When Susan First married five years ago at 35, she badly wanted children. With her "biological clock" ticking, she and her husband wasted little time trying to expand their new family.
First had more than time working against her, though. The former customer service representative had long-standing ovulation problems that decreased the chances of her getting pregnant. Nonetheless, she and her husband, Michael First, aggressively tried to conceive, even dipping into their personal savings to pay $2,000 for fertility drugs and $10,000 for an in vitro fertilization procedure. Their efforts came to naught.
Determined to give it one last try, the Chatsworth couple opted for another in vitro. Problem was, they had largely depleted their savings. With financial worries weighing on them, they turned to the Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) for help.
For the past four years, JFLA has offered interest-free loans of up to $10,000 for fertility treatments to Jewish couples like the Firsts. The 13 loans made by the nonprofit group since 1999 have resulted in the birth of 16 children, including one set of triplets and two pairs of twins. (Only one couple that received a loan failed to have children.)
"It makes us very happy that there's more Jewish children in the community because of this," said Evelyn Schecter, JFLA's chief operation officer.
The fertility loan program, an outgrowth of JFLA's adoption loans, came into being after several infertile couples sought money from the agency for fertility treatments. But the program's exclusion of Christians, Muslims and other non-Jews raises some ethical questions. Schecter said JFLA has turned away a few non-Jewish couples seeking fertility loans, although she declined to say how many.
"There's always a concern when organizations earmark funds based on race or ethnicity," said Paul Root Wolpe, senior fellow at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and brother of Sinai Temple Rabbi David Wolpe. "We're extremely sensitive to discrimination against groups for racial or cultural traits, and I think that's appropriate."
Still, Wolpe and others said restricting charitable giving is generally ethical. Some Catholic, African American and other groups have long reserved scholarships, grants and other assistance for their own. However, he said, dark-skinned blacks discriminating against light-skinned African-Americans or Reform Jews excluding Orthodox Jews would cross the line.
Jeffrey Seglin, a business ethics columnist for The New York Times and author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business," said JFLA deserved credit for living up to its self-described goal of helping the community.
"I think if the mission of the JFLA is to help Jews lead a good life, raise a Jewish family and serve its constituents, then the organization's providing a good service," he said.
Robin Desowitz is a beneficiary of JFLA's largess. She and her husband, Bill, had failed to conceive for two years and ran up $8,000 on their credit card for unsuccessful fertility treatments.
Desperate, they turned to JFLA, which years before had lent Robin Desowitz $250 while a college student at San Jose State University.
JFLA lent the San Fernando Valley couple $6,000 for drugs and an in vitro fertilization procedure. Robin Desowitz soon became pregnant and later gave birth to her first son in late 2000. If it wasn't for JFLA, "there would not be a Benji," she said.
Their good fortune continued. Around the time the couple paid off the loan, they had a second son, Andrew, in December 2002.
JFLA, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, makes a variety of loans ranging from emergency payments to the unemployed to helping seniors purchase wheelchairs. About 25 percent of its loans go to non-Jews, although JFLA's raison d'etre is to help Jews.
The group's fertility loans come at a time when the local Jewish population appears to be in decline. The triple-whammy of intermarriage, a low birthrate and assimilation could reduce the Southland's Jewish population by nearly 50 percent over the next half century to 300,000, according to demographer Pini Herman.
The "reproductive crisis" is so acute -- partly because educated Jews marry so late -- that Rabbi Elliot Dorff believes Jews should have as many children as possible.
"I personally think be fruitful and multiply is the most important commandment today for Jews, bar none," he said.
Susan First, the San Fernando Valley woman who received a JFLA fertility loan, has done her part to keep the faith alive. After three frustrating years, she finally became pregnant when her second in vitro treatment succeeded.
On March 28, 2002, First gave birth to triplets Melanie, Robin and Garrett. Although she no longer can afford manicures and her long days are filled with "Sesame Street," bathing infants, attending Mommy & Me classes and bottle feeding, First said she has no complaints.
"We felt like something was missing because we didn't have kids. Now, my life is very full," she said. "We're very happy."
For more information on the Jewish Free Loan Association, call (323) 761-8830 or visit www.jfla.org .