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In Jerusalem, a unique hotel offers respite for women who have experienced stillbirth

“It doesn’t matter how many children you have, you never, ever get over the experience,” the hotel’s medical director said

(JTA) — JERUSALEM — Moriel Yamin was six months pregnant with her first child when Hamas terrorists overran the police station opposite her home in Sderot, killing 35 people. Yamin’s husband, a soldier in reserves, was called up. Like most residents of Sderot, Yamin was evacuated to a safer part of the country.

In November, Yamin suffered excruciating contractions and was hospitalized for two weeks, before being given the all-clear. But during a routine checkup a month later, she was told the baby was in distress and that she needed to have an emergency caesarean section.

Three days after Shira Chaya was born, the infant died. For three hours, Yamin sobbed and held her dead daughter in her arms, refusing to hand her over to medical personnel.

“The doctor told me, ‘Death won’t make her more beautiful,’ but I kept thinking, ‘How can I let them take her from me?’” she recalled.

Yamin was still reeling in mid-January when she and her husband took an unusual step, checking into a new center in Jerusalem for women and couples coping with stillbirth and perinatal loss. There, the couple had access to full-board dining, spa amenities, physical and emotional support services and workshops and access to mental health professionals — all designed to help them adjust to their loss in a space set apart from their regular lives.

Although stillbirth is only officially recognized by Israeli authorities from 22 weeks of pregnancy, the center allows women to come as early as 20 weeks and up to four months after birth. Some, like Yamin, were anticipating becoming mothers for the first time. Others have large families already — common in Israel, which has the highest birth rate among all developed countries.

“It doesn’t matter how many children you have, you never, ever get over the experience,” said Dr. Chana Katan, an American-Israeli gynecologist who volunteers as the center’s medical authority. “We aim to give these women hope and support in their recovery while they try to process what happened to them.”

The center is operated by Yad Sarah, Israel’s largest volunteer organization, and housed on the sixth floor of its Yirmiyahu 33 Rehabilitation and Wellness Hotel at the entrance to Jerusalem, the country’s only fully accessible hotel for people with disabilities. Nightly stays are heavily subsidized and couples pay 350 NIS ($93) per night, which they can then claim back from their health insurance for up to four nights. Since its opening last July, the center has hosted 470 couples, most of whom suffered stillbirths.

The Yamins’ case was unusual not only because they had suffered a neonatal death and not a stillbirth, but also because they were evacuees. This extended their stay at the hotel from the typical four nights to two months.

Another Israeli organization, Keren Ohr, operates guesthouses where couples experiencing stillbirth and fertility challenges can retreat. Outside the country, the oldest Jewish fertility nonprofit, Atime, owns homes in Monroe, New York, and London where couples can go for respite. And outside the Jewish world, a range of nonprofits offer support or conferences for families that have experienced stillbirth. But Yad Sarah believes the Jerusalem center, which has 10 dedicated suites and the option to turn 11 more should the need arise, is the first of its kind in the world.

Ronit Calderon-Margalit, director of the School of Public Health at Hebrew University and Hadassah Medical Center, said Israel has increasingly taken notice of the struggles grieving women face. A 2017 law extended full birth rights, including maternity leave, to women experiencing pregnancy loss after 22 weeks instead of the previous 26-week threshold.

“There’s a gap between what the woman is experiencing, the tremendous grief and sense of loss, and the expectation of society to move on quickly,” Calderon-Margalit said. “But it is changing and there is more awareness today.”

Aimee Baron, the founder and executive director of the Jewish fertility support organization I Was Supposed to Have a Baby, said she was not aware of another center offering the breadth and depth of services that Yad Sarah’s hotel provides. In the United States, she said, much of Jewish communal support around fertility challenges is devoted to helping people cover the steep cost of IVF, or in vitro fertilization, when they are unable to conceive on their own. In Israel, where IVF is free in most cases, different needs can be addressed.

“We know anecdotally that people carry this pain with them for the rest of their lives,” Baron said. “And so the fact that these respite centers now exist I think is an absolutely incredible thing, because it’s bringing attention to the fore that this kind of support is necessary.”

Katan, who headed and founded the IVF unit at Israel’s Laniado Hospital, must approve all women who wish to stay there. She herself suffered a stillbirth, as did two of her daughters, one of whom recently went through the ordeal alone in her ninth month of pregnancy while her husband was fighting in Gaza. Her daughter, a mother to nine other children, stayed at the center.

Katan said that while there is no supporting evidence yet, she has anecdotally observed an increase in women suffering stillbirths and miscarriages since the war broke out.

“There’s a lot of added stress on the pregnant woman obviously. We’re also seeing more war widows who are pregnant. Some of those women say they’re comforted that there’s life inside them that they know they nurture while others say it makes it harder,” she said. “But one thing’s for sure: For those women who, God forbid, lose the baby, the pain is overwhelming.”

Yirmiyahu 33 has 216 suites altogether, and in the months following Oct. 7, it became one of many hotels to turn into semi-permanent accommodations for displaced Israelis — mostly disabled or elderly — from Israel’s north and south. Though the stillbirth center occupies a dedicated floor, separate from other hotel guests, the war has led to more frequent intermingling.

Rivka Benedict, administrative coordinator at the center, noted a poignant connection between these two groups who had experienced loss — those who lost homes, and those who lost children.

“I’d find old Moroccan grandmothers and their foreign [home health] workers chatting away to some of the guests from our center. They really bonded, it was beautiful to see,” Benedict said.

According to Benedict, Yad Sarah founder and president Uri Lupolianski was asked to open the center by Shlomo Pappenheim, the founder of a maternity convalescent home in Telz-Stone on the outskirts of Jerusalem. “Rabbi Pappenheim told Rabbi Lupolianski that it just wasn’t possible to have these women [who had stillbirths] come to his facility and be surrounded by new mothers and crying babies.”

Katan cautions against arriving at the center directly from the hospital and in many cases will not approve such requests. Often, the women may want to avoid going home so as not to face difficult scenes, including telling their other children the bad news or coming home to congratulatory balloons from neighbors on the doorstep.

“But these women still need their bodies to heal — some of them have had very invasive medical procedures and unfortunately in some cases, the hospitals let them go earlier than ideal, because there’s no baby involved,” Katan said. “I can’t take on that responsibility.”

Although open to all women, including Israeli Arabs, the majority of guests are haredi Orthodox women, who tend to have more pregnancies than secular peers and so experience more miscarriages and stillbirths. The birth rate in Israel averages 3.0 children per woman, the OECD reported this week. The average number of children among haredi families is more than double that, according to a recent analysis by the Israel Democracy Institute.

“We welcome any woman who wants to come,” Benedict said. “But we’ve had secular couples cancel when they realize, for example, that there are separate swimming hours for women and men.”

One haredi woman, Shifra, who declined to give her last name, was told at week 27 that her pregnancy wasn’t viable. It took another three weeks until she underwent a procedure to remove the fetus. During that time, Shifra said she and her husband consulted their rabbi multiple times.

Shifra recounted coming home from the hospital and meeting an acquaintance who wished her mazel tov. “She didn’t stop to think, ‘How come she has no belly but no stroller either?’” she recalled. “It’s not her fault, because people just don’t know. But it was embarrassing for both of us. She didn’t know what to say.”

A few weeks later, after Passover, Shifra and her husband arrived at the hotel. “It was lovely to be in such a gorgeous, new environment and it was very comforting to be around other women who understood what you’ve gone through.”

Baron said her organization frequently heard from women who felt alienated from their Jewish communities after experiencing insensitivity from others.

“People will say, ‘Just get over it. Don’t worry, you’ll have another baby. Why are you grieving? Why are you still sad?’” she said. “The fact that there is now this attention placed on the experience that people are having [after stillbirth] will mean that people will feel more comfortable in community and not have to feel like they have to retreat into themselves, or leave in order to feel like they’re supported. So I think this is an incredible step forward.”

For Yamin, her religious identity and community provided comfort after her loss..

“Bringing Shira Chaya’s soul into this world was the greatest privilege of my life,” she said. “During those three days, the amount of people — strangers — who prayed for her and took [mitzvot, or commandments] on in her name gave me infinite strength. It doesn’t make her death hurt any less but it makes it more meaningful.”

Yamin praised the volunteers and staff at Yad Sarah’s center for doing “holy work” as they help women like her.

“Rivka [Benedict] took so much care of us. She’s one of the most compassionate people you’ll ever meet,” she said.

Now, Yamin faces another crossroads as her husband has been called up to reserve duty again.

“He’s an idealist, he lives for Am Yisrael,” she said, using the Hebrew phrase for the people of Israel. “I often ask myself if I can put aside my own private trial for that of our nation. What’s the right thing to do? Am I important or is Am Yisrael? They need him but then so do I.”

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