How Praying and Advocating for Each Other Can Be an Act of Communal Repair
Updated: Jan 5, 2022
Content Warning: Racial Disparities in Healthcare, Pregnancy Loss, Fertility, Birth
Thanks to Ovdim Alum, Dani Levine, for her important contributions to this piece
Several close friends of mine gave birth, thankfully, to healthy babies over the past month. These joyous occasions, coming at the same time as the most serious attacks on reproductive rights in the U.S. in 50 years, raised questions for me about how our communities deal with the range of challenges surrounding childbirth. We are good at celebrations, but how do we navigate issues like the right to have a child safely, the racial disparities in healthcare that many women of color face during and after pregnancy, the lack of access to fertility care for Black women, and the stigma around miscarriages and still births? How can our communities provide support for people in their emotional pain and also commit to identifying and dismantling the systems that allow for the disparate treatment that leads to high mortality rates?
The month of Shvat is a perfect time to ask these questions as it is a month that celebrates fertility, fruitfulness and growth, as the time of the new year of the trees (15 Shvat). A traditional spiritual practice from this time of the year, called Shovevim Tat, can offer us a framework for asking these hard questions and developing the inner and communal capacity to respond.
Shovevim Tat is an acronym for the first Hebrew letter of the Torah portions read during this time of year starting with Shmot (Exodus) and ending with Tetzaveh (included are Shemot, V’erah, Bo, Beshalach, Yitro, Mishpatim, Terumah and Tetzaveh). It is a time of heightened awareness and prayer regarding fertility, the risk of miscarriage and the associated risks of pregnancy. A hint to this can be found early in Exodus (1:12) where the Torah describes the Israelite response to oppression, “And as they afflicted them, so did they increase and so did they expand.” Midrashim tell how Miriam the prophetess and other Israelite women held out optimism for the future and encouraged reproduction in the depths of Egyptian enslavement. The practice of Shovemim Tat includes morning to evening fast days on Thursdays during this period (the fifth day of creation is when the fish were created and given the blessing to, “be fruitful and multiply” Genesis 1:22) to encourage prayers for fertility and growth. While the traditional practice focuses on fasting and prayer, I think we can expand the practice to include asking questions like:
Can we include the possibility of loss when talking about growing families?
How do we best advocate for health insurance coverage for fertility care?
What resources and information can we share to support the emotional, religious and spirtiual needs of people dealing with infertility or following miscarraige or still birth ?
And taking action like donating to Black doula programs and other organizations working to raise awareness and reduce mortality rates among Black women in childbirth. Let’s make Shovevim Tat a time for prayer and advocacy for the full range of experiences around childbirth and fertility.
Imagine if the entire Jewish community engaged in this practice. It would be common knowledge and lived-experience that for six-to-eight weeks out of the year (eight on leap years, like this year) the community raised up awareness of all that has to do with fertility, pregnancy and reproduction, from the joyous, to the sad, to the painful to the liberatory to the oppressive. Given the current threats to women’s reproductive freedoms in the U.S., such a period of outcry, prayer and advocacy is even more relevant. This period of heightened prayer and advocacy would provide more wholeness and depth to the way the Jewish community typically engages with birth. It could enhance tangible health outcomes through advocacy, create more emotional resources for those seeking support and even make our simchas more joyous, knowing that we are building a community that sees all its members in both their joy and their pain.