Two women shared a room in a major Israeli hospital some years ago, both awaiting the insemination portion of in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment. One of the women, "Mrs. Cohen," was undergoing the procedure under the supervision of a mashgiach [religious supervisor] from Machon Puah -- an Israeli religious fertility institution -- and the other, "Mrs. Rabinovich," was not.
Mrs. Cohen was scheduled to be inseminated first, but she went to use the bathroom moments before the process started, so the doctor scheduled Mrs. Rabinovich to go instead. The laboratory assistant, who had prepared the test tubes, had not been informed of the change, and so he handed the doctor the syringe for Mrs. Cohen.
The doctor stood there with the syringe in his hand, about the inject it into the second woman, when the mashgiach stopped the process, reminding the doctor that the correct procedure before insemination is to ask the woman's name. "Is your name Mrs. Cohen?" the doctor asked, reading the name off the tube in his hand, forgetting that Mrs. Cohen was in the bathroom. The woman, who was in a state of utter drowsiness, nodded her head. The doctor repeated the question, and again, she answered in the affirmative. Finally, the mashgiach said, "What is your name?" and she answered "Mrs. Rabinovich."
"The tube the doctor was about to inject in her was for Mrs. Cohen," said Miriam Ben David a volunteer and fundraiser for Machon Puah. "The mashgiach really prevented a terrible mistake."
Preventing terrible, life-altering mistakes is the raison d'etre of Machon Puah, an institutition named after the midwife who defied Pharoah's orders to kill the male Hebrew babies, as well as the Hebrew acronym for Poriut Urefuah Al Pi Halachah -- fertility and medicine in accordance with Jewish law. The Machon was established in 1990 by Rabbi Menachem Burstein under the auspices of Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Israel, to address fertility needs in the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, and to assuage the consciences of religious Jews who had preconceptions about fertility treatments.
"The rabbis were seeing that a lot of infertile religious couples were unwilling to undergo fertility treatments, for two main reasons," said Rabbi Gideon Weitzman, the head of the English-speaking section of Machon Puah. "The first was that there was really no clear comprehensive guide, neither written nor verbal about what fertility treatments and testing were permitted halachically, and the other problem was that there was a serious concern that there would be mistakes made in the lab resulting in the wrong embryos being transferred to couples."
So Burstein started to identify all the available fertility treatments to ascertain their halachic viability and a "kosher" supervision service on IVF treatments was established.
Today Machon Puah, which is located in Jerusalem and funded by donations, offers a number of services to couples that are having difficulty conceiving. The first is a free counseling service, where couples can meet with one of eight rabbis well-versed in all matters of gynecology and fertility who can advise the couples about the different treatments available, and can direct them to the top doctors in Israel who deal with the problems.
"Many of the doctors who are seeing patients often don't have enough time to explain a game plan to the patients," Weitzman said. "We have the time to do that, because we are not clinical, so we can explain to a couple what the process is, and we can build a long-term strategy with them."
The other service that Machon Puah offers is the aforementioned supervision, where a religious supervisor checks the artificial insemination proceedings to ensure that no mistakes happen. This service costs $30 for an intrauterine insemination, and $80 for IVF. In the 12 years that Machon Puah has been offering the service, its supervisors have caught 19 errors in the thousands of inseminations they supervised.
"Nineteen is not a huge number, but it is definitely a significant number" Weitzman said.
So has the terror in Israel dampened the desires of couples wanting to conceive?
"If anything, just the opposite," Weitzman said. "We have seen a baby boom. The answer to the problem that the Jews are having in Israel is to increase the population. The answer to terrorism is to have more children."
For more information, call (718) 951-6421; or visit www.puah.org.il/indexeng.asp .