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Do You Know a Shifra? Aka a Midwife? Aka a strong, beautiful woman?

Acts of perseverance and purpose are particularly striking during challenging times.

KieferPix / Shutterstock
KieferPix / Shutterstock

Do you know about Shifra and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who defied Pharaoh’s decree to kill newborn Hebrew boys that they delivered? They tricked Pharaoh and told him that, unlike the Egyptian women, the Hebrew women were delivering their own babies before they could get to them. 

Shifra and Puah

There is a lot of study about who these women really were – some say Shifra was Yocheved, Moses’s sister and that Puah was really Moses’s mother, but that is a discussion for another time. 

This maneuver by the two midwives led to the successful birth of Moses and set the stage for the liberation of the Israelites. Which takes us to the celebration of Passover. After all, Shifra made it possible for Moses to lead the Israelites to freedom. 

The name Shifra in Hebrew means “to beautify,” or “be beautiful.” It is used to say that a girl is beautiful inside and out, that she has a big heart and that once you get to know her you will love her ability to persevere no matter what life throws at her. She will be with you through thick and thin.

Well, that sounds right – look at what the original Shifra accomplished. That’s the power of a woman with a strong will and determination. A woman with purpose and vision. A woman who helps, a woman who does. A woman who makes a difference. 

I’ve written before that I am very active and dedicated to Hadassah. the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc (HWZOA). Why you may ask. am I so committed to this non-profit that I consider it the career of my heart for so many decades? It’s because it is a sisterhood of women with a common goal – to heal – physically, emotionally, in Israel and to facilitate the sharing of medical research and protocols  around the world. In fact, the tag line for Hadassah is “The Power of Women Who Do.” And what does Hadassah do? Hadassah heals. 

But what does this have to do with Shifra. Well, I’ll tell you. There are Shifras today – all around us. I want to tell you for a moment about one in particular. 

Gila Zarbiv is a certified Nurse Midwife and the infectious disease specialist in the labor and delivery ward at the Ein Kerem campus of the Hadassah Medical Organization (HMO). She was raised in Pittsburg but moved to Israel as she was passionate about the country since she was a young girl. And the moment she went to see Hadassah Hospital, she knew that was the place she wanted to learn and work. And the moment she saw the labor and delivery room, she knew that was what she wanted to do. 

How many of you have read the book Raquela by Ruth Gruber? If you haven’t – you would really enjoy it. And if you know a 12-year-old girl looking for a great read, order it for her online. It’s about an amazing woman who was one of the first original midwives in Israel and she was Gila’s role model. Midwifery is such an important specialty. And Gila Zarbiv is a modern day Shifra. 

The book Raquela by Ruth Gruber

I’ve heard people talk about the coronavirus as a plague, linking it to the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians because of Pharaoh’s failure to heed Moses’s appeal of  “let my people go.” But let’s look at the other side of it – what I see on TV are neighborhoods singing out their windows together, workout instructors giving a class from his roof top, researchers working so hard to find a vaccine and medicine for the virus and whole countries standing on their front steps applauding the medical people and responders who are taking care of millions of people and taking care of individual people lying in hospital beds.  

Hadassah Hospital was chosen by the Israeli government to be one of a few hospitals selected to care for people with COVID-19. Hadassah Hospital doctors are doing it and they are doing it with compassion and care. The world is filled with Shifras – people who are beautiful inside and out and people with perseverance and purpose. I am proud to be part of a sisterhood, an organization that helps to make this healing possible in Israel. 

“The Hebrew Midwives”

Believe it or not, I have a personal connection to “Shifra.” Almost 38 years ago  I gave birth to our second child, a baby girl. My husband and I had chosen her first Hebrew name but we were stuck for a middle Hebrew name. So, from the hospital, I called my Rabbi and this is what I said to him – “Rabbi, I need a name for our new baby girl. I want it to be a strong name of a strong woman.” He called me back the next day and said, “Frieda, the name I suggest is Shifra, and he told me about the midwife and what she had done. 

We gave our daughter Jessica the Hebrew names Zipporah Shifra: Zipporah because my mother started to refer to the baby in utero by the name; Zipporah for some reason, and Shifra because I knew this child would be a strong good woman.

Today, Dr. Jessica Sapirstein is now a family practice physician. She is beautiful on the inside and on the outside. She persevered through organic chemistry (many readers know what I mean), and through a Master’s in Public Health which took her to Uganda to set up baby clinics and teach child care to village women. Then she went to medical school and decided early on to work in underserved communities which she has done for many years. 

Perseverance and purpose are what my daughter has. Perseverance and purpose are what Hadassah has. It’s been through hard times and now the hospitals and youth centers in Israel that we support are dealing with the coronavirus – caring for patients and making sure the kids in the villages who can’t go home, are cared for. Physical and emotional healing, like I said earlier.

Frieda, her sister Leslie Rappaport and Frieda’s daughter Dr. Jessica Rosenberg Sapirstein advocating for Hadassah in DC in 2018

Story time – now it’s time to thank all the Shifras out there – and you know who you are.

Recently, Magen David Adam, Israel’s ambulance service, notified the Hadassah staff that they were bringing into the hospital  a 35-year-old, quarantined patient in labor. The Hadassah Hospital staff immediately went into action. They prepared and equipped a special delivery room for the mother-to-be who was potentially infectious. Upon arrival, she was immediately tested. Two midwives wearing full protective gear delivered a healthy baby boy a little while later.

When the test confirmed that she was positive for the coronavirus she was transferred to the new Hadassah Coronavirus Outbreak Unit in the Round Building at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem. One of the midwives  made sure that the new mom was kept warm and gave emotional support during transfer.

The staff gave her frequent photos and phone calls of the baby. 

The young mother could not thank the Hadassah staff enough, expressing that she felt so far from him and helpless, but was very grateful for their care and dedication. You can read more about this heartwarming story at the Hadassah website.

With that, my prayer for everyone is good health, contentment, and peace of mind.  And a Zissen Peseach – a Sweet Passover. Stay safe.

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