Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis releases guide on infertility grief

Booklet outlines how communal leaders can support community members


For the first time ever, the Chief Rabbi has issued guidance for communal leaders to be sensitive to those who have experienced baby loss, infertility or childlessness.

The groundbreaking guide was launched at Rabbi Mirvis’ annual conference for rabbis and rebbetzins. The Chief Rabbi has also published a new prayer which can be recited on the loss of a baby.

Speaking to the JC, he said: “We have come a long way in recent years, striving to ensure that every Jewish person feels welcome in their community, but sadly, it has become clear to me that those struggling with infertility, baby loss or childlessness have found themselves in a relative blind spot compared to others.”

The aim of the guide “is to better understand how we, as leaders, can best support, in the most sensitive and inclusive way, those in our communities who are experiencing [infant loss, infertility and childlessness]”, says its introduction.

The first section outlines key fertility issues and their emotional, physical, and spiritual impact.

The second section suggests how leaders can support community members, both emotionally and practically, such as through Jewish ritual.

While it states that “there is no halachic need to do any of these [rituals]”, it acknowledges that they may “help a couple to process their grief”.

These include reciting Kaddish, saying Yizkor, attending the burial, possibly alongside other members of their community, and sitting shiva “to dedicate time out after a loss[...] even if not through a formal shiva process”.

Rabbi Mirvis said that fertility issues were “certainly an area I would like to see broader understanding of and greater sensitivity to, and I encourage all community leaders to make real change. I hope this guide is a first step in that direction.”

A spokesperson from the Office of the Chief Rabbi said: “The family is at the heart of so much of Jewish practice and it can therefore be extremely difficult for a person who has been affected by baby loss, infertility or childlessness to play a full part in communal life when references to children are around every corner.”

Shortly after Saul and Shoshi Muzlish’s wedding five years ago, they started trying for a baby. “Years down the line, with child number one eluding us, the doctors still have no idea why. I feel so exhausted,” said Saul, 29.

He said that he felt both “slightly less human for not being able to start a family whilst also in so much emotional pain."

Being part of the Jewish community was sometimes particularly difficult, he said. “Building a family is both a mitzvah and a very strong cultural norm. With that as a backdrop, the pressure on people facing these issues can increase significantly.”

“I am presented with activities segregated by life stage, none of which apply. There’s nowhere for me to go. I feel so alone.”

In April, Saul and Shoshi, 30, from Borehamwood, featured in the BBC documentary Love, Faith and Me, in an episode titled The Highs and Lows of a Kosher Marriage, where that they shared how faith had been helping them deal with their infertility struggles.

Saul said: “I was overwhelmed by the amount of people in the community and at our shul who saw it and approached me to say they had been suffering the same thing.

“I realised, after that, I would never look at my community in the same way and how important it is to speak about.”

Saul, who attends Yavneh — Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue, now visits different Jewish communities to raise awareness of the issue.

He said: “In a communal setting, while we are having important conversations around mental health and other issues, those conversations around fertility don’t really exist.”

He said he hoped the new guide would provide rabbis and lay leaders with the information they needed to support congregants and encourage people to talk about what they were going through.

He said: “These issues can bring up really complex emotions that are really hard to grapple with at times, and in a community, I think it often happens alone.”

In the foreword, Rabbi Mirvis acknowledges: “Despite our best efforts to ensure that our kehillot [communities] are warm and welcoming places, within which no one is left feeling excluded or alienated, sometimes we can inadvertently leave a person or group of people feeling distinctly uncomfortable and unwelcome.”

The new guide has been well received by fertility support organisation Chana, whose clients share their stories in the booklet.

Honorary executive director Carolyn Cohen told the JC: “It was profound to see the powerful impact that Chana’s clients’ personal stories had on the rabbis and rebbetzins in the community.

“With this greater understanding, they have better tools with which to engage and care for their communities.”

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