In 2005, Rabbi Elie and Rebbetzin Chaya Estrin, directors of Chabad at the University of Washington, welcomed a premature baby, Yehuda, into the world. At 26 weeks, he had just passed the halfway mark to a full-term pregnancy. As community leaders, the Estrins wanted a means to share their experiences, but social media was in its infancy and blogging was not mainstream. They took to updating the Chabad at UW’s homepage with snippets about his progress. With each update, they removed the last note. “I would copy the notes into a document and save them,” Rabbi Estrin says. “When I lost the computer, I lost the story. There was no history, no cloud.” This past year, the Estrins faced another difficult pregnancy and birth with their son Nissi. This time, their experience was completely different.
Nissi’s heart complications were diagnosed prenatally last winter. “Judaism focuses on what you can do to save a life, and we knew that chances for his survival were very slim,” Estrin says. “We were standing on the tracks and waiting for the train.” Hospital staff prepared them for the worst, and the assigned social worker inquired about funeral plans with each prenatal visit. The Estrins posted regularly to Facebook, and with each post, they found a tremendous amount of support. “My position makes me be a social media person, but it felt like a crutch for real socialization — preventing people from seeing each other and socializing,” Estrin says. “This time, I was shown the positivity and value of social media in spades.” Meanwhile, Chaya Estrin participated in a monthly Chabad women’s group that launched a campaign that raised nearly $60,000. “The spiritual boost of the mitzvot being done for this baby — this told us something positive is going to happen,” Rabbi Estrin says.
After Nissi’s birth, the Facebook posts and WhatsApp group messages flowed in. The Estrins shared every detail with their community. “Focusing on the positive ensured people see how Judaism deals with these issues,” Estrin says.
Other community members have found solace in a social media community. When Eva Moon, a Seattle-based singer-songwriter and performer, tested positive for the BRCA gene, a risk indicator for breast cancer, her genetic counselor urged her to join the FORCE community — Facing our Risk of Cancer Empowered. The online forums became her home. “I found it to be an invaluable source of people who were further along in the same journey I was starting. I could ask questions about options and surgeries,” she says. “I needed to educate myself quickly before I could make the decision that’s best for my safety and outcome.”
With the support of FORCE members, Moon considered her options. She spoke to members who had undergone surgery, who listened to her fears and put her at ease. Confident about her decision, she flew to New Orleans for prophylactic surgery. During the 13-hour surgery, her husband posted live updates on Facebook to a private group of 120 friends. Afterwards, Moon wrote some silly limericks about her experience. “I was nervous about posting them on the forum,” she says. “I didn’t want people to think I was making light of something, and I was afraid people might be upset or angry with me, but I went ahead and posted them.” The response was overwhelming. “Over the next few weeks, 300 women from around the world wrote limericks and shared them on that thread,” she says. “For many, it was the first time they smiled or laughed since they’d received their diagnosis.”
On June 14, Estrin posted to Facebook another “Nissi update.” “With true gratitude to the Healer of all flesh, and to the docs and nurses who worked so hard and to the worldwide and local community that has stood behind us these 4+ months, I’m thrilled to say that Nissi is home and being snuggled by siblings!” Nearly 500 people liked that.