Where's the Jewish Helping Hand?

Recently, there was a tragedy in Winnipeg. A mom and her two young children died, possibly because of postpartum depression. The news unfolded slowly, in a compassionate way. The children, found dead, were the beginning; several days later, the mother’s body was found in the river. In the days and weeks that followed, Winnipeg jumped into conversation about new moms, mental health and what we should do better.

It’s no surprise that many moms suffer from blues or feel isolated after giving birth. Some new parents have family to lean on, but not all of us do. Our families may be thousands of miles away or unable to help. This isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault. But the conversation about new mothers mattered to me.

When I learned I was pregnant with twins — while living far away from my family — I saw the wider Jewish community as an extended family. Perhaps I could find help. I asked the Jewish Child & Family Services office for advice before I gave birth. I asked two different synagogues if they had any kind of “helping hand” committee in place that might offer support after the birth. What I discovered was that in Winnipeg, the Jewish community had nothing in place to help expectant or new moms. I was disappointed, because I’d hoped to find a caring, supportive Jewish community in my new city.

I’d felt that support elsewhere. When my mother-in-law died, I was in my mid-20s. I was teaching an adult education class at a Reform congregation in Durham, North Carolina. My husband and I attended a Conservative congregation. My students called to offer us condolences. The rabbi at the Reform congregation (not our own), did a shiva call. We were struggling. It was an awful time, but these gestures made me feel less alone.

Later, when we lived in Kentucky, we drove 75 miles to Nashville to attend our synagogue. Once, we were in Nashville for a medical procedure. On the way home, we stopped by the synagogue to pick something up. The shul staff heard why we were in town and got a quart of chicken soup out of their freezer. When we got home, it was defrosted. We had dinner. It felt like a gift from a Jewish fairy godmother.

Here in Winnipeg, the Jewish Federation actively recruits young immigrants from abroad to build the Jewish population. These immigrants, often with children, may have no local contacts. Yet, the synagogues are so convinced that local family helps new moms that they offer no support or programming for young families at all — no helping hand committees, no volunteer grandparents, not even an informal daycare referral list.

One congregation had a “Bubbes and Babies” programs for grandparents and grandchildren, but no option for parents and kids. If anything, I felt more alone. My kids would have no grandparents there if we went, unlike everyone else.

Now that my twins are two years old, I try to reach out to others. I went to a friend’s house recently, held her baby, brought scones and jam and a present for her toddler. I try to help others with their babies or gear. I also juggle twin toddlers, so the scene is comic. However, offering help should be more common. Not a single person offered to help us during the first high holidays after our twins’ birth. We struggled downstairs to services in a synagogue’s basement with two babies and all their gear. Strangers wanted to touch the babies, but no one picked up a diaper bag or a car seat.

Although there is a lot of pressure in the Jewish community to have children, many communities lack the infrastructure to support new families. I hear about lots of support in Orthodox and Hasidic communities, but too many liberal Jewish congregations seem to have left this behind.

This doesn’t address the lack of good Jewish daycare options, or how some congregations have no play groups or Tot Shabbats to help new families feel they belong, even while they can’t manage traditional services. Many congregations wonder why young families aren’t affiliating, or don’t attend even if they are members. These families, sometimes without local connections, don’t feel at home at their own shuls. This is part of the problem. Perhaps congregations should reach out to new parents before it’s too late.

I grew up attending Temple Rodef Shalom, in Falls Church, Virginia. This congregation models what a community with commitment to young families can do. They have an established nursery school as well as holiday and enrichment programming for young families. There’s a “crying room” off the sanctuary for those attending services with infants. It’s a big congregation, but when I attended a preschool sing-along with my nephew, there were other friendly parents. Some were kids with whom I went to religious school.

Providing for parents and children in Jewish communities is not rocket science. It’s about adapting successful programs to local needs. It’s about welcoming the youngest members of our community and making them feel comfortable at our Jewish institutions.

Joanne Seiff is the mom of twin toddlers and author of “Fiber Gathering and Knit Green.”

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