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

Some Give Up Children in the Insular Religious Community

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By Leslie Kolbrener

Published July 18, 2013, issue of July 19, 2013.
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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.


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