When Schlomo Bochner, a Bobov Hasid and non-profit founder, set about raising money to help Orthodox couples conceive healthy pregnancies, he had no idea how much people would donate amid the Covid-19 financial crisis.
The answer: well over $6 million.
That’s how much the Orthodox fertility support organization Bonei Olam has raised in an online fundraising campaignthis week thus far.
Bochner pointed to the coronavirus pandemic and the new challenges it has wrought on those seeking fertility treatments for the largesse. “Quarantine has taught us all the meaning of loneliness,” Bochner wrote. “For our couples, loneliness remains a fact of life. The ever-present empty feeling of being alone follows them wherever they go.”
Founded in 1999 by Bochner and his wife Chanie after they endured 22 years of infertility, Bonei Olam subsidizes fertility treatments and genetic research in the Orthodox community.
According to its website, the organization has subsidized treatments for 8,723 children to date. Their 2020 campaign offers donors opportunities to sponsor a variety of expenses for Orthodox couples — consultations, blood work, drugs, and IUI treatments.
By Monday night, the group had already surpassed its $5 million goal, raising $6.3 million.
As part of the campaign, Bonei Olam is asking women to combine their Shabbat candle-lighting ritual with a small weekly donation towards their work – a further step in normalizing conversations around infertility in the Orthodox community. While many charities try to connect their work with candle-lighting (often by providing a pushke box, to be held next to a household’s candles), connecting the ritual to a cause like fertility is notable, given that until recently, Orthodox couples dealing with infertility faced great stigmas, living in a society that surrounds procreation and family values.
“Infertility has been a taboo for many years, not at all exclusively to the Orthodox Jewish community,” said one Orthodox woman who received financial support from the organization. She, like other women interviewed for this story, declined to give her name for privacy reasons. “Until today, people suffering through infertility feel they don’t want to discuss it and have a harder time reaching out for help than any other medical issue, which makes it incredibly difficult for people to get to the right resources. By advertising and opening up the discussion, and making events in every community, Bonei Olam tries to take a little bit of the taboo away from this topic, as well as offering guidance and support to these couples, helping them financially through the process.”
For many Orthodox families, these subsidies are essential, and twenty years after its founding, just about everyone knows of someone who had a “Bonei Olam” baby. “Going through infertility treatment is very stressful and expensive,” said one Orthodox mother who gave birth to a child earlier this year. “Bonei Olam offered to cover all expenses. It was so helpful to know that I can focus on the procedures without having to worry about how I am going to pay for it.”
The assistance, though, comes with conditions. “They help a lot of people, it’s a tremendous chesed what they do, raising all these funds,” said a Haredi woman who is currently undergoing treatment with subsidies from Bonei Olam. “Any money comes with a price you have to pay, and the price you have to pay is holding by their rule book, by their chumros,” she said, referring to religious stringencies around sperm retrieval for IVF, a procedure that rabbinic authorities disagree on. “Especially when you’re going through infertility, we’re just not in a place to be strict now.”
In the Haredi community, the organization has become synonymous with fertility medicine — and its ubiquity among frum families, across the spectrum of Orthodoxy, has shifted the way many think of infertility.
As one woman, who had received medical guidance from Bonei Olam’s team, said: “The more we speak about Bonei Olam, the more everyone is ready to talk about infertility.”
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the Life/Features editor at the Forward. She was previously a New York-based reporter for Haaretz. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and Tablet, among others. Avital teaches journalism at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, and does pastoral work alongside her husband Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt in New York City.