Every Woman’s Birthright

At the moment of birth, she cried. Dozens of times; every time



ansy Josovic became a prenatal teacher almost by chance. Expecting her sixth child, she decided to learn tools to enhance her upcoming birth and enrolled for classes with the UK’s National Childbirth Trust (NCT). After experiencing firsthand the benefits of childbirth education, Hansy realized the pressing need for community-wide knowledge. Although she knew that many women in her Stamford Hill kehillah could gain from NCT classes, the mixed classes and jarring attitudes meant that most would never join.

Never one to leave a void unfilled, Hansy, along with her friend Mrs. Rachel Klien, registered with the NCT to train as prenatal teachers. Rachel Klien wasn’t able to finish the training, but she encouraged Hansy to go ahead. Two years later, Hansy opened her first class: a vibrant blend of information, reassurance, and spirituality. She encouraged her ladies not to fight birth, but to embrace it — to trust in Hashem and allow Him to lead them through this powerful experience.

Tall and striking, Hansy — an affectionate version of Chana — was vivacious, approachable, and regal. Her daughter, Sorele Craimer, notes, “Although my mother was dealing with such personal things, she never allowed herself to loosen her language. She was dignified all the way through.”

Like the Biblical Puah, Hansy’s reassuring presence calmed nervous women, and her lessons were extremely popular. Rachel Klien describes Hansy as articulate, warm, empathetic, and exceedingly confident. “She had a way of making birth manageable. [She believed that] you cannot take away the pain, but you can change birth from a negative experience to a positive one.”

“Her classes were full of life and fun,” said one of Hansy’s “ladies,” as she affectionately called the women she taught. “She explained everything so clearly and beautifully. Birth was something to look forward to without the slightest dread, while she made it quite clear that having a baby is not a picnic.”

Another felt “the warmth and total caring in her voice from the moment I booked in. She was so genuinely interested in little me.”

Although Hansy started out as a prenatal teacher, when one of her ladies confided that she was anxious about her upcoming birth, Hansy offered to accompany her to the hospital. Word spread, and increasingly, women requested Hansy’s support during labor and delivery. It was a natural extension of her work — with one exception. While there was a charge for her prenatal classes, she took nothing for her work as a doula.

“Mummy’s mission was to empower women to manage their birth with confidence,” Sorele says. “She was passionate about giving them tools. She was a very positive person with an oomph that came out in whatever she was saying or doing. She knew how to give that feeling — you can! you will! — and it made people want to live up to her expectations. She then passed the credit right back to them. When a lady called to say she’d had her baby, Mummy would exclaim, ‘Mazel tov, well done! You’ve done it!’”

“Throughout labor, you were guided by her voice,” one mother recalled. “It came with you to the hospital, just as your little suitcase came, and I felt she was guiding me and then was proud of my achievements.”

“At the moment my beautiful son was born,” another remembered, “I looked at Hansy and she had tears in her eyes. I said, ‘Why, Hansy?’ and she said, ‘Look, you’ve got a bechor. Mazel tov!’”

Today, through the Hansy Josovic Maternity Trust, founded in Stamford Hill after Hansy’s sudden, shocking death, groups of trained women throughout England support hundreds of mothers through birth, free of charge. Originally, though, Hansy was a one-woman pioneer.

At the hospital, Hansy soothed, encouraged, and advocated for her ladies. And having someone informed and self-assured beside them helped women relax and have an easier birth.

Mrs. Gittit Rottenberg, today herself a labor supporter in Stamford Hill, says, “I remember seeing her — through the haze of my pain — like a queen. She was so regal, so calm. She breathed with you, held your hand, explained what was happening. I didn’t feel it was intrusive. I felt she knew what I needed.”

While she was naturally assertive, Hansy was careful not to undermine the professionals. “She held herself with confidence, but she was not gaivadig at all,” her daughter explains. In numerous letters written to the family after her petirah, women attested that doctors and midwives held her in high esteem and appreciated her knowledge; she, in turn, always accorded them respect.

Nurturing Her Children

Hansy and her husband Reb Yehuda had seven children — two girls and five boys, today with families of their own. Hansy didn’t start her prenatal teaching until Esther, her eldest, was 13. Her husband, Reb Yehuda, recognized her skills, encouraged her, and filled the gaps, taking the children to school when she had to rush to the hospital for a birth. He advised her on halachah and hashkafah issues, but they carefully avoided discussing personal information. Hansy was able to do so much for the klal, Esther says, thanks to her husband’s support.

When the children were young, Hansy didn’t work outside the home, and they remember her as a hands-on mother, dedicated to building her children — their self-worth, sensitivity to others, and a healthy independence. Along with her high expectations of her children came the tremendous joy Hansy displayed in motherhood.

“At one point, she had five children under five,” Sorele says. “She used to say that if she weren’t strict with us, we’d be dancing on her head. But she was terribly proud of us. She was wrapped up in us — she was interested in what we were interested in, and she talked to us a lot. That builds a child. Before Yom Tov, she let us help her in the kitchen. She was with us, not getting on with her own stuff.”

Their mother was skilled at validating them, adds Esther ( now Auerbach). “She asked our opinions. I’ve learned from that. It gives you a feeling of confidence if someone asks your opinion. It means you’re an important person.”

Sorele treasures a memory from when she was about four. Her mother came home one Sunday at lunchtime and found the children trying to write their names in Lashon Kodesh. Although “she probably had a hundred other things going on,” she sat down to help them immediately — still wearing her coat.

Esther shares her mother’s abiding principle: “‘Look beyond yourself.’ This was very important to her.” Intent on teaching her children compassion, Hansy sometimes gave them extra snacks for school and told them they were for sharing.

Esther remembers the morning when a man telephoned Hansy with a message that his wife had just given birth. The new father’s brother — who had just become an uncle for the first time — was in the same grade as one of Hansy’s sons. Before her son left for school, Hansy impressed upon him how important it was to keep quiet and let the new uncle announce the news himself. It was his simchah — let him relish it!

Sorele remembers the pillow competition: A family had just moved from America and awaited the shipment of their belongings. In the meantime, they were without many staples — including pillows. Hansy held a competition: Who would lend out his pillow? Hansy made the prospect of relinquishing their pillows so exciting that all the children were thrilled to give them up, and she ended up with a plump heap ... far more than the family needed.

Hansy buoyed the children’s ideas, no matter how ambitious or out-of-the-box. When her seven-year-old son confided that he would love to hold a fundraiser, Hansy suggested raising money for Kisharon — a London school for children with special needs — and let him organize the fair in their garden.

“She didn’t say, ‘Oh come on, what will they gain out of this?’” Sorele reminisces. “Instead, she made chocolate Rice Krispies snacks and made a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game. She helped us understand that you can do a chesed with all your heart.”

Hansy allowed her son to take full charge and afterward, he sent his own letter to Kisharon — she helped with spelling — along with the £20 [$35] that Family Josovic and Neighbours had raised. When a thank-you letter addressed directly to him arrived in the mail, the little boy was elated.

Reading about this woman, who tended to the multifarious needs of both family and community, who seemed to possess a wellspring of patience, compassion, sensitivity and wisdom, one might be forgiven for feeling a tad cynical. Is this a real portrait, or have the years blurred natural human traits to shimmering perfection?

“Of course she was a normal mother with normal stresses. She went swimming regularly to relax,” a daughter says. “And, yes, she got a lot done in the chesed department because she prioritized. During a busy week, she wouldn’t think twice about buying ready-made kugels or chicken for Shabbos. If we had scrambled eggs, oven chips, and cut-up vegetables for supper from time to time, it was a nonissue.

“But she put fun into life. The atmosphere in the house was upbeat. She sang to us a lot, and she tolerated our funny skits about her teaching. She used to make the same joke before every Pesach: ‘Who remembers what the Pesachdig challah knife looks like?’ And someone always fell for it!”

The only time Esther remembers her mother showing distress was one Friday when Hansy had spent most of the day supporting a woman through the birth of twins. Both babies were stillborn. “My mother came home a few minutes before lichtbentshen. She came into my room and she was crying. She was very upset that whole Shabbos.”

The Extra-Long Phone Wire

Because Hansy was so approachable — and, according to Sorele, “had a knack for not making others feel inadequate” — people telephoned her for advice about many issues, including chinuch and shalom bayis.

“She was a good listener. She didn’t jump in with opinions, and she had uncanny common sense.” Sorele remembers those pre-cordless phone days, when an extra-long telephone wire wrapped around the kitchen cupboards as Hansy left the kitchen during supper to talk.

Did the children not resent the intrusion? They did — a little. But Esther says they knew that although their mother might be giving an hour of her time to someone outside the family then, if they needed an hour of her time, they’d get it. They were also enormously proud of her. And because Hansy sought their opinions where she could — “Do you think six women are too many for a group?” — they felt involved in her work.

Sorele reflects, “Because Mummy trained us to be sensitive, to think about how the other person feels, how could we really resent it if she was helping someone who desperately needed her?”

That paramount value, “Look beyond yourself,” accompanied Hansy’s children as they grew, and it found expression in their choice of vocation. Esther Auerbach trained as a bereavement counselor; Sorele Craimer is a qualified birth supporter; and Hansy’s daughter-in-law in Kiryat Sefer supports pre- and postnatal women.

Mounting the Wave

Many people notice gaps in the community; sometimes, some of them might even feel motivated to “go out there and do something about it,” but often, in Sorele’s words, “the wave washes over us, and we fail to sail along with it.” What drove Hansy to mount the wave and sail forward?

With nary a breath of hesitation, everyone points straight to Hansy’s parents, Reb Chaim Yaakov and Vera Heilpern z”l.

Hansy witnessed tremendous chesed in her parents’ home in Manchester. Reb Chaim Yaakov offered support and friendship to World War II refugees. In fact, when he and Vera married during the war, they included a request on their wedding invitation that people refrain from bringing gifts. He wanted the refugees he had befriended to participate in the simchah without feeling obliged to give presents they could ill afford. It was the Heilperns who organized a wedding for a Hungarian family who arrived in Manchester with meager assets. When the Heilperns’ rav’s daughter-in-law was tragically niftar, leaving a young baby, Mrs. Heilpern cared for him as an honorary child until his father remarried.

Hansy’s father was one of the longest-standing mohelim in the UK. Mrs. Devora Steinberg, head teacher of London’s Bais Yaakov Grammar School, and whose sister was Hansy’s close friend, recalls the revolution Reb Chaim Yaakov wrought. Together with his brother, Reb Godel Heilpern, and Reb Shimshon Olsberg — mohelim all — Reb Chaim Yaakov “brought a mahapechah to England: to do a bris milah free of charge.

“There’s nothing wrong with taking money, and until that time, most mohelim charged,” explains Mrs. Steinberg. “But those three were pioneers. They decided,‘We’re going to do milah l’sheim mitzvah.’”

Sorele Craimer remembers her grandmother as a warm, sparkling woman, and she smiles as she remembers her grandmother’s sensitivity, a trait so central to her mother. If someone asks you for a ride, Mrs. Heilpern once explained to Sorele, and you say that you weren’t really going in that direction, but … ye-es, it should be fine … you make them feel uncomfortable. But if you smile and say brightly, of course, you’re actually going that way — “Well, now you are, anyway,” her grandmother said — you help them feel good.

“That’s the house Hansy came from,” Mrs. Steinberg says. “Hansy had an absolute simchas hachayim. She was carrying her parents’ mesorah.”

A Sudden End

Hansy was 48 and vibrant, when she suddenly became ill. It was February 1993, and she was admitted to hospital on a Thursday night. By Sunday it was clear that she was desperately sick, and doctors predicted a one percent chance of survival. The family was reeling, but Mr. Josovic drew on his stalwart bitachon to rally his children.

“My father said, ‘We don’t go by percentages,’” Sorele remembers. “‘For Hashem, one percent is everything. It’s the difference between life and death.’”

Within four days, Hansy was no more.

The loss, both to her family and to the community at large, was immense. Rachel Klien recalls, “Women didn’t quite know what to do with themselves. Not only had they lost Hansy, but they were left in the middle of pregnancy.” People milled about in shock; women hunched together in each others’ homes, seeking comfort.

Mrs. Heilpern, devastated herself at the loss of her daughter, sustained the children with emunah. Sorele remembers, “My grandmother was an amazing baalas emunah. She really held us together. She was there emotionally for us, at the end of the line, in a phone call.”

Letters surged in, an outpouring of shock and gratitude. One woman wrote, “She made me feel as if I were the first person ever to be having a baby. I felt as though she were giving me personally her undivided attention.”

“And when the second twin was born, how she impulsively held me tight as if she had just experienced the birth of a first grandchild,” wrote another.

Communally, there was now a gulf to bridge. How to move forward?

Two factors — one national, one personal — prompted Rachel Klien to take up the reins. Firstly, concern was escalating about maternity provision in the UK’s National Health Service. Financial cuts had reduced the emphasis on patient care, and hospitals kept slashing the time women could remain after birth, eventually dropping to 24 — and sometimes six — hours.

“That’s unbelievably ridiculous,” says Mrs. Klien. “I could hardly stand six hours after birth.” She acknowledges that wonderful hospitals and midwives do exist, but notes that they aren’t always able to handle clients’ needs because of clinical expectations and time pressures. “Midwives are too busy. They’re running around from room to room. [At the time] there was a desperate need, and from need you cover the gaps.”

Then came her daughter’s harrowing birth experience. “It was an experience no woman should be allowed to have. I have this passion that women must be cared for, because they have to be mothers, wives, home builders.” Rachel Klien approached Bridget Baker, the woman who had trained Hansy decades before. Four women were quickly trained, and the Hansy Josovic Maternity Trust (HJMT) was born.

At an evening to mark Hansy’s shloshim, attended by over 1,000 women, the askanim building Beis Brocha — Stamford Hill’s tranquil mother-and-baby home — launched an appeal to name its nursery the Hansy Josovic Nursery. The response reflected a fount of communal gratitude, and was an acknowledgment of Hansy’s oft-expressed concern about postnatal depression, and the need to prevent it with adequate maternal care.

In the 20 years since its founding, HJMT — and its offshoot JuMP (Jewish Maternity Programme) which provides prenatal education — has “expanded to things which no one would have dreamed possible,” says Rachel Klien. In addition to the labor support Hansy pioneered (which has spread to communities across the UK), HJMT briefs hospitals about the kehillah’s religious needs; coaches nursing counselors; and launched Nechama Partners, trained volunteers who support families through neonatal loss. Maternity advocates help resolve problems in the hospital; and “Extended Labour Supporters” visit mothers to provide postnatal assistance and a smidgen of TLC.

In the Stamford Hill branch, Mrs. Klien receives bookings from 50 to 60 women a month, and now has 16 birth supporters, so mothers have a choice. “It’s about who you feel comfortable with,” she says.

What makes HJMT unique is that its services are provided gratis. The presence of frum, professional doulas for no payment — day or night, Shabbos and Yomtov, 24/7/365 — creates a striking kiddush Hashem.

“I have the most amazing team in the world,” says Rachel Klien. “They deal with emergency births; they’re professional; they’re extraordinary. They go out at unbelievable hours. Midwives stand in awe of them.”

After Mrs.Steinberg’s granddaughter gave birth, “One of the midvives,” Mrs. Steingberg relates “exclaimed, ‘I can’t get over what your people do. I’m so impressed that I want to become Jewish — only my mother’s Muslim, so I can’t.’”

Hansy’s signature is embossed on her family, her community, and on the hundreds of mothers she supported on their journey to motherhood. Treading in Hansy’s footprints, Rachel Klien is deeply conscious of the privilege she holds. “I feel grateful to the Ribbono shel Olam for allowing me to do this. It’s an amazing zechus.”

One can almost hear Hansy’s lilting voice in the background, cheering on the network of women who are continuing her life’s work: “Go on, ladies — you can! You will! Mazel tov — you’ve done it!”

May this article serve as an aliyas neshamah for Chanah bas Rav Chaim Yaakov HaLevi.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 375)

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