Hope is part of the human disposition. You have to live in the firm belief that love comes to all, whether fast or slow…
By Chandrea Serebro
Waiting for love
We often read stories about people, near or far away yet in another world, but never do we think it will happen to us. This is the story of Rachel and Greg Levy*, who not only had to wait for love, but also finally found the ultimate love in their baby boy.
Rachel had been dating someone seriously for a couple of months, and with an engagement on the cards, her fiancé-to-be and she decided, without too much thought, that she should go for Ashkenazi genetic testing purely as protocol suggests. Rachel was certain that nothing would come of it, but this decision, which she says she had “no idea where it came from”, became the best decision she has ever made in her life.
“I tested positive as a carrier for a recessive condition I had never heard of before. This is seen almost exclusively in Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European descent. This was a bombshell, and I was extremely distressed at the thought of being a carrier, and of potentially passing this life-threatening condition on to my children.” Reassured that both parents must be carriers of the same condition to then create a 1 in 4 chance of an affected pregnancy, Rachel’s fiancé-to-be then went to get tested too, with a negative outcome. “That was a huge relief, as now I was left with hope again.”
Rachel and her fiancé-to-be ended up breaking up for other reasons, but armed with the knowledge of her genetic status, Rachel now knew that anyone else she would consider marrying would need to be tested for the same recessive condition. “I knew the odds of me falling in love with another carrier of this condition were near impossible – nine Ashkenazi genetic disorders, thousands of potential partners in the city, what were the chances?”
Two years later Rachel met Greg, and on falling in love Rachel realised she would need to tell him about her genetic carrier status, something that was very difficult for her to do and which she left for the final hour. “It was with absolute shock and horror that Greg tested positive for the very same condition, and I will never forget the moment he broke the news to me. Many tears were shed and a distinct feeling of hopelessness invaded our lives. What a blow this was. We weren’t even engaged yet, but we knew with absolute certainty that we wanted to be.” After an intense roller-coaster ride of emotions, decisions, consulting with the Malka Ella Fund, rabbis, doctors, and various other professionals in the genetic field, Greg and Rachel decided to go ahead and get married.
“All parents hope to have healthy children and most babies born are healthy. But, sadly, there are a number of difficulties facing couples today when trying to conceive and carrying a pregnancy to term, and the risk of underlying genetic conditions is always there,” says Genetic Counsellor Kara Stoler, who heads up the Chana branch of the Malka Ella Fertility Fund, which was established to offer genetic medical counselling for common genetic conditions that are more prevalent in Ashkenazi Jews. “We know that approximately 1 in 6 Ashkenazi Jews is a carrier for at least one of the more common conditions. As such, it is important to have genetic counselling and testing prior to starting a family.” Thankfully, she says, with the advances in reproductive medicine today, the hope of having a healthy family is attainable. “With the help of modern medicine, reproductive technologies are available to not only increase the chance of falling pregnant, but also to ensure healthy babies are born even if both parents are carriers for a recessive or dominant genetic disorder. The one thing I always tell my patients is the end goal is to have a healthy family. The road to getting there may not be as direct or simple as they imagined. It may look different from what they expected, but there are many options available and we will work with them to find the best path to building a healthy family.”
What this meant for Rachel and Greg was that they were in for some “trying times” ahead, a journey to having children that they went into their marriage knowing would be difficult, expensive, emotional, and physically invasive. “Countless medical procedures, painful injections, and constant medications all became part and parcel of our life undergoing In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF), together with Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) which would allow for the embryos to be screened for any possibility of abnormality before an actual pregnancy occurs. And, of course, the waiting. The waiting made me feel like I wasn’t myself at all, physically and emotionally,” says Rachel.
With the support of family, friends, their “incredible fertility Doctors, and of course with the overall and unparalleled empathy and support of the amazing Malka Ella Fund on so many levels”, together with their unwavering faith and continuous prayers, Rachel and Greg got through it all. “Baruch Hashem, we have been blessed with a perfectly healthy and beautiful child. He has made it all worthwhile.”
Rachel and Greg were blessed with a happy ending, but only because they were armed with the knowledge of what could have been. “Who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t gotten myself tested all those years ago? We all think that it will never happen to us, that these conditions are so rare, that the chances are almost non-existent. But, my family and I are living proof that it can happen. It’s far more common than we think and it’s happening to many more couples than one would imagine.” Getting tested has never been simpler, and if one does test positive for a genetic condition, it is certainly going to feel “overwhelming and frightening”, says Rachel, “but you can be comforted by the fact that it doesn’t mean that it is ‘the end’ – there is still hope. It is this hope that saw us through the entire fertility journey, from start to finish, and it is this hope that is still with us every single day, in the form of our beautiful, healthy boy.”
Pre-implantation genetic screening (PGS) is commonly performed when a patient is undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF). Once an embryo has formed in the laboratory, a cell is removed to screen for any chromosomal abnormalities. PGS increases the patient’s chance of achieving a successful pregnancy and reduces the risk of a miscarriage. Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) is a laboratory test that is used when there is a known genetic condition in the family. It is specifically designed to identify embryos that may have that specific condition, such as Cystic fibrosis, Tay sachs, or the BRCA gene. PGD identifies single gene conditions and through the process of IVF, transfers embryos that are unaffected. This ensures that a baby and his offspring will not be affected with the familial condition. The Malka Ella Fertility Fund has set up criteria for young couples and singles to apply for financial assistance in a number of areas, in the hope of bringing healthy children into the world. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
No need for speed (dating)
A love story written in the stars, a girl-meets-boy tale destined to happen, and quickly – whether by speed dating or not. This is the story of Lani and Chaim Ehrlich.
Lani, a traditional Jewish girl living in Cape Town with her family since the age of 11, saw an article on Jewish speed dating and thought that it seemed “really cool”. “I had always wanted to try speed dating, but at the same time my mind didn’t like the idea of going to a general speed dating event where I would have had to start with the question: Are you Jewish? And thereafter root out most people from the outset.” So she joined Casey Shevel’s Singles Shmingles Facebook group to wait for the next Jewish Speed Dating event.
The first party that came up was a White Party for Chanukah. “I was so excited. I bought a new outfit and booked my ticket to Joburg.” But only a few days before she was flying, Casey had to cancel the event, but still agreed to meet Lani for a coffee and a chat seeing as she had already booked to fly out. Being the busy person that she is, explains Chaim, Casey once told him that she doesn’t meet singles one-on-one. “This was the first of what would be many instances of Yad Hashem (the hand of G-d) in our relationship,” he says.
At the same time that Lani was meeting Casey, Chaim was en route to Cape Town from Israel where he had been living for the past few months and had decided to make the momentous aliyah move to Israel. “While I was busy packing up my things and getting my papers in order, I got a message from Casey asking me if I knew this girl Lani, who Casey described as “a stunning girl, works in animation, very cute and a little quirky. And what’s more, she’s from Cape Town!” On Lani’s side, she hadn’t heard of Chaim either, and the first date was soon set. “I initially called her Lani, like the South African pronunciation might be, and she quickly corrected me to say that it’s pronounced ‘Lanny’. We organised our first date, a blind date, to meet at the anchor by the lighthouse – no busy coffee shops or noisy restaurants, just an anchor near a park by the sea.”
It was a busy day in Cape Town with so many people crossing the road from the lighthouse, remembers Chaim. “I watched each one, wondering if she was my date. But, when I saw a girl standing by the traffic light about to cross the road, I thought, “Wow I really hope that’s my date.” And it was. A wonderful first date turned into a whirlwind courtship. Dating for just over six months, a time filled with travel and fun, they were engaged that same year. The engagement period was a very challenging time for them, with much hostility towards their relationship from Lani’s family. Yet, with the guidance of the Ehrlich family to “stick it out”, they wed just over a year after their first date, spending their first year protecting their marriage and their happiness at all costs, despite familial resistance.
“I also got a lot of flak from my friends for dating someone who wasn’t shomer Shabbos, something I felt was ridiculous because for me it has always been about finding someone who is decent, someone who is kind, loving, and who I could see myself being with. I always knew we would work together towards a common goal,” says Chaim. Now, they have a kosher home, keep Shabbos, and even learn Torah together. “It has been inspiring to watch Lani grow from her simple Jewish upbringing to a full-fledged Eishes Chayil (woman of valour) in our beautiful Jewish home,” says Chaim.
Yad Hashem is a continuous theme throughout their shared history – living as singles, which for Lani was “a monotonous pattern of existence with no expected different outcome”, and for Chaim “being unsettled, constantly running to the next thing and yearning for more”. “By meeting each other, Hashem helped us to see our path together and it has been a truly beautiful journey,” they say.
It wasn’t love at first sight for Chaim. It took a few seconds! “I immediately saw something in Lani; something unique and exciting. It isn’t about the stuff we have in common, but the way we feel about each other; how in love we are – a real, caring love – not some cheesy Hollywood version of it. That has been the story of our relationship despite the challenges, and we just want to be in love, do the right thing, and grow together. Hashem, through Casey, brought us together for just that.”
* Names have been changed.