Rivkah Kahlani and her daughter.
Rivkah Kahlani and her daughter.

Bikur Cholim’s new Maternal Wellness Initiative supports new moms.

There’s nothing like feeling the support of a loving community during a significant period in one’s life. Rivkah Kahlani of West Bloomfield experienced this firsthand in March when her second child, Leah Devorah, was born.

“I have terrible pregnancies. I have perinatal depression and feel this hazy cloud over me the entire time,” Kahlani said.

A few days after her daughter’s birth, a woman she’d never met was at her door, holding out a small black bag.

“I’m an ambassador for Bikur Cholim’s new Maternal Wellness Initiative (MWI),” the woman said. “Here’s a gift for you and here’s my number. Please call me if you have any questions or need any help. I’ll call you to check in in about a week.”

Kahlani said, “It felt like an olive branch, just knowing that someone was specifically there for me. Obviously, it couldn’t cure my clinical depression, but knowing that someone had my back was a very special feeling. I’m so amazed that something like this exists.”

The MWI started in January 2022 and was the brainchild of Silka Rothenberg, a psychologist and mom of two from Oak Park. In 2019, only one year after she’d moved to Detroit with her family, she gave birth to her daughter.

“The Detroit community is so wonderful and welcoming, and it’s growing tremendously,” Rothenberg said. “People reached out and offered me help after my baby’s birth, but it made me think of the many newcomers who don’t have family or a support system. I realized it would be beneficial to have an inbuilt program for all new moms.”

She reached out to suggest such a program to Naomi Apt, director of development for Bikur Cholim of Detroit, a local organization that assists families experiencing medical issues.

Incredibly, Bikur Cholim had just received an anonymous donation specifically earmarked to help new mothers. The time was ripe. Rothenberg approached Leslie Ungar of Southfield, who eagerly agreed to be involved in this groundbreaking program in Detroit.

Developing the Program

The three looked at other communities with such a program for inspiration. They also received a financial grant from Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Detroit, which helped fund the launch of the program.

The gift bag new moms receive from Bikur Cholim’s new Maternal Wellness Initiative
The gift bag new moms receive from Bikur Cholim’s new Maternal Wellness Initiative

In November 2021, they sent call outs to the community asking for women to volunteer. Many women of a variety of age and life stages and from across the Jewish spectrum eagerly signed up. Many were eager to give a new mother something they would have appreciated receiving when they’d had a baby.

Leslie Ungar
Leslie Ungar

“We train our volunteers on all kinds of issues that often come up for new moms,” Ungar said. “We have trainings on lactation, sleep, pelvic floor health, the emotional state of new moms …  a whole range of things. This way, an MWI ambassador can recognize what’s normal and help identify red flags in ‘their’ moms and know when a referral to a professional would be appropriate.”

There are also clinical consultants trained in perinatal mental health on staff for those cases of more concern.

Eighteen initial volunteers trained to become ambassadors in December 2021 with a second batch of another 18 volunteers being trained in June 2022.

Once ambassadors are trained, they are assigned mothers who have recently given birth from a list culled from different school and shul newsletters and Community Links emails. Every mom who’s just given birth is eligible — whether it’s their first baby or their 10th.

The ambassador drops off a gift bag/toiletry case containing goodies for the new mom, including an insulated mug, fancy chocolates, tea, coffee and a voucher for a heavily discounted massage. There’s also a list of healthy, easy recipe ideas and a comprehensive list of local resources and supports, put together by Lev Detroit, a division of Jewish Family Service.

“The moms are so touched. After childbirth, people come by with gifts for the baby, but how many people remember the mother? This gift is specifically to nurture her,” Ungar said.

Checking In on New Moms

The ambassador will usually check in with her new mom again about a week later. Many moms are fine and report needing no extra support, but many others feel overwhelmed with the needs of older kids … or feel under the weather … or just plain exhausted from lack of sleep … or are simply not managing to create healthy meals for their families.

A new mom and baby at a “mommy and me” class this summer.
A new mom and baby at a “mommy and me” class this summer.

MWI has a WhatsApp chat for volunteers where Ambassadors can post the needs of ‘their’ moms anonymously — whether its babysitting, meals, a simple errand (which is never so simple with a crying new baby in tow) or even someone just to hold their baby for a few minutes so they can take a leisurely shower for the first time in days.

The ambassadors check in again at about week five and then again at week eight. At that point, the ambassador usually says, “Please call me if you need anything.”

Sometimes, those check-ins are enough to establish a relationship. In one case, a new mom’s postnatal recovery was uneventful, and she didn’t require any extra help … Until her 5-year-old broke her leg when her baby was 2 months old. The mom promptly reached out to her MWI ambassador who was able to provide the family with the practical support they suddenly needed.

Since the program started, more than 130 new moms have received visits and calls from a MWI ambassador.

Meet Some Ambassadors

Ambassador Debbie Mayerfeld of Oak Park has reached out to eight new moms in the community. Most required no extra support but still appreciated being checked on.

Ambassador Debbie Mayerfeld
Ambassador Debbie Mayerfeld

“Every new mom was so tickled about the whole thing. They said it felt so nice to be remembered,” Mayerfeld said. “They’re grateful to have the information, the list of resources and appreciated the care that was put into the package. This is such a great program — supporting mothers ultimately benefits the entire community.”

As a nurse practitioner and MWI consultant, Phyllis Meer is one of the professionals who trains the ambassadors; she shares how new mothers often feel emotionally after childbirth and how to communicate with them in a positive way. When an ambassador feels “her” mom needs more resources, she can turn to Meer, who will reach out to the mom with her wealth of information and experience.

Phyllis Meer
Phyllis Meer

“New moms come home from the hospital after having a baby very quickly, usually still in pain from the birth, and often with lots of responsibilities waiting for them at home. Moms really need to recover in order to take care of their babies properly,” Meer said.

New moms often look around and wonder why they’re struggling when everyone else seems to be managing just fine.

Silka Rothenberg
Silka Rothenberg

“Moms are superheroes,” Rothenberg said. “We make everything look easy, but we’re really balancing a lot, and everyone can benefit from knowing that someone is there for us, particularly after such an intense time like childbirth. “This program is for the women in our community who give birth, and it helps normalize the need for help,” she added. “We also never assume that just because a new mom has lots of family in town that all her needs are being met.”

Meer is quick to point out that everyone assumes having a new baby is a joyous experience — and while it usually is — mothers also often feel a mix of emotions, coupled with pain from childbirth, exhaustion from lack of sleep and hormonal fluctuations as well as guilt from not feeling blissfully happy. Others lack confidence in their ability to take care of their newborn babies. Meer can help meet the mother’s needs after childbirth.

According to the CDC, about one in eight new moms experience symptoms of postnatal depression. Low social support is an increased risk factor.

“Research shows that women who feel alone or isolated after birth are more likely to develop anxiety and depression,” Ungar said. “Our goal is to make sure that no mom in our community falls through the cracks.”

Education and Peer Support

The MWI kickoff event, presented in conjunction with Lev Detroit and JBaby, was a community-wide educational webinar, with discussions on mental health, the hormonal changes of childbirth and even the spiritual aspects of pregnancy.

During the summer, MWI offered three “mommy and me” classes, bringing in instructors from Nature’s Playhouse in Ferndale to teach baby yoga, baby sign language and baby massage. Held at Aish Detroit in Oak Park, the 15 new moms in attendance were treated to a delicious catered lunch. The participants were so enthusiastic about it, MWI plans to start regular “mommy and me” music classes soon.

“The ‘mommy and me’ summer series were unbelievable, I was so excited about them,” Kahlani shared. “It was so comforting to be part of this group. I had my first baby during COVID, and there was absolutely nothing going on for new moms. This socialization and support are so important for women, especially stay-at-home moms.”

Shoshana Beznosov of Oak Park also attended the classes and raved about her experience.

Shoshana Beznosov and her new baby.
Shoshana Beznosov and her new baby.

“I loved the warmth there. I felt very seen and accepted,” Beznosov said. “I’m a first-time mom, barely know what I’m doing, and here I felt so encouraged and empowered … It was so helpful to see others going through the same things as me and knowing that I’m not alone; we’re experiencing these new struggles and triumphs together.”

The third annual Bikur Cholim of Detroit’s women’s brunch and awareness event was held Nov. 13 at Congregation Ahavas Olam in Southfield. The program featured Racheli Indig, a Partners in Torah educator, speaking on the topic of “A community of kindness: committing to ourselves and our community.”

“The goal of the event was to inspire women to volunteer through Bikur Cholim and on their own,” said Apt, Bikur Cholim director. “When someone’s experiencing a medical challenge — or just had a baby — they’re feeling especially vulnerable and when others do something for them,even something small, it feels so meaningful and significant to the person experiencing the challenge.

“I know women are always juggling so much, but it’s still so important to stretch ourselves and give to others. In doing so, we always end up giving to ourselves, too.”

For more about volunteer or sponsorship opportunities, call (248) 278-8484 x 7 or email mwi@bikurcholimdetroit.com.

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