Organization helps poor pregnant Israelis

Organization helps poor pregnant Israelis

Almost ‘0 years ago, Teaneck resident Jack Forgash was vacationing in Israel when he read that as many as ‘0,000 pregnancies were being terminated in Israel each year.

"I just didn’t understand," said Forgash, whose mother’s family suffered many losses in the Holocaust. He called acquaintances including Shimon Glick, then dean of the medical school at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, to learn more about the causes and effects of abortion in Israeli society.

Social worker Madelaine Gitelman at the Just One Life office in Jerusalem. Photo by Abigail Leichman.

Glick met with his friend and learned the conditions under which so many Jewish women chose to terminate their pregnancies. Financial stress and medical problems were among the most common reasons.

"I thought we could do something about it," recalled Forgash, a real-estate manager in New York and New Jersey. "We decided to form a nonprofit, one in Israel and one in America, and we started to fund it."

Such is the modest background story of Just One Life, the charitable organization that grew out of Forgash’s concern. But the attainment of its goals has been less modest. On June 3, Just One Life will honor six awardees at a dinner at the Marriott Marquis in New York City, marking its accomplishment of enabling the birth of more than 10,000 Jewish babies who otherwise might never have been carried to full term. Forgash and his wife, Carole, are among the dinner chairmen, as are fellow Teaneck residents Hillel and Elaine Weinberger.

"We have a desperate need for funds now," said Forgash. "Our caseload has increased because of growing poverty in Israel. A million and a half people are living below the poverty line — 800,000 of them children — and the government cut child subsidies several years ago."

Financial straits were identified as one of the main reasons women considered ending their pregnancies, according to initial research done at 33 Israeli hospitals, welfare offices, and health clinics by social worker Madelaine Gitelman, formerly of Highland Park. Today, Gitelman oversees a staff of four full-time social workers and a crew of social-work students from Israeli universities at Just One Life/Nefesh Achat B’Yisrael’s downtown Jerusalem offices.

"As it became clear that there were women who considered ending their pregnancies because of financial distress, a fund was initially developed for eight women," said Gitelman. "We went to welfare offices so the staff could get to know us and trust us. I told my colleagues if they have someone they think can benefit from emotional and financial support, they should refer them to us. In the first year we had a few referrals. Last year, we had 1,0’9 referrals."

Forgash, a member of Cong. B’nai Yeshurun, stressed that the organization steers clear of both politics and coercion.

"We’re not pro-life or pro-choice, but pro-chance," he said. "We are accepted by Planned Parenthood in Israel and the Israeli Ministry of Health. We get almost all our cases from the Israeli social work system and hospitals all over the country. We have repeat cases as well."

Some of the woman referred to Just One Life ultimately decide to proceed with an abortion, said Gitelman. "We operate on the principle that the decision belongs to the woman and not to the social worker or anybody else, and we try to help her make the right decision for her, but the vast majority do wish to continue the pregnancy."

Gitelman and her staff evaluate each client’s needs. In cases of great financial need, Just One Life subsidizes the family during the pregnancy and for a few months after the birth. Emotional and practical support is available to all clients, she said.

"In ‘006, we renovated our office and put in a mother-infant center for classes in pregnancy and childbirth, baby massage, nutrition, and infant care," she said. Clients may take advantage of these classes for up the first year after giving birth. "Those who live in Jerusalem come here, but we do a lot of work on the telephone," said Gitelman. "I know each new referral and have a good picture of what is going on in their lives."

The client population includes women from across the spectrum of Israeli society: new immigrants, first-time mothers, women who already have many children, and some who have medical problems.

About one-quarter of the expectant mothers come from the haredi, or fervently religious, population, in which most husbands earn only a small stipend for full-time talmudic studies. In general, the families in Israel earning the least are those having the most children, according to the Website

New immigrants account for 18 percent of the referrals. More than half of those are from the former Soviet Union and one-third from Ethiopia.

The organization estimates that it costs approximately $1,800 to bring one client’s baby into the world. That money goes toward services that may include individual ongoing counseling, monthly financial subsidies, support groups for new and single mothers, home visits, baby-care supplies, educational materials on pregnancy and child development, and short-term household help.

Forgash said he hopes the dinner will raise $1 million to continue the work of Just One Life. "I spend a lot of time on this," he said. "We continuously have to find new donors. And we are determined to do that, because Israel’s most precious resource is its children."

For information, call Rabbi Etan Tokayer, Just One Life Foundation, (‘1’) 683-6040.

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