Today on Science & Sensibility, we continue with our occasional series: Welcoming All Families by examining how an educator might make their class inviting for the Orthodox Jewish family who attends. There are rich traditions and customs that are unique to observant Jewish families and a knowledgeable educator can help families to prepare for birth and navigate the protocols of the birth location feeling ready and confident that their practices will be respected and accommodated. Check out the entire series and learn how your childbirth class can be a place where all kinds of families feel respected, accepted and comfortable. – Sharon Muza, Science & Sensibility Community Manager.
By Jodilyn Owen, CPM, LM
As educators, our first jobs are to meet families where they are at and work with them in that place. As educators who have the responsibility to prepare families to navigate a complex healthcare system, we have a mighty task. The layers of birth preparation are unique for each family we will encounter. Establishing a baseline of knowledge about cultural and religious or spiritual backgrounds and practices will allow us to educate in a much more complete way.
The term “Orthodox Jewish” encompasses a great variety of practices and beliefs, so the most important take-away message here is that like all things related to the intersection of culture, religion, and birth, we must remain open to learning as we go, from the family, what their unique practices are. The basic premise that Orthodox Jewish families live by is that G-d exists, that the Torah (also known as the “Old Testament”) is true, and that G-d gave it as His instructions for living and navigating life. The families you work with accept these ideas and therefore live lives that are, for them, enriched by fulfilling what they see as G-d’s will by keeping the laws of the Torah and the Rabbis who mold and shape those laws in every generation and community around the world.
There has been a lot of buzz lately about hospitals that serve large populations of Orthodox families having extraordinarily low cesarean rates. This is being attributed to the tendency for large families in this community and the sense of importance around avoiding operative deliveries for the safety and health of future deliveries. Cesarean birth typically requires longer recuperation times which is very hard on a family with several children. Discussion in class around laboring at home until mom is in established active labor becomes critical to the process she will experience. This is in line with the efforts to reduce primary cesarean rates and an important part of the new ACOG guidelines .
While the theme of this article definitely revolves around variation in religious practices amongst Orthodox families, there are some commonalities you may encounter that are worth exploring. Perhaps the greatest gift as an educator you can give to your students is to illuminate the way that their behavior may be perceived so they do not have unnecessarily difficult interactions with the staff. These families have been navigating the world until this point and they likely have the tools they need to be who they are in new settings. Even so, you may help them clarify ways to mitigate the common pitfalls in the system so that they can proactively and effectively engage providers.
Let’s explore some key areas of interest. A bit of a disclaimer: As a licensed midwife practicing out of hospital, I have a lot of time to get to know my clients, their religious and cultural preferences and needs, and how I can best support them. I hope most out of hospital practices are similar. Therefore I refer here consistently to challenges that come up in the hospital. Jewish women have a long and beautiful history of being tended to by midwives, but in today’s society, most will seek care from an OB and choose to birth in a hospital.
Many families observe a variety of Jewish laws that affect how they behave during the labor, birth, and postpartum times. This includes things such as saying blessings over the food and liquid that they drink, praying at prescribed times during the day, and even saying a brief prayer after using the bathroom to thank G-d for their body working the way it was designed to work.
- In the hospital
If a person is praying they will not interrupt their prayers to answer questions or engage in any discussion. You can remind families that letting their nurse know that they are going to be unavailable for a short time will help avoid the nurse assuming that they are difficult to communicate with. They will need access to Kosher food—most families will bring their own if the hospital or birth center does not have any. Call around to find out which hospitals offer Kosher menus so that you can inform families during your class.
Consulting with the Rabbi
While there are dozens of laws that govern everyday life for Jewish families, they will all turn to their Rabbi for help with making decisions when it is unclear to them either how to apply the laws to their current situation or for guidance as they navigate life’s greater challenges. Mothers may want to talk with their Rabbi about the Jewish laws related to childbirth or decision points that come up during the pregnancy, birth, or postpartum time. This is not a sign of weakness or submission—it is a source of strength and guidance and a deeply valued relationship within the family and community structure. Most often the Rabbi will help a family work out ways to approach and solve problems, helping to build life skills within the context of Jewish law and philosophy. There is a lot of sensitivity to a family’s capacity at any given time, and their Rabbi may offer advice that varies from family to family. Thusly you may hear of a custom or law being observed in a several different ways—this is normal within the Jewish community.
- In the Hospital
A woman may defer decision making until she and her husband evaluate which path to take in order to best meet the structure of Jewish law. This is not an act of defiance against authorities but can be taken that way. Teach skills that build capacity for creating space to talk over options alone.
The Yearly Calendar
Jewish families live very rich community and family lives that occur in conjunction with the Sabbath (often referred to as Shabbat or Shabbos), holidays and fast days. There are a total of 25 holidays and fast days, each with their own purpose and rituals that families will observe even during labor and birth. Fasting can be a health issue during early and mid-pregnancy. Women should be advised to talk with their doctor and their Rabbi before fasting. A retrospective study of 725 births found that fasting for 25 hours is an independent risk factor for preterm birth.
The Sabbath is well known as a day of rest. In Orthodox families it is a time to gather with family and friends and enjoy community. Many families avoid the use of electronics including phones, cars, and elevator buttons. This is something to keep in mind when scheduling your classes—Orthodox families will be preparing for Shabbat on Friday and observing it from sunset on Friday through sundown on Saturday night. Sunday and weekday schedules will accommodate this population well.
- In the Hospital
This is a great time to talk about the role of a doula. It helps to have an advocate who can bridge the gap between the family and the hospital technology and normal protocols. Women will not sign papers, adjust the bed, or use the call button on Shabbat. Holiday laws are similar to Shabbat laws and families will need help facilitating their entry and stay in the hospital. Most hospitals in locations where there are large Jewish populations are prepared to work with observant families.
Women will observe the laws of modesty in varying degrees depending on community customs and personal choice. Most women will wear clothing that covers their arms down to their elbows and skirts that are just below the knee or longer. Because it is normal for them to wear clothing that covers their body, hospital gowns that are short sleeved or short in length can leave a woman feeling vulnerable. Offer education for families on talking with the hospital staff about wearing their own clothing. Advise families that it is normal for Jewish women to wear a skirt of their choosing and to simply lift it up at the time of birth. Many women throw away the skirt after the birth but a half bottle of hydrogen peroxide with their normal laundry soap will remove any staining.
Many Jewish women cover their hair. You may see a hat, a handkerchief or scarf, or a wig used. Some women cover their hair throughout the birth process. Birth is unpredictable and for many women regardless of religion or culture, having clothing touch their bodies during the heat of labor becomes unbearable. Having attended dozens of births with Orthodox women, I can confidently say that it is normal for many women to forego their usual levels of modesty during transition and birth, while others maintain their norm. They can ask their doula or hospital staff for help covering up again when they are ready. They should also be made aware that they can always ask for a bed sheet if they want something light to wrap up in.
- In the Hospital
Many women prefer to wear their own clothes during labor and birth. If the hospital insists on a gown, let women know that they can wear one gown with the opening in the back and another with the opening in the front over it. Women can wear their head covering if they wish to during the entire labor and birth. They need to tell their provider to let the father know when an exam will be done that exposes the mother’s body in case she prefers him to leave the room. Some fathers leave the room for the actual birth and come back in after the mom is sutured and in bed. Others sit on a chair or stand by their wife’s side at the head of the bed and they can be reminded that encouraging and loving words are always welcome during this time!
Touching and Passing
There are Jewish laws that govern physical separation between man and wife, and revolve around the woman’s cycle or evidence of uterine bleeding, including childbirth. Again, every family has unique customs they have built up that work for them. This may involve the couple not touching at all. Many couples report a high level of marital satisfaction having this separation each month, they come back to each other with renewed energy for connection and have space to develop their relationship outside the realm of physical intimacy. This is one of the most misunderstood set of laws in Jewish life—many looking from the outside project ideas of shaming or submission, inferiority or inequality in the relationship onto what they see. In fact Jewish women hold, by contract, much of the power of the relationship. A Jewish marriage contract is a standardized document that charges the wife with control of the home, purchases, and mandates the husband provide her sexual satisfaction, fidelity, support for the household expenses and any children, gifts on holidays, the highest standard of living he can supply, and alimony. This is a living functional legal document that is signed by witnesses at the time of marriage and given to the bride at the wedding for her safekeeping. Women are held in high regard in the majority of Orthodox communities and this carries into the privacy of their home. The time of physical separation may include the direct passing of items to each other. If one is passing the salt, they will set it down on the table before the other picks it up. If they are keeping these laws during labor, birth, and the postpartum time there are a number of areas this would affect.
- In the Hospital
This is another great point to recommend a doula! The father may be emotionally and verbally supportive during the birth or they may have decided together that they prefer he read prayers. He may want to leave the room or go to a corner where he will not see the actual birth of his baby in an effort to keep the laws in accordance with his tradition. There is a huge variety in the ways that couples observe the laws relating to touch during labor, birth, and the immediate postpartum time. It can affect everything from passing the mom a cup of juice or a snack, providing physical support such as holding her head or hand while pushing, and even passing the newborn baby to be held by the other parent. Educate families on how normal it is for a nurse to ask a partner to pass something to the mom or to support her leg or neck during pushing. Nursing staff may see the father’s lack of touch as unsupportive and even neglectful if they do not understand what they are seeing. They may send a report to the hospital social worker asking for an evaluation that is inappropriate and unnecessary. Preparing families to talk openly with their nurse about their religious practices is of prime importance in the education of Orthodox families.
In the Community
Birth is a celebrated, treasured, and well supported community event. The family will very likely receive dinner every day for 2-4 weeks postpartum from community members and help with managing and care of older children and the home. There are many traditions involved in the welcoming of a baby over the first month of life. These may include a postpartum baby shower, because many Jewish families do not believe in purchasing items for the baby until after the baby has arrived. This tradition is rooted for some in a kind of superstition that arose in Eastern Europe and for others it is a matter of family tradition though they don’t necessarily share the feelings of superstition. Most families will circumcise their baby boy on the 8th day of life. This is a custom that celebrates the unique and individual relationship the boy has with G-d. Orthodox Jewish families will not need resources from you regarding where or how to contact professionals for newborn rituals, they will get that information from their synagogue.
- In Class
Community standards and norms can be covered in class by contextualizing information based on the ideas that families will have strong customs and an interest in learning, gathering information, and talking things over with their trusted Rabbi. Education for families can point towards the need to balance community events with rest and healing and it might be a nice addition to class to get into the physical and emotional needs of the postpartum mother in some details. They are coming from a community where mothering is a valued and well promoted event in a woman’s life. For women who don’t feel happy or struggle with depression or anxiety, it can be very isolating. Be sure to share resources for mental health and hormonal support. Acupuncture is excellent for balancing hormones and a qualified practitioner can provide significant relief within 2-4 visits. Pharmacological treatment provides help for those who prefer that route or don’t find relief from acupuncture. It is important to stress the normalcy of these mood disorders and the causes behind them.
For mothers with several small children, pelvic health must be discussed. One can look to the practices of other cultures for supporting the body as it transitions back into a non-pregnant state.
It is important to tell families that they need to either have a car seat with them when they go to the hospital or have a friend or family member go get one after the birth so that they can bring baby home if they are having a hospital birth. You might consider making a short list of items needed for a layette and encourage them to have those items picked up for them as well. If you are presenting current research on the effects of circumcision, do so without bias or judgment. Present the evidence and offer opportunities for questions just as you would for any other topic. These families will make their decision on their own and you have the opportunity to help them make that from an informed place—not a place of fear.
In conclusion, serving Orthodox families is about awareness for a culture that wraps its life around the yearly cycle of communal gathering and creates space to connect in time-honored ways within the family. While there is no one prescription for teaching childbirth classes to an Orthodox Jewish family, the approach of open-mindedness, cultural awareness and sensitivity, and leaving room for class participants to ask questions and share their ideas, ideals, and fears will always be just right.
Have you had Orthodox Jewish families in your childbirth classes? What have you done to make them feel welcome. Do you have any tips to share with other educators? Let us know in the comments section below. – SM
About Jodilyn Owen
Jodilyn Owen, LM, CPM is co-author of The Essential Homebirth Guide, a guide for families planning or considering a homebirth. She is a practicing midwife at Essential Birth & Family Center in Seattle, WA and is a wife and mother. Jodilyn is passionate about bringing babies into the arms of healthy mothers. Jodilyn’s newest venture is the Rainer Valley Community Clinic – a midwifery-led clinic in South Seattle, WA. The clinic serves an area that is a Federally Designated Medically Underserved Community. Rainier Valley Community Clinic is sponsored by the South Seattle Women’s Health Foundation, which is dedicated to creating spaces for high quality, individualized perinatal care and increasing capacity within the community for jobs in the healthcare industry for local women, especially those of color and immigrant women. She enjoys hiking, camping, boxing, and watching her kids on the basketball court. Jodilyn welcomes your comments and questions and can be reached through her website.