Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Elana Frank of the Jewish Fertility Foundation Is Helping To Change Our World
Pilot and pivot — Don’t be afraid to try something new, and pivot when necessary. After the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on abortion, JFF is facing tremendous uncertainty about the future legality of assisted reproductive technology, pregnancy terminations, and contraception. We will be relentless in learning what is legally possible to advocate for our families.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elana Frank.
Elana Frank is the founder and CEO of the Jewish Fertility Foundation. As a recipient of In-Vitro Fertilization treatment herself, Frank has dedicated her foundation towards the idea of giving families at least one free attempt at starting a family through IVF. Through her foundation’s work, over 100 families have been blessed with a child born through IVF.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My infertility story: I am Mom to three rambunctious and adorable boys whom I love more than life itself. All were born via the miracle of in vitro fertilization, or IVF. Significantly, the first two were born in Israel.
The judgment and pressure to launch a Jewish family is crushing, perhaps even more so in Israel where large families are common. Like all who struggle to conceive, the angst of trying and failing month after month is crushing. At the religious non-profit (in the Galilee) where I worked, my colleagues wondered why I’d been married for over a year and did not have kids.
“It’s time you started trying.” “You don’t want to be old parents!” (I was 31 years old.) They began saying prayers for me. My typically blunt Israeli family peppered us with questions. “Don’t worry, we are trying,” I’d say. Then I’d go home sobbing.
And yet, living in Israel, made all the difference. Israel’s socialized medicine system afforded me the opportunity to visit my doctor after only four months of trying to begin to get some answers. When, after five years, we made our way back to America with two young kids, my husband was not on the same page about my obsession with having a third child.
How could I quit when we had six extra embryos in Israel? I flew back and forth to Israel to transfer them, which was significantly less expensive than starting from scratch in America. But none of the remaining embryos took, and no one could answer why. It took us another five years of marital stress, judgment (mostly from myself), more failed IVF cycles, and unsuccessful attempts at adoption to have our third child through embryo donation — a form of third-party reproduction.
Launching the Jewish Fertility Foundation. Over time, I learned that I wasn’t the only one in the world who had a hard time conceiving and that for others it takes years, miscarriages, unbearable debt, and oceans of tears before finally giving birth, if at all. With the cost of IVF ranging on average from $14,000 — $25,000 in America, many don’t even have a chance for a chance. I knew there was an urgent need for funding, support, and enhanced awareness of this devastating and often “unspoken” issue in the Jewish community.
After experiencing the pain and loneliness of infertility, and realizing how lucky I was to have my infertility experience begin in Israel where treatment is free, I rallied people behind me and created the Jewish Fertility Foundation (JFF) in 2015. JFF provides financial assistance, educational awareness, and emotional support to Jewish people with medical fertility challenges. It is our vision that every Jewish person in America should be able to afford fertility treatments, be emotionally supported, and have access to educational resources while building their family. We have come a long way since 2015 and are actively scaling our organization. We currently have five offices: JFF-Atlanta (2015), JFF-Cincinnati (2019), JFF- Birmingham (2021), JFF-Tampa (2021), and JFF-Pittsburgh (2022).
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
We just celebrated our 100th baby being born! Helping over 100 families build their families.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m not sure that this was funny. But the client and I can now laugh about it. I was very self-conscious about being pregnant after infertility with my third child (born via an embryo donation) and a client came into my office to talk about their situation. I jokingly said to her that if I could get pregnant this way (through embryo donation) after five years of trying, anyone can. The joke was on me because she had to get her uterus removed. Today with a staff of eleven, I make sure that our employees have access to mental health providers who offer creative solutions to working with our staff, especially on how to be sensitive to clients various infertility diagnoses.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
INFERTILITY’S IMPACT IN THE JEWISH COMMUNITY: While an estimated 1 in 8 Americans experience medical infertility, that statistic jumps to 1 in 6 in the Jewish community. According to the CDC, 12.5% of US women are using fertility services; which jumps to 16.7% among Jewish women for various reasons which include a greater focus on education/career, marrying later, and genetic issues. 31 states do not require insurers to cover any portion of the costs of fertility treatments. When an IVF cycle costs an average of $20,000 in the US (with no guarantee of success), many people sacrifice their future financial stability when paying for multiple rounds of IVF… or, they give up hope of conceiving, as the costs are simply too high.
Social Change — Reframing the Issue around Health Equity and Access through Education, Support, and Funding
I’m raising and reframing the discussion about infertility within the Jewish community. The Jewish community embraces and celebrates families, but the journey to create those families can be fraught. Because family is so central to Jewish life, many individuals and couples experience tremendous stress and pressure when the path to parenthood is not so simple. Infertility remains taboo, something that, in many communities, is not talked about or openly acknowledged. When people dealing with infertility experience the Jewish community as steeped in pressure and cloaked in shame, the community can become something to avoid, a point of stress and anxiety, and not a refuge or place for connection and support. JFF is changing the conversation — helping those who need extra support on the road to parenthood while nurturing much-needed culture change on the issue of infertility. Through educational and support programming (including my podcast Fruitful & Multiplying), JFF initiates a Jewish communal conversation about infertility, fighting misinformation and stigmas to ensure that the community can be a welcoming, nurturing space for those struggling to build their families.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
“The Jewish Fertility Foundation helped us not only financially, but also strengthened our sense of Jewish community. We were floored to learn that this foundation exists and that we could participate. We have never felt so welcomed as a Jewish family going through a difficult, emotional, and physical process. The support from other grantees and staff reinforced our commitment to raising a Jewish family and to being active in our Jewish community. Kehillah, the community is what this foundation is all about. Growing our Kehillah one at a time. And we are so thankful to JFF for helping us do our part. — Danielle and Jeff K.
“I was hesitant at first because I am not Jewish (though my husband is), but I knew that I needed non-medical support that wasn’t my husband. The first JFF activity I signed up for was the fertility buddy program. I love my fertility buddy. She is an excellent listener and has a way of making me feel comfortable to share what is going on in my life and fertility journey — which is helpful. I find it’s nice to have someone that isn’t my husband or personal friend that I can open up to and not have to worry about their judgment or reaction. I appreciate how she doesn’t give advice — but makes me reflect on what I really want or need.
My support group, for women who have experienced loss during their fertility journey, is particularly powerful, especially being connected to other women experiencing something similar. With my two losses (miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy), I had not taken the time to really mourn, or put into words how I was feeling about those losses.
I also appreciate how all of these services are free. Fertility treatments are so expensive and draining, it’s nice to know that there is this support and a variety of options for self-care out there that I can take advantage of — and anyone can — without it being another financial expense.” — LW
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
→ Make infertility insurance coverage available for your employees and/or mandatory in your State (through your influence as a politician or as a business owner)
→ Learn how to best support someone experiencing infertility — What to say/Not say https://jewishfertilityfoundation.org/educational/#support
→ If you are a communal leader — Create inclusive programming and recognize the importance of programming for those that are choosing to live child-free or who haven’t begun to start their families.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I’m the true definition of a non-profit professional — from Hillel in College to NYU Wagner — nonprofit management Masters’s Degree to JCRC-NY to fundraising at an immigrant youth village in Israel.
I’m entering my 8th year of founding a non-profit that has become synonymous with me. I have 20+ years of growing up within the Jewish non-profit sector and having a positive overall experience where I’ve seen others burn out. We’re no longer a scrappy start-up; we just hit the million-dollar annual budget mark and are scaling nationally. I put on a confident and determined face, but even with people rallying behind me, insecurity can rear its ugly head.
As a female leader, I aspire to be the best that I can be and utilize the unique traits that women bring to the workplace. To me, leading like a woman means embracing my authentic self, flaws, and all. I take my job seriously, and I can be emotional, especially in my line of work. I try to remember that emotions do not make me weak!
At the same time, I try to understand that I sometimes need to put on a thicker skin because I cannot always make everyone happy. I consider others’ ideas, thoughts, and emotions, both as a CEO and as a mom. I do all that I can, and I have to remind myself that I am not always able to be a superwoman to everyone.
I’m a curious learner, and I love learning best practices and failures from other CEOs in different types of organizations. I’m good at taking lessons from other people, fields, and sectors and applying them to my organization.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Separate personal from professional — Grow a thicker skin, not everything is personal.
- Find coaches and mentors — I was fortunate to launch JFF with a 20+ year background in nonprofit management including a Master’s from NYU. All these experiences and engagements exposed me to best practices and incredible mentors.
- Learn, grow, collaborate — I’ve actively pursued fellowships and innovation cohorts to help JFF adopt best practices and scale up nationally.
- Support your staff — Given our mission, most of our staff have been, and likely will continue to be, women. I am committed to addressing impact of gender differences on everyone associated with JFF. I want to ensure that employees don’t need to rely on a partner for benefits. I am developing a compensation policy using the gender lens to address the systemic inequalities that exist against women.
- Pilot and pivot — Don’t be afraid to try something new, and pivot when necessary. After the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on abortion, JFF is facing tremendous uncertainty about the future legality of assisted reproductive technology, pregnancy terminations, and contraception. We will be relentless in learning what is legally possible to advocate for our families.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Embryo donation — as a recipient of an embryo that allowed me to complete my family, I’d love a world in which this was common practice. It’s hard to comprehend the generosity of a stranger to give such a transformational gift to complete my family and there are so many people in the world with embryos they won’t be using stored in the freezer. What if they would consider donating them to a family in need? And what if a family suffering from infertility knew that this was an option?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen. — Brene Brown. In order to truly make a difference, you have to actually put yourself out there and work through it yourself.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Brene Brown — if I were lucky enough to have breakfast with her (though I’d settle for a zoom). I bet that she’d be able to see right through all of my insecurities and call me out on all my sh*t.
Having her thoughts, suggestions, feedback on the organization that I’ve built over the past 8 years (and where we are headed) would be just beyond meaningful to me. As a leader, I pride myself on having built a team of professionals, developing a fantastic culture, and providing professional development to my staff.
The Jewish Fertility Foundation is a Jewish nonprofit where I actually want to work and grow. I feel like she’d be so proud.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Youtube: Jewish Fertility Foundation
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Elana Frank of the Jewish Fertility Foundation Is Helping To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.