“Midwife” is a word in old German meaning “with woman”. Historically, as well as today, it categorizes a specific profession in medicine. When I began my journey towards becoming a midwife, I was familiar with this definition. Most people, however, upon hearing the term “midwife” usually associate it as being “someone who, in taking care of the ‘wife’, delivers her baby”. There is little awareness about the many roles a midwife plays during the life cycle of a woman.
As a midwife, I have certainly attended many births, guiding women through the intensity of labor and delivering their babies. As the baby is born, I’ve lifted the baby to her mother’s breast, and helped this new mother begin feeding her new baby for the first time. As a midwife, I also provide medical care, as well as emotional support, during pregnancy and after the birth, often looking after the newborn as well. Outside of pregnancy, I take care of women and girls of all ages, providing for their various health care needs. In short, as a midwife, I have been “with woman” for the entirety of her life cycle.
In the last few years, however, I have become aware of a part of being “with woman” that was never covered in my medical training. I have become involved with performing Taharahs for Jewish women in Los Angeles. A “Taharah” is the ritual protocol of preparation of a Jewish person for burial. It consists of a specific set of actions, delineated by Torah law, that are performed by a group of women, if the person is female, and of men, if the person is male. These groups are often volunteers and are known by the title “Chevra Kadisha”, which means “holy friends”. The service they perform is called “chesed shel emes” or the ultimate “true kindness” since this service is provided for those who can no longer say “Thank You”.
How, you may ask, can I compare Chevra Kadisha work with that of providing women’s health care? An interesting question… And yet, I have experienced a reality which tells me that this last act of caring for women is just a logical extension of the work I have been doing for so many years.
When a pregnant woman comes under my care, there is a sacred trust that exists between us. Implicit in this trust is me saying “I will be sensitive to you, to your needs. I will respect you and this new existence that you are creating. I will be there to help your transition from one state to another.” Though not as dramatic or perhaps, obvious, there is the same trust when a woman comes to me for gynecological or general health care. I am promising that I will, to the best of my ability, be sensitive and caring, and attempt to fill the needs of this particular woman. I have always considered it a privilege, this work that I have been drawn to. I was blessed with brochas (blessings) from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, obm, when I began the process which led to my present professional career.
Several years ago, for reasons that I could not begin to enumerate at the time, I began to feel myself drawn to the idea of becoming part of the Chevra Kadisha. It took a while before I was able to begin the learning process and attend my first Taharah. Many of the mortuaries have women on staff, wonderful, G-d fearing and generous women who perform absolutely, kosher Taharas. By Hoshgochah Protis (Divine Providence), I happened to ask a friend, I knew had been doing Taharas for several years, to please call me the next time she goes. Her response was “how about tonight?”
It somehow doesn’t seem appropriate to use the term “excited” in reference to how I felt, knowing that I was finally having the opportunity to begin this training. However, there was definitely an eager anticipation. Other emotions, as well, remain in my memory when I think of that night: nervousness… how would I react?... what if I did something wrong?... I won’t know what to do… As we were driving to the facility, I remembered that during my medical training I had the same concerns with my first birth… This was fascinating to me. What was the similarity? Why did I feel the same way?
Our team of three women consisted of my friend, who had a lot of experience, another woman whom I was meeting for the first time - who would be our leader, since she was the most experienced, and myself. We discussed what would most likely be the scenario and as I listened to these women speak, most of my trepidation and anxiety melted away. I knew that I was in good hands and I would be guided well.
How, you may ask, can I compare Chevra Kadisha work with that of providing women’s health care?
We entered the room where we would be doing our work and removed the sheets that had been covering this woman when she came from the hospital, at all times maintaining a respect for her modesty and dignity. I was reminded that when a woman is in labor, we likewise acknowledge the need for modesty and dignity. We behaved, as we began the Taharah, in a manner of great sensitivity and caring. And, I thought, when a woman comes to me for health care, my promise to her is, similarly, to treat her with sensitivity and caring. Talking was minimal, speaking only when necessary to give instructions or to lend clarity. The atmosphere in the room was one of deep consideration for this woman who was someone’s wife, mother, daughter. Only actions necessary to accomplish the needed task were performed, always recognizing the need for and goal of minimal movement or disruption. There was a sense of depth, of spirituality and of connection, as we went through the ritual of the Taharah and recited the tefillos (prayers). It was impossible to not be impacted by this profound feeling.
When we finished our work, we asked “mechillah” – forgiveness – of this woman whom we had the privilege of assisting in her transition from one plane of existence to another. If we had done anything improper, some action not according to Halacha (Jewish Law), if we had caused any distress or humiliation, if in any way we were remiss, we now asked that we be forgiven. At this last moment of being “with woman”, I found that I was also asking that she please be an advocate for all Jews and beg Hashem to bring Moshiach.
We walked out into the night air, seeing a clear sky, and feeling a deep quiet. I examined my feelings and realized that I felt as if I had been at a birth. There was the same silence, the same respect, the same depth of feeling. The same sense of privilege and the same knowledge that I had been given a gift of witnessing the transition of the soul. I knew with a certainty of understanding why I had been drawn to participating in this extraordinary mitzvah. Whatever it was that had propelled me to being “with woman” throughout their lives also drew me to being “with woman” as they leave this life. I felt that now I was truly a “midwife” in the fullest sense of the word.