Volunteering at Planned Parenthood Is My Shabbat Ritual

While my connection to traditional Jewish rites can be tenuous, I powerfully feel Judaism’s support of reproductive choice.

As the anti-abortion protestor tried and failed to blow his shofar, the other three volunteer escorts stationed around the doors of the abortion clinic and I made eye contact and, in the words of Urban Dictionary and my mother, silently bageled each other.

That is, we clocked each other as fellow Jews, and so were able to share in the uniquely absurd hypocrisy of a Christian protestor hoisting a shofar (on the day after Rosh Hashanah, no less) while his fellow anti-abortion protestors let us know that Jesus loved us — if we would only seek his forgiveness for our sins.

That morning, like the Saturdays before and after it when I use my body and my smile and my silence like a shield to guide patients through the cavalcade of shrieking, singing, pamphlet-pushing protestors intent on stopping their path to the door, I was acutely aware of being Jewish in a way I typically am not. Part of this is simply the rising level of religious extremism connected to the anti-choice movement; you can’t shake certain Supreme Court justices without hearing them espouse their faith at their confirmation hearings and beyond. A larger part, though, is in the routine.

I am not what some people call “a morning person.” It baffles me why people insist on waking up early to get to yoga class or the gym before work when they could instead fit in an extra half-hour of energizing sleep. And waking up for Saturday morning Shabbat services? Oh, bubbeleh. Not my ritual, not my morning jam. Even the 13 years I spent at Solomon Schechter Day School dutifully attending prayers before classes every morning never gave me a feeling of connection, never did anything but test the theory that one yawn in a small room will, in fact, spread faster than a Twitter rumor about Pete Davidson’s latest girlfriend.

The rituals of Judaism have always felt just out of reach for me, meant to be performed as a bat mitzvah accomplishment or murmured unobtrusively at a communal seder. I love the warm community aspect of Judaism, but without a cause I believed in — I didn’t feel that these prayers helped the vulnerable or stood up for fundamental rights — its rites often felt abstract and lacked personal meaning. Even reciting Kaddish, supposedly as close to comfort or closure as we can get in the collective grieving process, made me resentful, reminding me that this, too, was not for me. So, while there is nothing inherently Jewish about clinic escorting, there are many Jews who escort. For me, this routine has become ritual — and a divine one at that.

The Saturdays I volunteer at the clinics have become a series of small, necessary steps that feel deeply meaningful to me. I take my dog for a walk in the relative pre-dawn quiet. With the city sleeping, I let myself wake up slowly, walk without my guard and take in the sunrise I rarely get to see. I make sure to arrive early so I can walk past the clinic first, both to get coffee (can I compare this to Shabbat wine? Nah, better not) and to check in. Anonymous for the moment, I scan for protestors and silently make my promise for the day: I’ve got you covered.

There is a literal ritual dressing, as we drape ourselves in the distinctive vests that mark us as escorts, buoys for patients to find. As soon as I am dressed, my shields go up — not exactly for battle, but for the people I’ll be supporting, who deserve my best. I block out the noise, the shouting, the pamphlets. I do little more than raise an eyebrow at the shofar guy. In those moments, the sun now shining overhead, the space I am in is holy with intention.

As far as I know, there haven’t been any counts or formal studies done on the numbers of clinic escorts who identify as Jewish. But I found myself entirely unsurprised when I moved from New York to the DC area and, on my first Saturday escorting in my new neighborhood, recognized my fellow escorts as fellow Jews, tribal members amidst the Catholic University students praying the rosary in front of the clinic steps and the protestors shouting about a special place in hell for those who murder unbaptized babies. Before I had even fully unpacked my apartment, I had stumbled upon my community, my own small but devoted Shabbat minyan. We may not meet within the walls of any recognized synagogue, but we pray with our feet, our bodies creating a sukkat shalom — shelter of peace — around our patients each time we make the journey back and forth from car to clinic, sidewalk to door.

Where my connection to Jewish rituals has often felt tenuous, Judaism’s connection to and unremitting support of reproductive choice and abortion is powerful. In the past few years, especially, as the United States has increasingly used the rhetoric of Christian extremism to tear down fundamental access, Jews of all stripes have been standing up and speaking out in support of abortion as a religious right. Jews have sharing their own abortion stories to reclaim the narrative on faith and choice, and on who gets to speak for the history of this nation. As two of my Jewish and reproductive heroes, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg and Rabbi Dennis Ross, have noted, there is a uniqueness about this confluence that has brought people to the work: “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.”

As the leaked opinion overturning Roe v. Wade seems to indicate a new, dark era for bodily autonomy — and as Dobbs v. Jackson seems to hang in the balance, too — access to abortion and other vital reproductive health services will continue to shrink, and fear and uncertainty to grow. Anti-abortion protestors have been capitalizing on these threats, testing the limits of the FACE Act meant to provide a barrier between the sidewalk and the clinic, and, in one highly publicized case, stealing and hoarding fetuses.

Ultimately, the real issue is that people who need — and deserve — unfettered access to healthcare are being denied that right. Until that is remedied, I will continue to wake in the wee hours of the morning and play out this ritual, one simple, blessed action at a time.

Jessie Losch

Jessie Losch (she/her/ella) is a reproductive health specialist living in the DC area, where she's still searching for a good New York bagel. She writes about soccer, gender equity, and policy, and sometimes the intersection of all three.

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