JERUSALEM — An Orthodox Jewish publication awarded its top honor, the Jerusalem Prize, to Efrat, an Israeli organization that helps Jewish women considering an abortion to carry their babies to term.
The prize was awarded Jan. 3 by B’Sheva, a Jewish religious magazine, during its annual conference.
The honor came on the heels of the release of a letter by Israel’s two chief rabbis, who credited Efrat for saving the lives of more than 54,000 unborn children.
An estimated 20,000 pregnancies are aborted legally every year in Israel, according to Efrat.
In their letter, the chief rabbis said they found "great importance" in Efrat’s work "in saving the lives of Jewish children." During the 35 years it has been operating, they said, "tens of thousands of fetuses were saved."
In the past year alone, the rabbis wrote, Efrat saved 4,000 lives.
The organization was founded by a Holocaust survivor whose mission was to rebuild the Jewish population after 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Efrat also helps non-Jewish mothers on an individual basis or links them up with other organizations.
The tone of the chief rabbis’ letter was much more hard-hitting this year than last, when they praised the organization for trying to "encourage births" and "prevent unnecessary abortion."
This year, the rabbis cited "the extreme seriousness involved in killing fetuses, which is like actual murder."
This is the third straight year the Office of the Chief Rabbinate — which has sole authority over matters related to Jewish law and practice in Israel — has praised Efrat during the week Jews around the world recite the "Exodus" portion of the Old Testament in synagogues.
The rabbis’ praise, coupled with the Jerusalem prize, is particularly noteworthy, given that abortion is legal in Israel and widely available. Based largely on Jewish law, Israeli civil law permits abortions in cases where the child was conceived through incest, rape or with a man other than a woman’s husband; when the unborn child has been found to have a serious birth defect; and when a pregnancy endangers the life of the mother.
The term "endangers" is subject to interpretation. In many cases, the hospital-based committees that decide whether or not a woman can have an abortion give the okay if the mother’s emotional well-being seems endangered by severe financial or other hardship.
"More than 99% who apply to the committees receive permission," according to Ruth Tidhar, Efrat’s assistant director.
More than a quarter of Israelis live below the poverty level. A large percentage of them are from Jewish or Muslim families, with many children and low workplace participation.
Tidhar said her organization provides both financial assistance and moral support to women who are struggling with the decision of whether or not to abort.
"When a woman finds herself pregnant and she has no qualms [about having an abortion], sometimes even those closest to her don’t know," Tidhar said. Efrat helps the women who do have qualms.
Women may learn about Efrat via the advertisements it places in the Israeli media or through a friend (the organization is funded solely by private donations). Often, it is a municipal social worker who makes the referral.
There are also what Tidhar calls "grassroots" referrals.
"Every single day we receive calls from women who say, ‘I was crying to my girlfriends, who told me not to do it. Efrat will help you.’"
More often than not, the women who turn to Efrat are struggling financially, married and already have at least three children.
"The husband may have lost his job or the wife just started a job and is afraid to lose it," Tidhar said.
Efrat provides needy mothers with such items as a stroller and crib and a two-year supply of diapers and baby wipes. It will also provide infant formula and food if the mother truly can’t afford them.
Though a lifesaver for thousands of mothers, the organization is not without its critics.
Some women’s groups have accused Efrat and its head, Dr. Eli Schussheim, of coercing women when they are most vulnerable and, by extension, violating their right to choose an abortion.
More mainstream Orthodox rabbis say the Chief Rabbinate has become more religiously extreme in recent years and that its stand on abortion does not reflect traditional Jewish beliefs.
"There are enough situations in which women are in terrible kinds of distress or there is something badly wrong with the fetus," Rabbi Benny Lau, a popular mainstream Orthodox rabbi, told the newspaper Haaretz. "The slogan ‘Abortion is murder’ is neither rabbinical law nor Judaism."
Lau added that "taking our Torah in the direction of Christian Catholic canon law is a terrible mistake."
Schussheim, Efrat’s director and founder, insisted that saving lives is a universal value, not just a Catholic one, and emphasized that neither he nor Efrat refer to abortion as "murder."
"Efrat would never use this terminology," Schussheim said. "That is a legal term" and does not reflect the legal reality in Israel.
Efrat’s goal, the doctor said, is to do everything possible to enable Israeli women to carry their pregnancies to term.
"We are the most feministic organization, in that we help women make an informed decision," Schussheim said. "We want to stop abortions through choice, not coercion."
writes from Jerusalem.