Four women share how they channeled their pain into a passion to help others
Elana Mizrahi: Birthing Compassion
I was supposed to change the world. As a young teen I already knew I wanted to go into politics. I studied International Law and Politics at Stanford University and in programs abroad in Geneva and Paris.
But I didn’t feel at peace with myself. I kept having a persistent feeling that I wanted to build a family. I remember volunteering at an AIPAC conference when I was 19 years old, becoming Torah observant, and feeling an overwhelming urge to be a mother.
I realized that while globetrotting around the world to enact laws and policies to change the world was indeed a worthy cause, it wouldn’t allow me to be the type of mother I wanted to be. I had to shift gears. It took a lot of courage, but I went to Israel to learn in seminary.
A few years later, I married my husband and we moved to Mexico. After several months of not becoming pregnant, I sensed something was wrong. We visited doctors who confirmed that we had serious fertility issues. That’s when the cycle of treatments, disappointments, hope, and heartbreak started. We decided to come to Eretz Yisrael for two years (we came with just two bags!) and I was sure here I’d become pregnant. But a year passed with no developments. I was completely broken.
We started contemplating the idea that we might never have children. “Hashem,” we said, “if You want us to have a baby we will. If not, then we won’t.” A friend suggested we try alternative treatments. We figured we had nothing to lose. So we changed our diet, took herbs, and did acupuncture and homeopathic treatments. A few months later I was expecting. Was it the herbs? The acupuncture? I don’t know. So many people were davening for us. Who knows what does it?
Our first child was born on Yom Tov. It was a beautiful birth, but I felt alone. My husband was there, of course, davening by my side the entire time, but it wasn’t enough. I needed the physical and emotional hands-on support that only another women could’ve given me. The Hebrew-speaking midwife was very good, but I couldn’t communicate naturally with her because of the language barrier. I felt overwhelmed and unprotected.
A few minutes after giving birth, I turned to my husband and told him, “This is what I want to do — I want to help women!”
The first thing I decided to learn was massage. After mastering massage, I studied reflexology, then trained as a doula. I then studied herbs related to women’s health, and arvigo, fertility, and advanced pregnancy massage. These techniques can be quite effective for optimal uterine function. There is so much a woman can do for her body, and especially her fertility, through diet and therapeutic touch.
I continued building my family while dedicating myself to my newfound mission. I was also working as a bookkeeper online until eight years ago, when I decided to focus exclusively on helping women.
Two years ago, I began studying birth trauma, how to release trauma from the body and how to support women who have experienced it.
When I was going through fertility treatments, I remember feeling like I was just a number, a blood test, a pin cushion. Those memories reinforce my conviction to treat the women I help as neshamos. I always try to bring Hashem into the picture. I also often recommend mainstream fertility treatments depending on the situation. Not every woman is the same and not every treatment works for everyone. It’s a zechus to be a shaliach.
I had a client who came to me for treatment after nine years of infertility treatments including IVF. Within a few months, she was pregnant, and I was also her doula. Being at the birth of a client who I treated for infertility is the biggest simchah. I have so much gratitude to the Ribbono shel Olam for allowing me to help other Jewish women.
Since the first time I became pregnant, I say the same tefillah every day. “Hashem. Please allow me to be a kli to bring Jewish children into the world and to help people connect to you.” After many years of marriage, and bli ayin hara a number of children of my own, I’ve realized I’m not always going to bring Jewish children into the world through my body alone. But while I once thought I’d abandoned my goal of changing the world to build a family, I am changing the world — one baby, one woman at a time.
Chana Deutch: Strengthening Ties
When I got married, both my husband and I wanted to have a beautiful marriage filled with peace and love. But we didn’t. At least not at first. In fact, we really struggled.
I was the first in my class to get married. I thought you weren’t supposed to talk about your marriage with anyone, no matter what. I felt incredibly alone, but I wouldn’t talk to anyone, even someone older and wiser who might have been able to help. The longer I kept my struggle to myself, the more it felt like a secret, which just increased my hurt and shame.
We so badly wanted to have connection in our marriage and were so frustrated that it seemed so elusive. We kept trying but failing. Eventually, our dissatisfaction with the status quo lead us to break our silence and search for answers. We went to rabbanim and to therapy, but didn’t find the sessions helpful. The ideas we discussed in the therapist’s office just didn’t work when we tried them at home.
I kept searching and searching until I found answers. Eventually, with a lot of siyata d’Shmaya, we found actual tools that we could use not just in an office but at home. We learned what respect really looks like and how we first needed to respect ourselves as individuals before we could respect each other and respect ourselves as a couple. We discovered what true empathy is and how to work as a team. We slowly discovered what real peace and connection feel like.
I wished I had had the tools of communications, empathy, and understanding at the beginning of my marriage. I knew I couldn’t let this experience go to waste.
I became a kallah teacher and began sharing what I had learned with the kallahs I taught. I then trained with Laura Doyle, author of the Empowered Wife, and Dr. John Gottman, and became a relationship coach, eventually creating my own modality: Absolutely Feminine, the Jewish woman’s path to achieving joy and fulfillment in love.
I do a lot of mirror work with my clients, which is a therapeutic process that fosters compassion and connection by speaking to one’s self while looking in the mirror. During this process I often ask my clients questions that shed light on a woman’s inner world, allowing for real intimacy, connection, and positive change:
How can I give myself what I want from my spouse?
How can I give my husband what I want from him?
How would I feel if he treated me as I treat him?
As a relationship coach, I help women from all walks of life, both religious and secular, and at all different stages. I’m in constant contact with my clients through Zoom, email, phone conversations, and WhatsApp. I have weekly or biweekly calls with each client, but we also stay connected through WhatsApp and email. While I’m not glued to my phone, I make sure to respond to everyone as quickly as possible so that they always feel they have support. One woman recently told me that having a relationship coach has made it so much easier for her to implement these strategies of connection and empathy because “My life is the classroom.”
I don’t want other women to struggle like I struggled. I know what that feels like. I want to help them see they have the power to shift their reality from loneliness and resentment to connection and intimacy with knowledge, awareness, and support.
Nechama Gordon*: A True Fix
I always knew I wanted to help people. The only problem was I didn’t realize I needed to help myself first. I immigrated to the States from the former Soviet Union when I was a few years old. Like most Soviet Jews, Judaism had been ripped away from my family; when we arrived in America, we were totally removed from our Jewish heritage.
My upbringing was complicated, to say the least, and I found myself struggling and suffering emotionally. I began experimenting with drugs, and by the time I was 14 years old, I was an addict.
Growing up, I had some exposure to Torah, through youth groups and kiruv organizations, and frum Jews always seemed to have the one thing I didn’t— happiness. I saw happiness exists, beauty exists, and I wanted it. Of course, I tried to obtain it by going about it in all the wrong ways, and the most dangerous ones too.
Still, I held on to my tenuous Jewish identity by going on birthright trips and developed relationships with Jewish educators, with whom I discussed my situation. I was upfront from the beginning. I told my rabbi that I was actually on probation and that I was still abusing substances. Day in and day out, I was miserable, drowning in my emotional pain.
After many years, with guidance and a strong will, I finally checked into rehab and got clean. I subsequently joined a 12-step program, found a sponsor, and now regularly attend 12-step meetings. Once stable in my sobriety, I spent further time exploring Judaism. While now I know that not every frum Jew is happy and not every frum family is perfect, I still have a special appreciation for a Torah lifestyle and have chosen it for myself.
I got married and took a job working as an administrative assistant at a kiruv center. But though I loved the place and people, I was bored and unfulfilled. I got my master’s in social work and decided to take my struggle with addiction and use it to help others. I now work as a case manager and therapist in a rehab center, where I relate to my clients on a deep level of past and shared pain.
Being addicted to substances made me feel that I had no neshamah. Getting clean made me recognize that I had one. But using my experience to help others made me feel that my neshamah had a purpose.
Just recently, I was counseling a woman who was sober for a few months, but then relapsed. While trying to ascertain why she relapsed she told me that the past few months of sobriety allowed her to experience happiness again. She went to the beach, she went on trips, she forged meaningful relationships with other women she met in recovery, but deep down she still felt empty. She pointed to her heart and said, “It’s just an empty void.”
Tears starting brimming in my eyes; I knew exactly what she meant. I remember the feeling all too well. I promised her that it’s possible to feel whole and full and that life can change, just like it changed for me. That’s the thing about hope. It’s not something you can teach. Hope is something you can only share.
Chaya Malka Abramson: Healing Power
In the winter of 1981, I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of screams. My grandmother was hysterically shouting that she smelled gas and we should open a window. I jumped out of bed, opened the window, heard a swoosh of gas, and then, boom. Flames. There was nothing but flames.
I lived in the Old City with my husband (who was away at the time), our three children, and my grandmother. I rolled around, putting out the fire on myself, ran through the apartment to find my children, and brought them outside. I then realized my grandmother was not next to me, so I went back in to extract her from the furnace my home had become.
Eighty-five percent of my body was burned, and I lay in critical condition in the hospital for six weeks. I had no skin; I just lay there completely open, vulnerable to infection. The doctors later told my husband that with burn victims as serious as myself, they always know they might come back the next morning to find that the patient didn’t make it.
I was hospitalized for six months, and I had a lot of time to think. I focused on the miracles — we had all survived! Interestingly, the only article of clothing I wore which didn’t catch fire was my tichel. I was insistent on veering away from asking “Why me?” Instead, I put all my energy into asking, “What now?”
I received skin grafts all over my body and for two years I had to wear a pressure garment. All I wanted was to be normal again, but sometimes Hashem has other plans. It was a major learning experience.
Once I fully recovered, our family continued to grow, including a daughter with Down syndrome. Once again, I had to confront the idea of looking physically different, recognizing that we are not defined by physicality, but rather by our neshamos.
Slowly I started to visit other burn victims, and in 2003, I got a call that changed everything for me. A woman called about her pregnant daughter who was hospitalized after being badly burned. She refused to speak to anyone. The mother begged me to come and try and get her to open up. I said, “Okay, Hashem, if this is what You want me to do, then I’ll go.” Once I shared my experience, she agreed to talk to me. That was the key that opened the door to show me that I had something to give.
I went on to write a book, Who By Fire, and established the Chaya Malka Burn Foundation, which assists burn victims physically, emotionally, and financially. We visit burn victims in hospitals bringing them packages, counseling, and advising them regarding treatment. We also have provided financial aid for burn victims to receive pressure garments, burn creams, expert medical consultations, and even trauma therapy.
The emotional trauma of being burned can be extensive, especially for children, so we also provide educational resources for parents to be able to relate to and support their child. In recent years we began distributing educational materials about burn prevention and what immediate steps a person can take to prevent damage.
One of the most important things I do in my role in the organization, aside from arranging the financial aid and the educational resources, is to listen. I spend enormous amounts of time listening to burn victims tell their stories. They know that I understand them, and the nonjudgmental, supportive listening allows them to really express how they feel.
I’ve seen how when you do something l’Sheim Shamayim, Hashem gives you special siyata d’Shmaya. We just need to be open to the messages that Hashem is sending us.
*Name has been changed
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 706)
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