Protecting the Court, Protecting People, by Rabbi David Adelson of East End Temple, New York, NY
I returned home one evening last year to find Lynn in the kitchen preparing dinner with Rosa, a 23-year old woman whom neither of us had met before that day. Lynn and Rosa were chatting in Rosa's native Spanish and chopping vegetables for salad.
Rosh Hashanah 5766: Sheltering the Vulnerable
Rabbi David Adelson
East End Temple, New York, New York
I returned home one evening last year to find Lynn in the kitchen preparing dinner with Rosa, a 23-year old woman whom neither of us had met before that day. Lynn and Rosa were chatting in Rosa's native Spanish and chopping vegetables for salad. Rosa lived on Long Island with her Salvadoran family, had a toddler with her long-term boyfriend, and had recently gotten pregnant again when her birth-control failed. She had been hoping to take the GED, and could not imagine doing so while taking care of two children. Knowing that her community would not support her decision to end the pregnancy, she'd revealed her intentions only to her sister and her boyfriend - who told her that if she went through with the abortion, she shouldn't count on finding him at home when she returned.
So that night, Lynn and Rosa ate the supper they made together. We pulled out the sofa bed for her, found her the Spanish language channels on cable. And early the next morning, I took Rosa in to the clinic for her abortion.
Why was Rosa in our home? What did we, strangers to her, have to do with her medical choices?
In New York, abortions are available up to 24 weeks of pregnancy - longer than in most nearby states - and are significantly more accessible than they are elsewhere, both legally and financially. These later-term abortions, however, are two-part procedures that require an overnight stay in the city. And the women who travel long distances to have them can, by definition, hardly afford the procedure itself, let alone a Manhattan hotel.
But an organization called the Haven Coalition was founded four years ago to meet the often desperate needs of these women. Run by three coordinators with nothing more than a cell phone, Haven's fifty or so member households-of which Lynn and I are one - have opened their homes and sofabeds to a total of nearly three hundred women. So about once a month, a woman like Rosa - and often her boyfriend, husband, and one or even both parents - comes to stay with us. The women and girls Haven has hosted range in age from 11 (yes, 11) on into their 30s. They are African-American, Latina and white; students, restaurant workers, mothers already. What they have in common is that they are poor and working class. And what they also have in common is this: as in Rosa's case, the stigma of abortion, combined with legal and logistical restrictions - parental consent requirements, lack of Medicaid funding and the like - have pushed them past the date at which services are available closer to home.
Rosa's is the face of all that is wrong with access to reproductive rights in America today. For all our concern over how changes on the Supreme Court will affect Roe v. Wade, our speculation about which kind of conservative John Roberts really is, for far too many women and girls, the right to an abortion is already only on paper; not someday, but today, the law of the land is not the law of their lives. Economic and legal barriers already make it hard and often impossible for women to make their own reproductive choices. And these barriers fall squarely on the most vulnerable members of our society: the poor and working class, the young, immigrants, and those without general social support. Why should we as Jews, and as people committed to a moral society, be concerned, even outraged? Because access to abortion - access to abortion, not just the right - is a fundamental issue of social and economic justice.
The harsh truth of how social class correlates with vulnerability in our society was brought home undeniably by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The storm not only devastated countless communities, but also exposed the profound inequality of our society. At the same time, much less visibly, the women who flood into New York for health care that they should be able to get at home - to say nothing of those who never make it here at all - also remind us that the term "have-nots" refers not only to resources, but also to civil rights.
Yes, Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, making abortion broadly legal. But actual access to abortion is often blocked by thickets of state laws, persistent stigmas, and - thanks in part to intimidation by anti-abortion forces - a dramatic decrease in available services. 87% of U.S. counties have no abortion provider-87%. (A predominant number of Haven patients come from Pennsylvania, for example, where 75% of counties have no provider.) Fully one-quarter of women who seek an abortion travel over fifty miles to obtain one. More and more states every day enact laws requiring parental notification or consent, which is at best unduly burdensome, at worst life-threatening; currently pending in the Senate is a law that would make it a federal crime for anyone other than a parent (not even a grandparent, sibling, or clergy member) to transport a minor across state lines to obtain an abortion without parental involvement. Other state laws provide for mandatory "counseling" - that's "counseling" in quotes - intended to dissuade women from having an abortion. Still others deny Medicaid payments for abortions in all cases other than rape or incest. All these obstacles are intended to simply to reduce the number of abortions performed, with cruel disregard to the real needs of real women.
These contrived roadblocks and delays are among the very reasons that many women find themselves in the second trimester of an unwanted pregnancy. Other reasons include: late detection, shame and denial, lack of resources. Many women hosted by Haven have had to decide among paying rent, feeding their children, or having an abortion. The later the term, the more expensive the procedure; these women save their money, chasing a fee that only gets higher as they do. Health care advocates also assert that anti-abortion forces have focused their efforts on restricting access (again, dangerously so) for teenagers, as they are society's most powerless - and they don't vote.
Why should we care about these women and girls? Because we are Jews, commanded to hold up society's most vulnerable. As we read in Deuteronomy:
"You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow's garment in pawn. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and that Adonai your God redeemed you from there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment." (Deut. 24:17-18)
We are the people who are commanded to take care of the widow and the orphan. Our tradition has always understood that it is precisely those who are vulnerable - women, the poor, the foreign-born, the elderly - who rely on the support of a strong society. Our tradition tells us that we are all created equal, b'tselem elohim, in the image of God. Yes, we were created that way. But now that we are created, how we treat every person -and whether we treat all members of society in an equal way - is up to us. Rights are rights only if they apply to all. Otherwise they are simply privilege. American society in so many ways is constructed to maintain privilege for those who currently possess it. But our Jewish tradition demands that we disperse privilege evenly, and work to defend the rights of every member of society.
We are commanded to pursue justice for all people at all times, and it is particularly important for us to perceive this commandment as a religious charge at this moment of "culture wars" - at a time when the right wing would have us believe that "religion" means subscribing to a narrow viewpoint that serves so often to curtail the rights of society's most vulnerable. We, the Jewish community, come from a tradition that not only honors diversity of opinion, but demands that a diversity of religious positions be held. The Talmud - the basis of the Judaism we practice today and have for 2000 years - is comprised entirely of debates, with only rare consensus as to what should be law for society. Our religion has been interpreted narrowly in particular times and places, but overall, the diversity of positions over time proves Judaism's broad respect for taking different religious points of view. We need a diversity of positions to have a healthy society. And a healthy society, in turn, is one in which the positions of the minority, and the vulnerable, are always protected.Each of us in this room may have a different opinion on when-or whether-it is appropriate for a woman to end a pregnancy. Traditional Judaism usually advocates against ending a pregnancy, the exception being when a pregnant woman's life is in potential - not certain, but potential - danger. Some Jewish authorities have said that a threat to a woman's mental health is also legitimate cause for ending a pregnancy. And one of the most powerful values in Judaism is "pikuach nefesh docheh shabbat" - that the effort to save a life supercedes even the laws of Shabbat. (In other words, someone who doesn't drive on Shabbat would be permitted to drive an ailing person to the hospital.) In other words, we may violate any other law in order to save a life. It is on the basis of these positions that the Reform movement's legal scholars have advocated - as has our movement as a whole - for the absolute right of individuals to determine the degree to which their physical and psychological lives are threatened by the potential addition of a child.
Therefore, we as Jews should confidently fight to protect our rights, including the right of every woman to determine whether, and when, she needs to have an abortion - and, just as important, the ability to exercise that right. Protecting reproductive rights - including full access to abortion for every woman - is a matter of social justice, and an expression of how we understand religious command.
How can we carry out this religious command? One way is to support the women who are brave and resourceful enough to find a way to travel to New York for their health care. For information about how to do this through joining the Haven Coalition, please contact me, directly. Another way is to support national advocacy and medical-service groups such as Planned Parenthood, or the local New York Abortion Access Fund, which provides emergency funding to women in need. Get on their e-mail lists, send them your money, join their efforts to make a difference. And I welcome any of us here who are passionate about this issue to step forward and volunteer to help organize our Temple community to educate and advocate for reproductive freedom for all.
No matter how we choose to do it, when we take care of the widow and the orphan, the poor, the young - the Rosas of our world - we are taking care of our very souls.