Here’s a riddle for your rabbi: If your baby is born from in vitro fertilization, and the donated egg isn’t from a Jewish woman, is the baby really Jewish? Although different branches of Judaism have different answers—Reform says it’s about how the kid’s raised; Orthodox rabbis tend to believe a conversion is necessary—many parents want to make sure their child is a member of the tribe down to its DNA. The problem is there aren’t enough Jewish eggs to go around. So a new type of yenta has arrived on the IVF scene who finds suitable donors, usually from Israel, to match with Americans seeking to become pregnant.
According to the director of NYU’s egg-donation program, Dr. Frederick Licciardi, at his clinic last year, 43 of the 130 women waiting to receive an egg were Jewish, and yet only 19 of the 91 anonymous donors were even partially Jewish. “Americans are not donating at the rate they are needed,” he says. So the clinic allied with a Jewish egg-donor agency that recruits Israeli women, called the Ovum Donor Registry. Judi Fleishman, founder of the Manhattan-based agency, explains that in the early nineties, Fleishman’s doctor kept asking her if she knew of any Jewish egg donors, so she placed ads in Israeli newspapers, and 25 responded. In 1996, she signed a contract with NYU, which had opened its fertility center four years before. Fleishman, who is fluent in Hebrew, still advertises in Israeli newspapers but says 90 percent of her donors reach her through word of mouth from past donors. She’s worked with about 500 women to date.
Another director of a Manhattan-based Jewish egg-donor agency, Ruth Tavor, says hospitals suggested to her in 2002—when she was pregnant with a donated egg—that she start a Jewish-egg-recruiting business. Now her agency, New York LifeSpring, works with fifteen hospitals around the country, three of them in New York.
“So many centers are contacting me because I have access to Jewish donors,” says Tavor, who recruits Israelis exclusively. “Jewish women here, for some reason I don’t know, do not donate.” Fleishman has a theory. “Americans are very phobic about taking hormones—they do a disconnect between taking hormones and taking birth control.” (A donor takes a daily regimen of hormone injections to stimulate her ovaries to produce about fifteen eggs.) “It doesn’t have the stigma in Israeli society.”
Most Israelis travel for a year to South America or the Far East after their army service ends. Some young women stop in the U.S. along the way and donate. Many of the donors use their payment of $8,000 to help finance their studies once they return to Israel. Fleishman takes her cut—$3,500 per transfer—from the waiting couples, who pay roughly $30,000 in total for one cycle. One Israeli woman who donated twice through NYU notes that Israelis may identify more strongly with infertile couples because of their society’s strong pressure to reproduce, noting that “the state gives money to women who give birth.”
Neither NYU nor Fleishman or Tavor will accept or pay more money for Jewish eggs, but one unrelated college classified ad promises Jewish donors $20,000.