I have three rambunctious and adorable boys whom I love more than life itself. All were born via the miracle of in vitro fertilization, or IVF, or as my husband refers to them, “Test Tube Babies.” Technically, my husband’s right, because like it or not, that little glass tube or dish is where the magic happens. Regardless of how we refer to it, the whole thing truly is a mix of medical marvel and divine inspiration. And though I try not to imagine my babies spending their first moments of life in a glass tube, I just remind myself that they would not have been born any other way. Yet, even with three beautiful, perfect children to be grateful for, I still get sad because I’ll never not be infertile. We can never just say “hey, let’s have another baby.” It’ll always be a process and risk. I’ll never know the feeling of getting pregnant while on a romantic vacation or after a night of passion gone wild. And when I think about my sadness, it’s made even worse with the guilt I feel knowing it worked for me, yet for others, even this “process” doesn’t work.
I remember those frustrating moments in our early months of “trying” and waiting for something to happen. A husband who found sex a chore. And a baby on my mind, probably like many women whose biological clocks are ticking. At first, we bought the expensive pregnancy tests and waited for two lines to pop up and then month after month we just saw that one line. I remember buying a pack of 20 tests from Canada and importing them to Israel, where we were living at the time. I felt it. I was sure. This would be the month! After taking way too many tests and always seeing one line, I began to really understand that what we were doing was not working.
Living in Israel, socialized medicine and the societal desire to create Jewish babies afforded me the opportunity to visit my doctor after only 4 months of trying to conceive to begin to get some answers. My husband says that it was my type-A personality of expecting something to work the first time that led me to seek medical help early on, and I feel that I was lucky to have the foresight to get the process started. It didn’t help that women (and men) at the religious non-profit where I worked did not understand why I’d been married over a year and did not have kids. “It’s time you started trying,” they said; “you don’t want your kids to have old parents.” (Note: at the time I was only 31 years old!) Several of my colleagues started saying Tehillim for me. And keep in mind, they did NOT know that I was trying, but how could I tell them? On the secular front, my Israeli (blunt) family would begin to question our status as well. I’d say things like “don’t worry, we are trying” or “all in due time” and go home and cry with frustration and embarrassment.
In Israel, they don’t base fertility questions on how long you’ve been trying; rather, they ask how long you have been married. We had already been hitched for more than a year so the Clomid pills came rather quickly. Now, between popping the pills and getting my husband back in bed, I was surely going to conceive.
Our few rounds of Clomid failed. As new olim (immigrants to Israel), we were still trying to navigate the healthcare system and I started really having doubts that I’d ever get pregnant. I started trying to figure out what came next. I was getting desperate. I opened up to a family member in Israel who was connected to a well-known fertility specialist. Though he was not on my insurance plan, we were able to secure a private visit. In Israel, a private visit might mean someone’s personal home. In this case, we visited his personal home at 9:30pm. For several months, we’d visit his “office” in the basement of his home, write him a check (hey, we were Americans after all and were used to paying for medical care) and try to get pregnant. There was little testing and it did not feel right but I was so desperate to see those two lines on a pregnancy test that I didn’t care if my husband was forced to do his business in this doctor’s personal bathroom in preparation for an IUI in his back room.
As we tried to get pregnant, going to the mikveh was a constant source of pain for me. I was reminded every month that my body wasn’t working the way that it should and I surely wasn’t going to open up to the mikveh attendant when she saw the tears in my eyes as I dunked. I know, the mikveh should be a time when I put my faith in Hashem, but truthfully at the time, I just felt scared, anxious, and alone.
Then, my best friend called to tell me that she was pregnant. It happened sooner than they intended. She was more afraid to tell me than her single friends with no kids because we had been vigorously trying. I was so happy for her but so sad for myself. It was almost a year of trying. Sex was no longer for fun. I felt like my body was betraying me. Was Hashem punishing me?
Something clicked, and my husband and I decided to move on from our sketchy basement doctor. We found another doctor through another Israeli relative. It didn’t come without comments like, “Oh just relax, I’m sure that nothing is wrong” or “go on vacation, just enjoy this time, it will happen.” After another 3 months (the time it took to switch insurance plans), we met our miracle worker, Dr. Meyer Nizri, and within one month and several painful tests he found the problem. It was mine, but I felt happy because this meant that we could finally create an action plan and take the next step. He did some typing on his computer and told us that we qualified for IVF, so I started treatment the next month. Yes, the injections hurt and the medications made me gain weight, and I was a hormonal mess. But IVF worked, and we soon welcomed our first son, and 18 months later our second. Both began as twins, and we suffered a loss during each pregnancy. I knew there were risks for implanting more than one embryo, but they were risks I was willing to take.
After five years of living in Israel, we made our way back to America with two young children. I felt in my heart that I had more to offer my family, but I felt guilty for wanting more kids. Why couldn’t I be satisfied? I loved my beautiful boys and felt beyond grateful for my little miracles, but it was a visceral urge. My husband was not on the same page. He grew more and more frustrated that I was willing to do anything to grow our family. I had 6 extra embryos in Israel and I flew back and forth to transfer them (which was significantly less expensive than starting again in America). I was stressed. I put so much pressure on myself and none of the remaining embryos took. No one could answer why. It took us another five years of angst, stress on our marriage, judgment (mostly from myself), failed IVF cycles, and unsuccessful attempts at adoption to go on to have our blessing of a third child through embryo donation. Embryo donation is a form of third-party reproduction. We received another family’s remaining embryos after their IVF treatments.
Over time, I learned that I wasn’t the only one in the world who had a hard time conceiving and that for others it takes years, miscarriages, unbearable debt, oceans of tears, and heartache before finally giving birth, if at all. With the cost of IVF ranging on average from $14,000 - $25,000 per cycle in America, many don’t even have a chance for a chance. Knowing that there was this grave need for funding, support, and enhanced awareness of this sometimes “unspoken” issue in the Jewish community, I founded the Jewish Fertility Foundation (JFF). Pouring my heart and soul into the work of helping others through JFF offered me a path to heal from my own experiences while building a strong community of friends.
Though JFF launched in my hometown of Atlanta, I wasn’t satisfied with only helping my local community. So many families and individuals in the United States have no insurance coverage for fertility treatments, and most places don’t have emotional support or educational resources for infertility. When Rachel Loftspring, a Cincinnati-based fertility law attorney, first learned of JFF’s work at a conference for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine in the fall of 2018, she immediately reached out to ask about bringing JFF to the Queen City. From the 2019 Cincinnati Jewish Community Study Report, we learned that there was certainly a need for infertility support. In Cincinnati, younger adults (18-34) comprise 27% of Jewish households and maturing adults (34-49) comprise 26% of Jewish households, which means that roughly 53% of the Cincinnati Jewish population is of child-bearing age, and statistically, approximately 1 in 6 have, are, or will face infertility. The Jewish Community Study also found that younger adults (18-34) are “just managing” financially, compared to the other groups, making the high cost of infertility treatments all the more significant. So, in the fall of 2019, we opened an office in Cincinnati called JFF-CINCY.
Over the last two and a half years, JFF-CINCY has successfully grown and supported dozens of individuals and couples. JFF-CINCY has distributed over $90,000 in financial assistance and emotionally supported more than 40 individuals. 16 babies have been born so far to JFF-CINCY program recipients, and 12 women are currently expecting.
People often ask if I can allow myself to feel satisfaction in what I’ve created. I admit that it is something I’m working on. I’m already thinking of JFF’s goal of opening fifteen more community-based offices over the next five years. But daily reminders of the work that we’re doing offer me moments of pure joy. Just this week I was brought to tears twice. Yesterday, we gave out our 114th grant to an Israeli couple living in Atlanta who came to us after four years of losses. The happiness we felt in offering them our largest JFF grant to date--$15,000 plus 20 percent off fertility treatments from their fertility clinic--brought us all to tears. Also, this week our 85th baby was born, a baby who is particularly special to me because her mom is a single mother by choice--not an easy feat in the Jewish community today!
Tonight after I light one extra Shabbat candle for all the infertile men and women seeking to have a child, I will share my high, low, and unexpected events of the week with my family. I will look around my Shabbat table at each of our young kids and take a moment to appreciate just how truly fortunate I am to be able to build my family.
Elana Frank is the CEO and Founder of Jewish Fertility Foundation. Follow Jewish Fertility Foundation on Instagram and Facebook, and check out the JFF Podcast: "Fruitful & Multiplying," featuring Doctors, Lawyers, and Influential Individuals on their real and raw personal fertility journeys. Questions? Reach out to, Elana at [email protected]