As Jewish clergy members are collectively organizing around their support of abortion rights, the impact can be seen in ways large — in national events like this weekend’s Repro Shabbat — and small, such as signs on the door to rabbinic offices indicating that this is a “safe space” to talk about abortion or reproductive justice.
“How powerful is it for young people in the Jewish community, for their clergy to take a strong stance for reproductive justice, to say ‘I am a safe person, and here to help you find access to care without judgment or fear,’” says Shira Zemel, the co-director of 73Forward, the National Council of Jewish Women’s (NCJW) abortion justice campaign. “That’s such a powerful statement.”
Zemel and her co-director, Glenn Northern, say the goal of 73Forward is to provide “a clear, collective Jewish framework to increase on the ground access to abortion care for anyone who needs it,” while removing legislative, financial and logistical roadblocks, hence the campaign’s initial organizing around access to medication abortion.
“It feels like people have been waiting for the chance to do this work for a Jewish lens, in a Jewish space — not just to do it and be Jewish, but to do it as a Jew,” says Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, the Scholar-in-Residence for NCJW and one of the founding organizers of Rabbis for Repro, their initiative encouraging “Jewish leaders to commit to using their voice to teach, write and speak out about reproductive freedom and our faith values.”
“Rabbis are starting to get that abortion justice is tied to our obligation to create a more just society for everybody,” Ruttenberg says.
Rabbis for Repro launched in 2020 with a sign-on campaign ahead of the decision in June Medical Services LLC vs. Russo, the first in a series of major abortion-related cases the Supreme Court would take up in the past few years. Since then, more than 1,300 rabbis, cantors, rabbas and maharat (Orthodox female clergy) and other Jewish clergy representing all denominations have signed on to express their support for abortion rights and reproductive justice.
Now, as state legislatures mount increasing attacks on abortion access and the fate of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case which has federally protected abortion rights, in flux with a pending decision this summer, Rabbis for Repro organizers have been creating resources to support Jewish clergy across the country, gather people together in community and be an extra partner to help their peers navigate complex personal feelings or communal pressures around an oft-charged issue.
“Here’s a ritual for Hanukkah candle lighting as the Dobbs case is going out; here are some ways you can think about reproductive justice and preaching on Rosh Hashanah that can be useful,” Ruttenberg says about the resources they’ve created. “We show up with the policy notes to help people, and they bring the Torah.”
That convergence has been powerful. In May, Rabbis for Repro held a lobby day advocating for the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would offer federal protections for individuals seeking abortion care and providers of it. Members met with 50 members of Congress and got 29 more members to sign on in support.
Another key tentpole of Rabbis for Repro is offering support to clergy members who want to share their perspectives and personal stories in the public square through op-eds. After SB8, the controversial Texas law that bans nearly all abortions after six weeks and penalizes individuals who provide or counsel abortion care, Ruttenberg emailed Jewish clergy across the state. Rosh Hashanah was right around the corner, and she knew that most Jewish rabbis would be busy preparing. But Danny Horwitz, a Houston-based Conservative rabbi, not only responded, but wrote an op-ed sharing his experiences counseling congregants and a defiant message for Texas lawmakers: “Come and get me.”
“It was just so very much the voice of moral clarity that we all needed in that moment — Jews, non-Jews, everybody,” Ruttenberg says. “In a moment of shock and despair and fear was the voice of bravery and refusal to give in. This is what clergy are for, to hold the line on what is necessary and true.”
In a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, 83% of Jews surveyed said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Abortion is often framed in the public square as a matter of religious freedom, and for many Jewish clergy members, this framing excludes them and their beliefs.
“I think the conversation and the argument of religious freedom are creating a hierarchy of religion,” says Eleanor Steinman, a rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Austin, Texas. “As a Jew, I also want to have religious freedom and that doesn’t mean that my tradition or my faith should dictate what another person from another faith decides to do with their bodies.”
For Zemel, campaigns like 73 Forward and Rabbis for Repro are seeking to “put a stake in the ground” and build a cohesive Jewish movement and reclaim the narrative that there’s only one way to understand abortion access as an issue of religion.
“As people of faith, we have an obligation to advocate to expand reproductive rights because of our religion, not in spite of it,” Zemel says. “We want to build a Jewish movement, and to that end, this is a religious freedom issue. We don’t want to be living in a country where the laws are getting in the way of taking care of my body.”
This weekend, Rabbis for Repro and NCJW will host Repro Shabbat, a weekend where congregations and Jewish community organizations will come together for programming and conversations around abortion and reproductive justice, and to learn more about these issues from a Jewish lens.
What began last year with 50 events across the country has grown to 700 communities and individuals participating, representing 37 states, as well as Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still impacting in-person events, many of this year’s Repro Shabbat events are being held virtually or with a hybrid option. Zemel says the reach of virtual events allows even more people to connect with the movement nationally. The organizers paid particular attention to the need to engage young Jews who may not be affiliated with a local synagogue or organization, and created a toolkit to participate over Zoom or in small gatherings with friends and family, to share stories and have more intimate conversations about the text and the topic. Zemel says some participants are even baking uterus-shaped challahs, “because we know challah-baking has been part of the pandemic experience.”
Repro Shabbat coincides with the weekend Jews read Parashat Mishpatim, a section of Exodus that advocates see as undergirding Judaism’s support for abortion rights. In the text, there is a story of two men fighting, and one accidentally knocks over a pregnant bystander, causing a miscarriage. The text calls for monetary damages in the event of an accidental miscarriage, but had the pregnant bystander been killed, this would have been considered manslaughter, marking a distinction between the treatment of existing life and potential life.
In her reading of the text, Rabbi Steinman says it is very clear that reproductive justice is a Jewish value, and she emphasizes keeping politics out of the study conversation. She says her intention as a rabbi and teacher of Torah is to frame the Jewish conversation about these issues, and she hopes participants leave “with more questions than answers.”
On the individual level, although Ruttenberg says the notion that there needs to be a good justification for abortion perpetuates stigma around it, Judaism has texts that say abortion for health reasons is justified, and mental health is equated to physical health. Reasons of Kavod HaBriyot, human dignity, are reasonable justifications for seeking abortion.
“There is not a single person to be compelled to continue a pregnancy against their will who does not experience mental pain, emotional suffering or violations of dignity in some way,” Ruttenberg says. “If we want to say you have to have a good justification for an abortion, every person who is forced to carry a pregnancy against their will has a good justification for an abortion, according to our own texts.”
Rabbi Jessica Shimberg, a Nashville-based spiritual guide and ritual artist behind Holding the Fringes, recalls sitting at the bedside of congregants who had to go through the physical and emotional toll of labor and delivery of stillborn children because abortion was not an option in their state.
Holding the Fringes’ Repro Shabbat event centers on the ritual of Havdalah. “Havdalah is about making distinctions, and we’re inhabiting a world where there are a lot of distinctions being made, often very haphazardly, and drawn as a reaction to something in the heat of some emotional trigger,” Shimberg says. “I want to bring the group of people who show up to this event into the deep distinction between sacred and ordinary, between light and darkness, between six days of creating and doing and being and one day of rest and refreshment, and I want to talk about that in contrast to the types of distinctions that are being made in the world of reproductive rights, distinctions that aren’t even being noticed by those who are creating the legislation.”
For Rabbi Jeffrey Falick of the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit, participation in Repro Shabbat isn’t a “one-and-done,” as he puts it. The congregation’s social justice committee provides ongoing education about reproductive justice and abortion access issues, and they welcomed an organizer from Southeast Michigan Planned Parenthood following the High Holidays. Michigan is one of nine states whose pre-Roe abortion bans would return if the decision were overturned, and Falick says he will be part of the statewide coalition working to drive ballot power to repeal the state’s restrictive abortion laws.
For their (Zoom) Shabbat, he plans to deliver a sermon titled “Why I’m Not Just Pro-Choice. I’m Pro-Abortion.” For Falick, the language of choice is ineffective when so many people, especially those already impacted by systemic poverty and racism, face structural barriers to abortion care and have had much of their choices removed, and he sees being pro-abortion as essential for gender equity.
Ruttenberg says she hopes participants in this weekend’s events come out feeling engaged and energized. “I hope they learn something new about our tradition’s relationship to abortion justice and that they feel more connected to our tradition as a result and more empowered to speak about it, and be part of the movement saying, ‘I am for abortion justice not despite my religion, but because of it.”
And what comes next, after this weekend? Ruttenberg says she hopes participants feel activated to get involved with the fight for abortion justice, whether through lobbying for the Senate to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act, getting involved with campaigns like 73Forward, donating to abortion funds or other means of engagement. She adds that NCJW and other organizers in the reproductive justice movement are already “preparing for the worst”: the very real possibility that the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade this summer.
“We need all hands on deck, and there is a lot of deck.”