Mere seconds after she took the stage at elluminate’s Catalyzing Change conference last week, one thing was obvious to me about Heather Booth: The Jewish civil rights activist and political strategist would’ve made a fantastic rabbi.
“Mishpachah! I’m with family!” Booth exclaimed, standing to meet the ballroom full of Jewish women who were welcoming her with a standing ovation. Booth, who was being honored by elluminate (formerly known as the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York), had been invited for a keynote conversation with Rabbi Tamar Manasseh about her work on abortion. And they would get to that conversation eventually. But it seemed as if Heather Booth was incapable of not first rallying an audience who so clearly craved her wisdom on reproductive justice, especially after the devastating overturning of Roe v. Wade criminalized abortion in states across the country this past summer. For the first few minutes of the keynote program, Heather remained standing and addressed us sans microphone, her words still audible through pure exuberance. “I see the promise of what you are doing here,” Booth empowered us, going on, “When we act together, when we organize together, with love at the center, we can change the world.”
And it’s undeniable that Booth herself has changed the world. In 1965, while she was a student at the University of Chicago, 19-year-old Booth helped a friend’s sister receive an illegal abortion. Word spread, and soon others began coming to her in need of terminating their pregnancies, which she continued to help facilitate. Through these acts of mitzvot, Heather started The Jane Collective (or simply, Jane), a Chicago-based, clandestine organization which offered abortion counseling, referrals to reputable doctors (though later Jane members learned how and began performing the procedures themselves) and follow-up. Though Booth stepped back from Jane in 1968, she and the rest of the Janes (as they’re known colloquially) facilitated approximately 11,000 abortions, all before the Supreme Court made abortion legal in 1973 through Roe v. Wade.
Jane disbanded after Roe v. Wade, but Booth continued on in her activism work. Among many other notable credits, her long career has included founding The Midwest Academy in 1973, directing the 1989 National March for Women’s Lives, serving as the Training Director of the Democratic National Committee in 1996, working as the Director of the NAACP National Voter Fund in 2000 and directing Progressive and Seniors Outreach for the Biden/Harris campaign in 2020. In addition to abortion, Booth has also worked in support of causes like voting rights, immigration justice, financial reform and healthcare – though she is probably mostmet well-known for founding Jane, especially thanks to the recent HBO documentary “The Janes.”
I can’t say I’m too disappointed that Booth chose a career in politics and social justice over the rabbinate. (Though to be clear, Booth only gave up her childhood dream to be a rabbi after being told that the profession wasn’t for women.) Truthfully, I can’t remember the last time I felt as inspired by a rabbi’s sermon as I did by Booth’s words that day. Her seemingly unfettered confidence in both social justice organizing and the democratic process in the United States was exactly what I, a 25-year-old woman deeply troubled by the direction our country is going, needed to hear. (Thankfully, the 2022 midterm elections, which occurred less than a week after the conference, would prove Booth’s optimism to be well-placed. Voters in California, Vermont and Michigan enshrined the right to abortion in their state constitutions, Kentuckians overwhelmingly voted against a referendum which would’ve banned abortion and young women, inspired by the Dobbs decision, turned up in droves at the polls.)
After her keynote conversation, I had the honor of sitting down with Booth to discuss the state of reproductive justice in the United States, standing up to unjust laws and what she hopes to see from the next generation of activists.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
First, I would love to know about your Jewish identity and background.
I was brought up in a very loving Jewish home, and was brought up believing that Jewish and social justice were identical, were intertwined or inseparable. Not only that it meant that we had a set of moral beliefs, history and traditions that we were carrying forward, but that we were an activist religion.
We’ve just celebrated Yom Kippur. And what Isaiah says on Kol Nidre, the holiest day of the Jewish year, he says, “Is this the fast I command of you, to sit in sackcloth and ashes, and show that you’re a penitent?” And the answer is no. “What I command of you is to break the yoke of wickedness, and let the oppressed go free.” And so I was brought up with a tradition that said we should make this a better world and live our moral values. I’m in a secular family, but value the tradition and history really deeply. And it’s a central part of who I am. It’s really what led me to be involved early on in the civil rights movement. And it’s not surprising that Jews have been overrepresented in the civil rights movement, the early women’s movement and many social justice movements, because of this moral teaching.
But Jewish social justice is also precious and it can be vitiated, if not lost. Between about 1968 and 1998, there was a watering down of the vitality of Jewish social justice. Leonard Fein (Leibel Fein), of blessed memory, wrote a book called “Smashing Idols,” where he identified that there was, because of a variety of reasons, a loosening of the bonds between social justice and Judaism. Partly it was out of concern for continuity because of intermarriage; what would happen to Jews if we were 2% of the population or less than 2% of the population. It was partly because of the centrality of Israel, which meant that funding was going for other focused activity. And there was an increased focus on day schools and Jewish study. Those are all important things, but it meant that there wasn’t the same thrust around social justice.
So Rachel Cowan, also of blessed memory, who worked for the Cummings Foundation, hired me to work with Leibel to create a group called Amos. And that group was designed to re-instill social justice in the heart of the Jewish community. We identified people who were social justice leaders: Ruth Messinger, Nancy Kaufman, David Rosen and many others. We did a variety of efforts to help try and spark social justice work, and it was part of a reinforcing and a flowering of Jewish social justice, which we now see in the world. And in fact, it’s seen in part by this remarkable collective that I’ve come to New York to be part of, this elluminate that is helping to support, train and promote new leadership of young Jewish women leaders.
Based on the keynote conversation, I think you would have made a wonderful rabbi – and I read that at one point you had been considering becoming one, but were told that women couldn’t be. Do you ever wish that you had been able to go down that path?
I had wanted to be a rabbi, and I had a wonderful rabbi. I had wanted to be a bat mitzvah, but I didn’t even know there were bat mitzvahs. I now know there are people who were bat mitzvahs then, there were women rabbis, but it wasn’t in the world that I knew. I was confirmed in the Book of Amos, though. And it’s from Amos that the very famous Dr. King quote comes from: Let justice flow like a river and righteousness like a mighty stream. And Amos talks about there being a plumb line of justice. That had a profound effect on me, and my rabbi had a profound effect on me. But I love the work that I do. I love the life that I have, and I’m glad for whatever led me to this place.
I read that in 1963 you visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, and that partially influenced you to get involved in social justice. Could you tell me a bit about that visit?
I went with a program for a summer through the 92nd Street Y, if I remember it accurately. We were on a kibbutz, Lahav in the northern Negev, and did mostly agricultural work, but also traveled around the country. I did go to Yad Vashem and it really had a profound impact on me. One of the ending displays that we saw was about the Warsaw Ghetto, where people fought back. And I made a commitment that in the face of injustice, I would struggle for justice.
Something I didn’t know is that my husband – this was in 1963 and I got married in 1967, so I hadn’t met my husband yet – his great uncle had been head of the World Jewish Congress in Europe during World War II, and played a major role in the creation of Yad Vashem. And so I felt that in some ways life comes full circle.
I was glad that you mentioned the Freedom Summer project during the keynote conversation and how illegitimate authority and unjust laws should be challenged. Does that belief come from a Jewish place for you?
Well, Moses does kill an overseer. I’m non-violent, but there are certainly parts of our tradition like that. I think it mostly comes from if you work for justice, there will be actions by illegitimate authority who try to stifle that. In Mississippi, I was simply holding up a sign saying “Freedom Now” while there were very courageous African Americans that were trying to register to vote. And I was arrested simply for holding up a sign. I wasn’t doing it in order to be arrested, or for civil disobedience. I was doing it just to create support for people who were risking their livelihood, and some potentially their lives. In Mississippi, this Freedom Summer project was where northern students were brought down to shine a spotlight on the terror that African Americans in Mississippi were facing. And I was one of those northern students.
It was during that summer, as people may have heard about, that three of the young volunteers, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, were killed at the hands of the Klan. It’s not surprising to me that two of the three volunteers, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, were Jewish, because the question of justice and acting for justice are a deep part of our culture, our history, our tradition. So, like I mentioned earlier, Jews were overrepresented in the Freedom Summer Project and in the civil rights movement amongst white people. And the same is true in the women’s movement.
What would you say to young people who want to get involved with organizing, but they’re not quite sure where to start?
My main thought is: You can do it, you really can do it. So much of society tells us we’re not good enough. We don’t know enough. You’re not smart enough. You’re not pretty enough, thin enough. It tells us we’re just not enough. And it also says, don’t act out. Don’t make trouble. Don’t draw attention to yourself. When in fact, together, we are more than enough. And so my main thought for people who want to be involved is to find others, either individually, friends or coworkers or partners, but also to find organizations that you think are doing effective work and see if there’s a way to start with them. You also may start your own organization, but that’s a heavier lift. There’s so many effective groups; go to a place where you find a passion. Go to a place where people are kind to each other, so there’s a supportive environment, and a place where there is a strategic plan, where you can have a sense of how one step fits in with another, so you can drive forward and make the change you want to see.
In the reproductive justice space, a phrase I’ve been seeing a lot recently is: I will aid and abet abortion. I’m curious what your thoughts are on that, considering that Jane was an illegal endeavor?
Well, many things have changed since before Roe. Certainly the opposition is stronger, more fierce, more partisan, better funded, more violent and also has more political power to make the changes and push us back. But other changes that we’ve seen, in addition to medical abortion, is that we have changed. There is a broad network now of providers. Planned Parenthood, who provided a very small number of abortions as part of their overall work — it was, I think, less than 5% of their overall work — is the largest healthcare provider of women. And there weren’t previously large places for women to go for quality women’s healthcare in a caring environment. That all has changed now.
So my main suggestion is to go to find groups that already are working in the area. In the south there’s Sister Song, which is a Black-led organization with a focus on housing, child and maternal health. But there are groups in every state and finding ways to support women where the laws have been pushed back [is important]. I understand there are 18 states now where there are bans at one level or another, and there are up to 26 states where there might be such bans or restrictions. But there are a number of states where there are sanctuary areas, where there’s support. And there are groups that are arranging travel, housing, shelter and quality medical care.
What are your thoughts on all the recent lawsuits from Jewish women and some synagogues pushing back against abortion bans?
Well, the first case that I had heard of was in Florida, where a temple had said that this is a violation of our religious freedom. That [banning abortion is] a narrow religious reading of one set of religious doctrine. And while anyone can follow their own doctrine, [abortion bans] are a violation of separation of church and state and it’s a violation of freedom to believe what we want to believe and have the life we want to have. There’s a piece of Jewish law, halacha, that says if the woman’s life is in danger, it requires an abortion. So that’s one direction that’s been taken. But we have to function on so many levels, legally, legislatively, organizationally, socially and politically.
There also have been a few Jewish organizations, Agudath Israel for example, that have welcomed the end of Roe. How do you respond to Jews who have welcome the pushback of abortion rights?
People can have whatever personal beliefs they have and should live the life they want to live. But there’s no reason that a politician or a religion or any institution should come between a woman and this most intimate decision of life, the decision about when, whether and with whom we have a child. That’s the decision that should be left in the hands of the people involved. Almost 80% of the country believes that a politician should not come between a woman and her doctor to make this decision. It means that those who oppose it are against the popular will, are against the historic legal precedent and against what is the moral choice. And what we’ve got to do is convert that popular will into the power to have the political support to make those decisions, so that the justices who finally decide are those who know what justice really is.
“The Janes” documentary came out this summer. How does it feel to be reflecting on your work then with how the state of abortion is in the United States now?
Well there are several films. “The Janes” is a documentary by Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin. It’s quite a remarkable film that’s the true story of this underground service that started as a good deed for one woman who was facing the prospect of having being pregnant and nearly being suicidal. And then there’s a second film that just came out this last week named “Call Jane” with Sigourney Weaver and Elizabeth Banks. It’s a dramatization, so it’s not 100% exactly accurate, but it’s culturally reflective of what the times were like. That’s a very powerful movie as well, which is now in theaters. I hope [they] inspire people to say: This is a precious freedom, and we need to protect this freedom. And we can do it in a number of ways through organizing, through advocacy, through elections, through financial support, through the messages we convey and how we talk about the issue.
What does it mean to you to be a Jewish political activist when antisemitism and christofascism are drastically rising in the United States?
A friend of mine did a study of right-wing chat groups online, and one of her many conclusions was that antisemitism was at the core of the hate-filled violence. So antisemitism is a real problem that needs to be addressed. It is a problem that is reinforced by the threats of political violence and by leaders who either mock it or exacerbate it. The marginalization and the attack on Jews is something that we need to fight and confront, and it’s one of the reasons I think it’s important that we also claim our Jewish identity to let people know that even though we’re a smaller number, we do have a mighty voice, or can if we organize.
And do you see the connection between the dismantling of rights like abortion with antisemitism rising?
All of our freedoms are at stake now. And the fight for our freedoms is a fight where all of the issues are connected. I think it was Audre Lorde who said, “We can’t just fight on single issues, because we don’t lead single issue lives,” or something like that. All these struggles are connected: The struggle for reproductive freedom is tied to the struggle for the freedom to vote, and is opposed by many of the same people. Many of the same people who promote political violence are tied to that as well. The rise of antisemitism is often tied to the rise of a white supremacy, where Jews are often not even considered white or Black or the many hues that Jews really are. But I do believe we can turn [this] around, or that we are still the majority, that people want a caring society. They want, what we called in SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], to build a beloved community. And I believe that’s consistent with our Jewish values, and our history. And I hope we make it part of our future.
How do you see your legacy?
That’s more of a question to you. You are the future. I’m still active, I’m 77, you’re 25. I love that we can have a partnership through [this interview and this event], and I love that you’ll be part of the people continuing the work. I hope that the love and commitment to making this a better world is sustained and improved on and built on, where the actions that are appropriate for these times build particularly on [our] values. I hope part of my legacy is that people remember we have changed the world even in difficult times, and that we can change the world and make it better.