Mothers of Down Syndrome Babies Have Options in Ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem

Some Give Up Children in the Insular Religious Community

Getty Images

By Leslie Kolbrener

Published July 18, 2013, issue of July 19, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

When Shmuel, my sixth child, arrived with Down syndrome, I cried bitterly as I imagined myself dead and him homeless; I played hostess to numerous other fantasies, my own and those of other women, who came to cry by my childbed.

But when I returned to life and found my husband distressed and exhausted, I reassured him that I would handle everything; he could return to work just like he did after the births of our other children. All at once and without realizing it, I magically summoned the courage to be Shmuel’s mother.

Ten years later, I awake in terror from a dream that Shmuel and I are in a sealed room where we will perish as water rises quickly to the ceiling. (“You’re feeling overwhelmed, Leslie. Duh,” says my husband, not looking up from his book.) By moonlight, I have crawled into garbage bins to retrieve the faux leather jacket that Shmuel has discarded once again after becoming overheated on the street.

And by daylight I have braved a ruthless gang of 11-year-olds seeking to reclaim a bicycle that Shmuel borrowed but forgot to return. (“Bicycle sharing,” he would call it.) But when Shmuel, knackered and self-satisfied, walks into the house after an afternoon’s absence of indeterminate length and implausible itinerary, my heart expands in gratitude. For his place in his family is as firmly settled as my own; indeed, it was never seriously in question.

It is by now a pretty widely held truth that nobody, but nobody, wants to give birth to a child with Down syndrome. Now there are at least two ways in Israel for a woman to rid herself of so untoward a burden. She can, as my more secular-minded cousin did, abort early. Or she can do what my ultra-Orthodox neighbor did and “abort” late by unloading her cargo at the nearest hospital and fleeing. (In the latter case it is probably not advisable to look, for even a brief moment, at the child’s face. As every new mother knows, it will create an impression that time can never erase.)

I have heard many stories over the years of women in ultra-Orthodox communities who have availed themselves of the latter option. Here is how the system works in my Jerusalem neighborhood:

After a mother leaves the hospital, her first stop before returning home — strangely empty-handed — is the ultra-Orthodox “family planner,” a well-known figure who is a pillar of trust and discernment in such a matter. The mother leaves her newborn’s details with her.

Then, the family planner will put an ad in the local Orthodox paper, Yated Ne’eman, (“Wanted: Mother”) to find a home for the child since the hospital extends its hospitality to healthy newborns for just one month. The placement is easier than one would think. True, there’s a stigma attached to birthing and raising a Down syndrome child of one’s own. But paradoxically, a family who shelters such a child is seen as doing an immense mitzvah; there are plenty of eager mothers willing to raise the baby, until it becomes too much of a burden and is passed to another home. And so, with the ease and simplicity by which one might get rid of an unwanted kitten, an unwanted baby is cast out into the world.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.