea, and he’ll say, let’s do the research. How hard I want to work on something gauges to him how strongly I feel about it.”

“Ultimately, it’s one of those life decisions that, once the seed has been planted, I don’t think it goes away,” Gal added. “You either start to grow together with it or start to grow apart.”

It was a two-year process of connecting with an agency, being matched with a family, meeting with lawyers, contracts and more contracts, and, ultimately, the egg transfer. 

Orit recalls the day she and Gal sat down with Theo. “I remember saying, ‘We’re going to help another couple have a baby because they can’t have a baby.’ ” Naturally, Theo wondered if the baby would be his brother or sister. 

“And it was like, ‘No, it’s not going to be related to you,’ ” Orit said. “We had to have the little ‘how babies are made’ talk. He seemed to really understand it.”

Friends and family generally had one of two reactions, Gal said. “There were people who were, like, ‘That’s the most amazing thing I have ever heard,’ or, ‘You guys are completely nuts.’ ” Several relatives wondered why the couple did not simply have more children of their own. The answer: They were happy as a family of three. 

Orit tried to steer clear of the naysayers. “Whenever there was someone who was negative about what we were doing, Gal was always the knight in shining armor who wanted to protect our decision to do this and educate people,” she said. “That also brought us closer together.”

When Orit and Gal started on this journey, they did not know if they would maintain any sort of relationship with the other family after the delivery. Theo did want to meet the baby at the hospital. They knew that much. But beyond that, they would simply wait and see. 

The delivery itself went smoothly, however, immediately afterward, Orit had to be rushed to an operating room. Her life was in peril, and she needed an immediate blood transfusion. Despite this complication, she said she has no regrets. 

“I feel as long as I have this faith in something larger than my own life and my own world, I’ll be taken care of in the way I need to be,” she said. “That the decisions I make will lead me to a better place, even if things don’t go quite as planned, even if there is trauma or disappointment or something bad happens. Those are always lessons.”

Today, the two families have grown quite close. They go on hikes together, with Aaron bopping along in a baby carrier on his dad’s back, or they meet for lunch, and celebrate each other’s milestones.

“We have a wonderful bond,” Orit said. “We have a child that bonds us. So in a sense I call them my surrogate family.” (Theo calls Aaron his “surrogate bro.”)

“I also feel like they would be there for us if we really needed something,” Orit said, “not just because they feel indebted to me, but because we’ve come to have an amazing relationship.”

Mother’s Day: The gift of responsibility


On Mother’s Day last year, I was already a couple of months into my pregnancy. Still, there could not have been a concept more foreign to me than the idea of being a mother. I was slow to comprehend the impending reality of motherhood, which I knew rendered me different from many women in my position — a realization that left me feeling alienated. Barely able to contain their excitement at having successfully begun the process of fruitful multiplication, many women by this point have already chosen names for their unborn babies and stenciled them on nursery walls, or purchased maternity clothing for a body whose changes are visible only to the woman herself, if at all. Some people even begin parenting classes immediately, frantically stocking their homes with baby gear about which they will one day say they can’t imagine living without. 

It would be an understatement to suggest I found neither joy nor comfort in such impulses. While it’s true that the pleasure I experienced upon learning I was pregnant remains one of the most deeply happy and moving moments of my life, my pleasure was intensely private. I experienced it quietly and intimately. And yet truly it never seemed quite real to me. Over the course of my pregnancy, no matter how large my body grew and no matter how searing its physical difficulties, I felt disconnected from the biological fact that I was going to be a mother. My husband and I spent hours talking about the incomprehensibility of what people call the miracle of childbirth — a miracle so mundane that it happens thousands of times a day to people all over the world.

Given its immutable pervasiveness, one would expect that pregnancy would be the most natural and comforting scenario in which a woman can find herself. Yet hovering alongside my joy was an unshakable feeling of horror that seemed to come from the realization that I knew virtually nothing about the next phase of my life. Certainly I was only enriching my life, adding to it rather than substituting one identity for another. Still, I imagined a precipice on which I was perched. Perhaps the fact that I was pregnant became most real to me when I learned that I was going to have a son — learning the sex of the fetus put flesh on the bones of any baby dreams I had dreamed.

But as the initial excitement mellowed, I was suddenly crushed under the realization, again, of how little I knew. It suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea how to comb a little boy’s hair, for example, and that I was already poised to disappoint him in so many ways. To complicate matters, no amount of perusing the Web for guidance on what kinds of bottles or baby carriers to use would reveal the secret for discovering the perfect one. It became apparent to me that despite my breadth of scholarly knowledge in my professional life, I was lacking some crucial real-world insights, and I feared this lack would most certainly contribute to my son’s inevitable future delinquency.

As it turned out, the basic things come simply, proving the madness of our worrying. My son’s hair, for example — he was born with an abundance of it — fashioned itself into a dark, jutting faux hawk within hours of his escape from my womb. Five months later, I have little need for a comb. Still, the first couple of months as a new mother comprised the most difficult period of my life. Women are forced to learn quickly in these first weeks despite the emotional and physical residue of labor and childbirth, which is much more violent than anyone ever admits. But how can we be surprised? The world itself, wild and waste, came into being violently, through an ordering of chaos. But one day I woke up and realized that much of the turmoil had become more memory and less physical reality. And a new realization set in.

A few weeks ago I gave a talk at the University of Alaska Southeast as part of an honors symposium focusing on transgenerational trauma and memory. The symposium, organized by my friend and colleague Dr. Sol Neely, was built around a book by Gabriele Schwab called “Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma.” Schwab, a German woman, explores the trauma of both victims and perpetrators of collective tragedies, focusing specifically on the ways in which we — both individually and collectively — pass on violent histories for our children to inherit. I begin to question what kinds of violent histories and traumatic memories I am in a position to pass down to my own son. The nature of traumatic memories suggests that they are buried deep within the psychic archive, but given that we unknowingly transmit these histories to our children, every day I feel compelled to keep thinking through the question of my responsibility to my son. 

My own academic research on the writing of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas reminds me that I am not just infinitely responsible in an abstract kind of way. I am responsible not only for my son, but also for his responsibility. Strangely, I feel delighted underneath a burden so immense. The relationship of the parent and the child is the ethical relationship par excellence. As others have found, becoming a mother teaches me more about the nature of responsibility than any textbook or philosophical conference. And this is what I have always, insatiably, set out to do: to learn. I realize now that my concerns about whether I could comb my little boy’s hair or select the right cup holder for our stroller were masking more somber issues. What, exactly, is the nature of my responsibility to my son? What kinds of violent histories will I pass on to him? How do I teach him to respond ethically to these histories?

The Torah is full of advice for children in terms of how and how not to treat their parents. We are told to honor our parents, to refrain from disrespecting them, to fear them. The talmudists elaborate on this idea and tell us not to smite our parents, curse them, or rebel against their authority. The punishments for rebelling against these admonitions are often excruciating, sometimes calling even for death, though the talmudic rabbis seem to have found such pronouncements to be a bit harsh. Still, the biblical regard for how children should treat their parents is unflinchingly clear, even if honoring one’s parents is referred to as the most difficult mitzvah.

The teachings become murkier with regard to parents’ responsibilities to their children. In fact a cursory reading of Jewish texts might lead one to believe that the Torah has little interest in delineating the responsibilities of parents in relation to their children. Certainly (and thankfully!) there is even less interest in mapping out various forms of capital punishment in response to parents who fall short in their responsibilities. Yes, of course, we’re told (by way of both Torah and talmudic texts) to teach them the ways of Torah and mitzvot, to impart to them the story of Sinai, to marry them off to other Jews, to circumcise our sons. But sometimes I wonder if the immensity of the parental responsibility to children isn’t somewhat downplayed. In fact, I’m not convinced that honoring one’s parents is the most difficult mitzvah in light of what it means to teach our children the way of Torah, a far greater challenge given that it cannot, in one lifetime, ever be fully taught.

The big question, of course, has to do with what it means to begin to teach Torah — because all we can do is begin to teach Torah. The talmudic story of the convert addressing the great Hillel (who admonishes the man, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others”) has long been the lens through which I understand Torah. If we learn nothing else in Torah, we learn the value of responsibility, of the value in treating others with kindness, and dignity, and respect. But responsibility also means taking account of the histories that we inherit and the legacies of suffering and violence of which we are a part, regardless of our proximity to them. Responsibility means beginning to acknowledge them.

I may not have participated directly in slavery or in the Native-American genocide, but as an American I inherit the culpability for these violent moments in our shared history. They are part of my national legacy, and if teaching Torah means teaching my son to be responsible and to respond ethically, then it means teaching him how to take ownership of these kinds of events. It means teaching him to be the kind of person who insists that such violence does not become part of a future legacy.  The American novelist William Faulkner famously said the “past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s important to me that my son understand this idea so that he cannot but respond to the call to responsibility to which, in Levinas’ words, we are all summoned.

The transmission of personal histories of violence and trauma can be more complex. It’s strangely easy to acknowledge my responsibility for events to which I am only indirectly connected. And it becomes even more complicated when a history of violence contains moments where one is both perpetrator and victim. As I sift through the remnants of my own childhood, a couple of key moments are difficult to forget.

When I was little, my sleep difficulties were no less pronounced than they are today in my 30s. I have vivid memories of being alone in the dark of my room, waiting for the house to quiet so that I could walk the halls and experience being in my home as if I were the only one. On one such night, I walked quietly down a carpeted hallway and heard my father’s voice call out from my parents’ bedroom. “Stop. Don’t move or I’ll kill you.” I couldn’t have been more than 7 years old, but I knew that this was the voice of trauma, a trauma that took the shape of both victim and perpetrator. My father, a veteran, incurred serious PTSD from his time in the Vietnam War, particularly his time on Ap Bia Mountain, in what would notoriously be named the Battle of Hamburger Hill. There are very few honors that he didn’t receive — medals for honor, valor, bravery. But he was also wounded physically on this hill. He lost friends and fellow soldiers. He lost the young man he once was. In some ways, I don’t think he ever fully came home. And though he has shared stories with us throughout our lives, we, his family, can never truly be there with him. And this is part of what I have inherited — sadness, because I will never be able to connect with my father on this fundamental level, because I will never really know him since I will never understand the trauma that has shaped him. His memories are violent, and they both are and are not ours. Such is the nature of inherited histories. He shared them with his five children often, but as is the case with testimony, what remains unspoken — what is impossible to say — becomes the dominant mode of narrative, the mode that says the most. And so I knew, that night in the dark hallway, to be still and to wait until I heard the deep breaths of sleep resume before I crept along.

Wartime scenarios are particularly complex, as soldiers can become ensnared in the role of both victim and perpetrator. I grew up under the shadow of this tension, and because of that I’m conscious of the ways I’ve inherited the violence. Schwab’s book talks briefly about how children of people coming from one violent or traumatic event often focus their energies on other traumatic events. It’s as if trauma or violence becomes embedded in a child’s identity, and knowing that the trauma of their parents is inaccessible, they reach for an understanding of one to which they are less directed. Here my very early fixation on the Holocaust makes even more sense. My parents were wildly successful in creating a fun and happy home for their children, but as we grow older my siblings and I cannot help but identify the ways in which we also have been shaped by my father’s complex history.

As I marvel how the multiple facets of my life and identity have been molded by the histories that precede me, I begin to take even more seriously the burden of responsibility that accompanies motherhood. I think lately of a passage by Alicia Suskin Ostriker in “The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions”: “I vowed that my son would not, if I could help it, be a soldier or a violent man. I hoped he would be a gentle person and good lover. I wanted to love him in a way which would increase and multiply, a ripple effect, when he undertook his life in the world. This too I suppose was a form of control, a mother trying to influence the course of history through her son.” I cannot help but find resonance in her words, but I would also add to them.

I want my son to say, “Here I am.” But I know that I have to show him how to do that, how to say that. I have to model what it looks like to be responsible not just for my own actions, but for the history that I have inherited as a human being, an American and a Jew. 

Monica Osborne is a writer and professor of Jewish studies with the Glazer Institute at Pepperdine University.

Agreement reached on African migrants at Israeli border


Israel said it will allow two female African migrants — one who is pregnant — and a teen to enter the country, and turn over more than a dozen other refugees who have been trapped at its border to Egyptian authorities.

Thursday's decision by the Israel government came hours after the Israeli Supreme Court decided to hold another hearing on the migrants' situation on Sunday. The hearings are in response to a petition filed by We are Refugees, an Israeli NGO, that calls on Israel to provide food, water and medical care to the refugees.

Officials in the Prime Minister's Office called the decision a humanitarian solution to the problem of the 20 African migrants who have been trapped for a week between Israel's border fence with Egypt, The Jersusalem Post reported.

Later Thursday, an Israeli official told the French news agency AFP that the agreement was reached between military commanders from both Israel and Egypt, along with the migrants, who had refused to be sent back to Egypt.

Israeli soldiers have been ordered not to let in the refugees but reportedly have provided them with water.

“It is important that everyone understand that Israel is no longer a destination for infiltrators,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Thursday evening after the agreement was announced. “We are determined to stop the flood of infiltrators that has been here. We built this fence and it has already lowered the number of infiltrators by 90 percent. We will intensify steps against those who employ illegal infiltrators, and we will continue the effort to return infiltrators to their countries of origin.”

Also Thursday, Israeli police and troops blocked a delegation from the Israeli chapter of Physicians for Human Rights from visiting the trapped migrants.

The Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday evening released a statement saying that Israel is not obligated under international law to allow the migrants to enter, since they do not face persecution in Egypt. Also Wednesday, the envoy for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel, William Tall, called on Israel to allow the refugees to enter Israel and apply for asylum.

Last month, a group of migrants stuck along the border was allowed to enter Israel after four days. They were sent to a holding facility for illegal migrants.

Israel apologizes to NYT photographer


Israel’s Defense Ministry apologized to an American New York Times photographer who was forced to go through an X-ray machine during a security check despite being pregnant.

Lynsey Addario reportedly was made to go through the X-ray machine three times despite being asked to be patted down, and was then required to go through a strip search, when entering Israel from Gaza, the Associated Press reported. The incident occurred last month.

Addario, who is based in India, said that she was mocked by soldiers while in the X-ray machine.

In the apology, the Defense Ministry said that proper procedure had been followed, but that the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer’s request to avoid the X-ray machine had not been properly relayed.

Pregnant Israeli man to be a mom


An Israeli man is pregnant and soon will give birth.

The man, 24, was a female who underwent a sex-change operation. He is married to another man and is entering his eighth month of pregnancy, Yediot Achronot reported. He wears a goatee and looks like a man, according to the newspaper.

While the man had his breasts removed three years ago, his reproductive organs remained intact. He is the first Israeli transgender to ever achieve pregnancy.

The pregnancy is progressing normally, according to the report.

Allies and foes scrape through Palin bio for Jewish material


ST. PAUL (JTA)—A small Israeli flag propped up on a window frame. A Pat Buchanan button sported briefly as a courtesy. A prospective son-in-law with a biblical name.

Little about the Frozen North is Jewish outside the realm of fiction (see Mordechai Richler, Michael Chabon, “Northern Exposure”), so when Republicans pitch Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, John McCain’s vice presidential pick, to the Jews and Democrats try to undermine her, both sides tend to reach.

Picking through the trivia and smears for substance, there’s this: Palin, 44, has genuinely warm relations with her Jewish constituents—6,000 or so—and appears to have a fondness for Israel. She also comes down on the strongly conservative side on social issues where Jews tend to trend liberal.

“Governor Palin has established a great relationship with the Jewish community over the years and has attended several of our Jewish cultural gala events,” Rabbi Yosef Greenberg, the director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Anchorage, wrote in an e-mail after McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee and longtime Arizona senator, announced that she was joining his ticket.

“Governor Palin also had plans to visit Israel with members of the Jewish community, however, for technical reasons, the visit has not occurred yet.”

Palin is likeable enough that she got props from Ethan Berkowitz, the Jewish former minority leader in the Alaska House of Representatives who appears poised to become the first Democrat to represent Alaska in the U.S. House of Representatives since Nick Begich disappeared in a snowstorm in 1972.

“I like her and this is an exciting day for Alaska,” Berkowitz told JTA.

Republicans have been scouring the archives to uncover evidence of Palin’s outreach to Jews and to Israel.

Her single substantive act is signing a resolution in June marking 60 years of Alaska-Israel relations, launched improbably in 1948 when Alaska Airlines helped shepherd thousands of Yemeni Jews to Israel. However, she did not initiate the legislation: Its major mover was John Harris, the speaker of the Alaska House.

The paucity of material led the Republican Jewish Coalition to tout the appearance of a small Israeli flag propped against a window of the state Capitol in an online video in which Palin touts the virtues of hiking Juneau.

In an e-mail blast, RJC executive director Matt Brooks offered the screengrab as an answer for “those of you who have had questions regarding Sarah Palin and her views on Israel.”

In a seemingly equal bit of stretching in the other direction, some Democrats played up an Associated Press report that Palin—then the mayor of the small Alaska town of Wasilla—had sported a Buchanan button in 1999 when the Reform Party candidate visited there.

“John McCain’s decision to select a vice presidential running mate that endorsed Pat Buchanan for President in 2000 is a direct affront to all Jewish Americans,” said an e-mail blast from the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the Democratic nominee for president, quoting U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), Obama’s top Jewish surrogate. “Pat Buchanan is a Nazi sympathizer with a uniquely atrocious record on Israel, even going as far as to denounce bringing former Nazi soldiers to justice and praising Adolf Hitler for his ‘great courage.’ ”

The problem was that Palin had corrected the record as soon as the AP report appeared, noting in a letter to a local newspaper that had published the account that she wore the button as a courtesy. In fact, in the 2000 election, during the GOP primaries, she was an official of the Steve Forbes campaign.

The hunger for Palin-Jewish news extended beyond partisan politics. Pulses quickened among some in the Israeli media when the McCain campaign revealed Monday that Palin’s 17-year old unmarried daughter, Bristol, is pregnant and that her fiance’s name is Levi. (It was revealed later that his last name is Johnston, so no seders in the immediate Palin family future.)

The National Jewish Democratic Council focused on a more substantive difference between Palin and the U.S. Jewish community: her staunch social conservatism.

“For a party which claims it is trying to reach out to the Jewish community, McCain’s pick is particularly strange,” NJDC director Ira Forman said in a statement. “On a broad range of issues, most strikingly on the issue of women’s reproductive freedom, she is totally out of step with Jewish public opinion. The gulf between Palin’s public policy positions and the American Jewish community is best illustrated by the fact that the Christian Coalition of America was one of the strongest advocates of her selection.”

Palin backs abortion only in cases where a woman’s life is at risk, opposes stem cell research and believes creationism should be taught in schools alongside evolution.

Perhaps the most damning feature of her resume on Jewish issues is its thinness—her broader problem as well. Berkowitz, the Jewish congressional candidate, poked a little fun at the resume by citing Palin’s enthusiasm for guns and hunting.

“As far as Republican vice presidents go, she will be a much better shot than Dick Cheney,” he said. “But this is John McCain’s choice and an insight in terms of his judgment.”

Ben Chouake, who heads NORPAC, a New Jersey-based pro-Israel political action committee and one who is close to the McCain campaign, says he learned that McCain favored Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the one-time Democrat and Al Gore’s vice-presidential pick in 2000, until the last minute but caved to arguments that Lieberman would alienate the Republican Party’s conservative base.

“I don’t know anything about her, but I’m not concerned because she is the governor, who is someone with executive experience,” Chouake told JTA.

Palin has served less than two years as governor and, as NJDC noted, has “zero foreign policy experience.”

Greenberg, the Chabad rabbi who has not endorsed a candidate, suggests that she makes up in soul what she lacks in experience, referring to her fifth child, Trig, a Down syndrome baby born just four months ago.

“I was personally impressed by Governor Palin’s remarks of hope and faith when she gave birth to a child with special needs,” he said. “We all feel that the Governor is a remarkable, energetic, and good person.”

(JTA staff writer Jacob Berkman contributed to this report from New   York.)

Divine Listening


“This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac. Isaac was 40 years old when he took to wife Rebecca, daughter of

Bethuel of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rebecca conceived. But the children struggled in her womb and she said, ‘If so why do I exist?'” (Genesis 25:19-22).

How do we answer those in pain?

This week’s Torah portion begins with an issue that is a recurrent one for our foremothers — difficulty conceiving. As Sarah before her and Rachel after her, Rebecca has trouble getting pregnant. After her husband Isaac pleads with God, she does conceive. But the pregnancy is a painful one — so much so that Rebecca cries out with words to the effect of, “Would that I did not exist!” Out of this depth of despair she approaches God.

She went to inquire of the Lord, and the Lord answered her: “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).

God’s response is profound and gives us great insight into how we can help those in pain. The most noteworthy element is that God does not seek to take away Rebecca’s pain. Rather God listens to her with no interruptions. While such listening does not cure Rebecca of her pain by removing it, it heals her because it helps overcome some of the isolation and loneliness that often accompanies those who are suffering.

In addition, God points out that her pain is due to the nature of the fetuses that she carries and is indicative of the way they will be as both individuals and even as kingdoms. In essence, God informs Rebecca that her pain is not random and pointless but that it has meaning and significance. After being heard, Rebecca is able to motivate herself and endure her suffering until the end of her term.

So often when we encounter those who are in pain we make several mistakes. Our natural reaction is to want to take their suffering away. While understandable, it is also highly impractical since we cannot really do it (nor by the way do people expect us to do so). But since we cannot directly relieve them of their suffering, we search for the right thing to do or say in an attempt to make everything OK.

Another error we make in our desire to help is to talk. We either say that they should not worry and that everything will be all right. Or we hear their pain and then tell them of our own experiences in an attempt to show that we empathize with them.

But these responses make us feel better and not those who we are seeking to help.

When someone is hurting, there truly are no right things to say or do. It’s sometimes enough merely to be present, to show people that they are heard and hence not alone. We must acknowledge where they are so that they know we have heard them in all their pain. Furthermore, we must help them see that their suffering is not for nothing, but has meaning and purpose; for these two things allow them to bear that which would otherwise be unbearable.

To be able hear someone’s pain and give meaning to his or her suffering are the most important things we can do when we approach those in difficulty — and in doing so effectively we act divinely.

Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard is a rabbi at Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue in Valley Village. He can be reached at rabbijjb@adatariel.org.

 

A Manual for the Auntie-to-Be


It seemed that lots of people — including total strangers —
had plenty of advice to offer my sister and my brother-in-law before the birth
of their first child, an event the entire extended family anticipated for late
summer 2003. And it wasn’t just a matter of kindly (if ultimately incorrect)
projections about the baby’s gender or rueful warnings about all those
sleepless nights to come.

“I heard that you’re not supposed to eat tuna fish when
you’re pregnant,” one woman in a New York City deli remarked, loudly, when my
sister sank her teeth into her once-a-week tuna treat during her seventh month.

The willingness of so many people to “share” scarcely
surprised me. Like the suggestions that streamed in for the bridal couple
between the engagement and the wedding, child-related counsel appeared to come
with the territory of a pregnancy. And if the pointers weren’t enough for my
sister and brother-in-law, they could count on the insights and instructions
buried within the books that quickly crowded out the suddenly antiquated
wedding prep manuals on their bookshelves. Not to mention the countless classes
they soon registered for, on everything from how to bathe a newborn to
negotiating the relationship changes “when two become three.”

I confess that before my sister’s wedding, I didn’t sense
too much that was personally life changing for me. And since I’d previously
served as a bridesmaid, it wasn’t very difficult to perform that job again.
Bridesmaiding seems a contract position of sorts, which ends as the band packs
up and the bridal couple drives away in their limousine.

But I quickly found preparing for the birth of a first niece
or nephew to be different, especially as a still-single and childless future
aunt. For one thing, while there is plenty of advice, these days, even for
bridesmaids — and perhaps ironically enough, my sister has co-founded a popular
Web site on that topic (www.bridesmaidaid.com) — there is little written to
provide counsel for the more significant lifelong position of aunt-to-be. Nevertheless
I was surprised by the events and changes — some subtle, some less so — that I
experienced in the months between sister’s announcement of her pregnancy and
the baby’s birth. Others might be just as surprised by analogous “symptoms,”
such as:

Feeling the Baby Kick — Sure, I have lots of friends who are
moms, and I’ve watched the growth of their families very attentively, but no
matter how long I’ve known them or how many secrets we’ve shared, it’s never
quite seemed appropriate to ask, “Can I touch your stomach?” It wasn’t until my
own sister’s pregnancy that I could press my palm against a mother-to-be’s bare
skin — and wait to feel a baby kicking her from within.

Consulting on the Baby’s Name — As a writer I have the
opportunity to name characters all the time, and I’d owned a book titled,
“6,000 Names For Your Baby,” expressly for that purpose long before my sister
started thinking about beginning a family. But one of the biggest surprises —
and privileges — of my sister’s pregnancy was my role as “consultant” and
confidant in the name selection process (and there was an extra bonus — being
allowed to remain in the room for one final confidential discussion after the
baby arrived but before her name was announced).

Expanding My Consumer Savvy and Lexicon — Babies “R” Us.
buybuy BABY. I didn’t know about any of this before. Frankly, I didn’t care.
And I certainly never saved those Pottery Barn Kids catalogs that for some
reason arrived regularly in my mailbox. Now they are stacked with pages marked
and items circled. Like the first-time grandparents on both sides, I get to
spoil this baby.

Learning Infant and Child CPR — OK. Some details of
obstetrical procedures I probably didn’t really need to hear about. There are
reasons I chose not to go to medical school. Twenty years ago, as part of the
middle school “health” curriculum, I had received certification in first aid
and CPR. But thanks to my sister’s insistence that anyone who planned to be
entrusted with solo time with her child needed to acquire some training in
emergency response, I contacted the American Heart Association. I enrolled in a
Heartsaver CPR for Infants and Children Course. I studied the manual and
prepared for my class — two weeks before the parents-to-be.

I learned a lot in that class that surprised me. I hadn’t
realized, for example, that, this year, one in every five children would be
injured significantly enough to require emergency treatment. I hadn’t realized
how many preventive measures could be taken to avoid crises situations. And I
certainly didn’t know about other aspects in the “chain of survival.” I’d
already understood the best way to place an infant in her crib (“back to
sleep”) and known something about car seat safety, but I appreciated my
instructors’ additional tips on how to handle 911 calls and other strategies
(that of course I hoped I’d never have to use). I was proud to report that I’d
only missed one question on my written test — a record my sister matched; my
brother-in-law, a member of Phi Beta Kappa and tops in his law school class,
scored a perfect 100. (You can imagine the pressure on the grandparents.)

But the biggest surprise was how much closer my sister and I
— who certainly had our share of sibling struggles over the years — became
throughout her pregnancy. From speaking on the phone only occasionally, we
found ourselves speaking multiple times each week. We planned a trip to buybuy
BABY (with grandma-to-be) that would include Auntie Erika, visiting
specifically for the occasion, as well. Everyone in the family referred to the
baby, whose gender remained a mystery until delivery, by the nickname I gave
it: “Kicky.” Via e-mail I viewed every single sonogram and smiled over
photographs of the baby’s newly assembled bassinet. And when my sister was
admitted to the hospital (for the real thing, after having stalled preterm
labor for several weeks) I only hoped I’d reach New York in time.

That, I’m not sure anyone expected. Â

Erika Dreifus is a Massachusetts-based writer and teacher. Her fiction and essays have appeared in such publications as the Boston Globe and Lilith. Â

Loans Give Hope to Infertile Couples


When Susan First married five years ago at 35, she badly wanted children. With her “biological clock” ticking, she and her husband wasted little time trying to expand their new family.

First had more than time working against her, though. The former customer service representative had long-standing ovulation problems that decreased the chances of her getting pregnant. Nonetheless, she and her husband, Michael First, aggressively tried to conceive, even dipping into their personal savings to pay $2,000 for fertility drugs and $10,000 for an in vitro fertilization procedure. Their efforts came to naught.

Determined to give it one last try, the Chatsworth couple opted for another in vitro. Problem was, they had largely depleted their savings. With financial worries weighing on them, they turned to the Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) for help.

For the past four years, JFLA has offered interest-free loans of up to $10,000 for fertility treatments to Jewish couples like the Firsts. The 13 loans made by the nonprofit group since 1999 have resulted in the birth of 16 children, including one set of triplets and two pairs of twins. (Only one couple that received a loan failed to have children.)

“It makes us very happy that there’s more Jewish children in the community because of this,” said Evelyn Schecter, JFLA’s chief operation officer.

The fertility loan program, an outgrowth of JFLA’s adoption loans, came into being after several infertile couples sought money from the agency for fertility treatments. But the program’s exclusion of Christians, Muslims and other non-Jews raises some ethical questions. Schecter said JFLA has turned away a few non-Jewish couples seeking fertility loans, although she declined to say how many.

“There’s always a concern when organizations earmark funds based on race or ethnicity,” said Paul Root Wolpe, senior fellow at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and brother of Sinai Temple Rabbi David Wolpe. “We’re extremely sensitive to discrimination against groups for racial or cultural traits, and I think that’s appropriate.”

Still, Wolpe and others said restricting charitable giving is generally ethical. Some Catholic, African American and other groups have long reserved scholarships, grants and other assistance for their own. However, he said, dark-skinned blacks discriminating against light-skinned African-Americans or Reform Jews excluding Orthodox Jews would cross the line.

Jeffrey Seglin, a business ethics columnist for The New York Times and author of “The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business,” said JFLA deserved credit for living up to its self-described goal of helping the community.

“I think if the mission of the JFLA is to help Jews lead a good life, raise a Jewish family and serve its constituents, then the organization’s providing a good service,” he said.

Robin Desowitz is a beneficiary of JFLA’s largess. She and her husband, Bill, had failed to conceive for two years and ran up $8,000 on their credit card for unsuccessful fertility treatments.

Desperate, they turned to JFLA, which years before had lent Robin Desowitz $250 while a college student at San Jose State University.

JFLA lent the San Fernando Valley couple $6,000 for drugs and an in vitro fertilization procedure. Robin Desowitz soon became pregnant and later gave birth to her first son in late 2000. If it wasn’t for JFLA, “there would not be a Benji,” she said.

Their good fortune continued. Around the time the couple paid off the loan, they had a second son, Andrew, in December 2002.

JFLA, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, makes a variety of loans ranging from emergency payments to the unemployed to helping seniors purchase wheelchairs. About 25 percent of its loans go to non-Jews, although JFLA’s raison d’etre is to help Jews.

The group’s fertility loans come at a time when the local Jewish population appears to be in decline. The triple-whammy of intermarriage, a low birthrate and assimilation could reduce the Southland’s Jewish population by nearly 50 percent over the next half century to 300,000, according to demographer Pini Herman.

The “reproductive crisis” is so acute — partly because educated Jews marry so late — that Rabbi Elliot Dorff believes Jews should have as many children as possible.

“I personally think be fruitful and multiply is the most important commandment today for Jews, bar none,” he said.

Susan First, the San Fernando Valley woman who received a JFLA fertility loan, has done her part to keep the faith alive. After three frustrating years, she finally became pregnant when her second in vitro treatment succeeded.

On March 28, 2002, First gave birth to triplets Melanie, Robin and Garrett. Although she no longer can afford manicures and her long days are filled with “Sesame Street,” bathing infants, attending Mommy & Me classes and bottle feeding, First said she has no complaints.

“We felt like something was missing because we didn’t have kids. Now, my life is very full,” she said. “We’re very happy.”

For more information on the Jewish Free Loan
Association, call (323) 761-8830 or visit www.jfla.org .

Bundles of Joy


The stork has been awfully busy lately.

It seems as though everyone I know is having a baby. A couple I haven’t heard from in months sent a postcard with a picture of what I thought was a Sharpei puppy — it turns out the little boy’s name is Jesse. I didn’t even know they were expecting.

Of course, in the bargain, I’ve lost all my friends. They’re no fun any more. They’re very busy doing not very much. They can’t go anywhere, especially if they’ve got more than one child. When they do get out of the house it’s all they can talk about and, honestly, there isn’t that much to say about a little baby. You see these people with the 1,000-yard stare at Blockbuster, returning the overdue videos they haven’t had time to watch, despite the fact they’ve been home every night for months.

I’ve been to visit a lot of these babies. I don’t understand how The Gap can be in a sales slump with all the baby gifts I’m buying. If you’re not one of the parents, there’s not much for you to do. You look the kid over, rain praise on its incredible good looks, hold it long enough until it emits some vile fluid or hurts itself, and then you hand it back to its owner to mop up. It’s like a slow, sloppy game of “hot potato.”

A visit to a newborn should take an hour at most, by the end of which time you will have determined if the child looks more like the mother, the father, Winston Churchill or Lyndon Johnson. That important business concluded, you’re free to leave these people behind and do whatever you want. Going to “see the baby” is a lot like going to see a convicted felon.

I have a single friend named Gina, who is determined to have a child in the next year. Gina has also decided that she doesn’t need a man’s help in getting the job done. Not much, anyway. She’s come to the conclusion that, at age 35 with no “significant other” in her life, she’ll get the baby thing out of her system so she can get on with her life. She doesn’t want the pressure of having to rope some guy, get married and then hurry up to have a child. She reasons that men run from the scent of desperation, and maybe she’s right. You might argue that two parents are better than one, but where’s poppa when you need him? She’s got a gay donor-daddy and an eminent fertility doctor — and they’ll do just as well in a pinch.

I’ve heard stories from the old days about young women getting pregnant and leaving town, going to stay with a relative until the baby was born. There was a time when being a single mother was a shonda. Not now. At some point, having the fellow around is basically a nuisance. Meanwhile, Gina’s family has rallied around her with unbridled support, beaming grandparents-to-be waiting for the fatherless child.

So here’s the rub: I want a child. My biological daddy clock is happily ticking away with no sign of wearing out. The warranty is still good for another several years, but suddenly the snooze alarm is broken. I’m not exactly hanging around schoolyards getting all misty, but the idea is getting more and more appealing to me. I’d prefer one that already walks and talks, but I understand they don’t come that way direct from the factory.

Now I want diapers and runny noses and little, bitty clothes and brightly colored toys and big books by Dr. Seuss and one of those walker things in the kitchen. I want to get woken up at ungodly hours and struggle with a baby seat, and I want to call a pediatrician “just to be safe.” I also want my friends back. None of their behavior will seem nearly as odd when I’m in the same boat with them.

Incredibly, it seems, I’m going to have to get a woman involved somewhere in the process. I feel like Frank Sinatra in my best pressed tweeds: All I really need is the girl.

J.D. Smith is expecting @ www.lifesentence.net.