“I grew up in Los Angeles, and the community that I grew up in was very involved with each other, both Jewishly and just as a community taking care of each other,” Smolkin said.
“To be able to do that with individuals and…connect the secular Jewish community and connect the Orthodox Jewish community and every variety [of person] is incredibly important to me.”
The Jewish Fertility Foundation was started in 2015 by Elana Frank, who personally experienced the support women get in Israel for fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization. Seeing how expensive and difficult that process is in the U.S. inspired her to start the foundation and make fertility help more accessible. Since then, the JFF expanded to work locally in seven cities, as well as nationally.
“There’s been tremendous stigma with infertility” inside and outside the Jewish community, Smolkin said. “Treatment is very, very expensive in the United States…[Frank] was really inspired to reduce stigma and make it manageable, to help hopeful parents.”
To that end, in Cincinnati, Smolkin helps people access JFF grants to help fund fertility treatments, and connects them with local and national support groups. In Cincinnati, a support group for women is run by a licensed therapist, while JFF nationally also has peer-to-peer support groups for men, queer Jews, and postpartum couples. Frank also runs a podcast to educate more widely about fertility and reproductive health.
Being able to help people find emotional support is “one of the things that drew me to JFF, because it’s not just about the medicine,” Smolkin said. “It’s really a holistic view of looking at a situation…it is about taking care of each other, hoping that people can have children – and also holding space when they can’t.”
Smolkin found her way to being the JFF-Cincy manager after a conversation with a friend in mid-2022.
The Supreme Court had just struck down Roe v. Wade and the federal right to abortion, and out on a playdate with their kids, Smolkin’s friend told her about the JFF’s work – and how the Supreme Court decision would affect it.
For those trying to have kids through in vitro fertilization, or other fertility methods, abortion is an important part of managing life-threatening pregnancy conditions like preeclampsia and serious fetal developmental problems.
In states with restrictive abortion laws, couples now have another hurdle on their fertility journey, and another pain point for the JFF to support people through.
The more Smolkin heard about the JFF’s work, the more she wanted to get involved. After meeting the JFF’s founder, Elana Frank, she helped the organization put together and publish an article. From there it felt natural to do more.
“Let me connect more with the organization to try and see what I really enjoyed doing,” Smolkin thought to herself. “I want to start some volunteering to really connect with things that are meaningful to me.”
She did some research and marketing work for JFF as a volunteer, and then the Cincinnati manager position opened up in mid-2023.
“I was thrilled at that point to take it,” Smolkin said.
There’s meaning in every part of the job, especially in addressing the deeply personal needs of people trying to access fertility treatment. For example, applying for a JFF grant to cover the cost of treatment can be overwhelming without the help of someone like Smolkin.
“That’s an intimidating process for anybody to do, to just step forward and say ‘I’m ready, I need help,’” Smokin said. “Admitting that is a big step for many people. So it’s really wonderful to be there for them.”
Though called the Jewish Fertility Foundation, the JFF does serve both Jews and non-Jews. The grants are specific to Jewish families, but JFF’s support services are available for all.
Someone once called Smolkin from a hospital about getting help for a family member. They weren’t Jewish, but they saw one of the JFF brochures and decided to reach out.
“The only part of the conversation that had to do with representing Judaism was asking about our services and what we can and can’t provide for them,” Smolkin said.
Meanwhile, another part of Smolkin’s work is spreading awareness about infertility issues. That’s for the Jewish community, but there’s also plenty of education to do for fertility clinics themselves who may not have much cultural literacy about caring for Jewish patients.
One staff member at a clinic told Smolkin “that there are so many new staff members and…they want to understand who they’re dealing with,” she said. “They’re looking for someone to help guide them and give them information and answer questions.”
Looking out to 2024, Smolkin hopes to connect with sub-communities of the Jewish community, like queer Jews, and better understand how to serve them.
“So that there can be more services available, and in a way that works for that community – not in a way that I think might work,” Smolkin said.
There’s also more networking to do, both with other Jewish professionals and other clinics to make sure they know JFF is a resource they can lean on.
At the heart of the work is encouraging people to reach out if they have any questions with infertility struggles.
“We all have so much that we’re dealing with, there’s so much joy in this world,” Smolkin said. “But there’s also so much pain – and the ability to seek help when we need it shows tremendous strength. It is difficult. And I would encourage anyone who just has questions or needs to be in touch.”
As part of that, Smolkin also reminds the Jewish community to be compassionate about the way they talk and think about childbearing.
“There are so many different pathways to parenthood. Many are seen, many aren’t seen,” Smolkin said.
Giving “people space for their own individual experience, while being part of the community, it’s complicated and very important for us to keep trying to do,” she said. “And I’m proud of this community, I think it really does that well…we are really fortunate here.”