A Conversation with RAC-OH and RAC-FL Leaders on the First Anniversary of Dobbs

June 22, 2023Lillie Heyman, Cantor Jen Roher, and Rabbi Samantha Orshan Kahn

June 24th marks one year since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court decision overturned Roe v. Wade, removing the constitutional right to abortion care and giving states the green light to ban or severely restrict abortion access.  

Abortion access now varies widely across the United States. While most abortions are banned in 14 states following the Dobbs decision, in many states, like Florida, the fight over abortion access is still taking place in courtrooms where advocates have sued to block enforcement of restrictive laws. In August 2022, voters in California, Michigan, and Vermont approved ballot measures to establish state constitutional rights to abortion. Voters in Kansas and Kentucky rejected ballot measures that would have removed abortion rights in their state constitutions, and voters in Montana rejected an anti-abortion referendum – although some abortion restrictions are still present in these states. 

We are proud that Reform Jewish leaders across the country are heeding the call to fight for abortion access in their states. Two of our RAC state projects – RAC-OH and RAC-FL – have launched statewide campaigns focused on abortion access. In Ohio, where abortion is banned starting at 22 weeks and where a judge blocked the state’s six-week abortion ban, RAC-OH is joining Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom in a campaign to pass abortion rights through a ballot amendment this November. In Florida, where abortion is banned at 15 weeks of pregnancy and a recently passed six-week ban might go into effect pending a review by the Florida Supreme Court, RAC-FL just launched their campaign in partnership with Floridians Protecting Freedom to put reproductive freedom in the hands of voters through a ballot initiative in 2024. 

For the first anniversary of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, I spoke with RAC-OH leader Cantor Jen Roher and RAC-FL leader Rabbi Samantha Kahn to learn more about their RAC state campaigns and what motivates them to join the fight for reproductive freedom in their states. 

Please Note: we intentionally use gender inclusive language when discussing abortion care. Why? Abortion access is not just a “women’s issue”—some non-binary, intersex, gender expansive, and transgender individuals also need access to abortion care and often face unique barriers to care and bodily autonomy. The fight for reproductive freedom includes all people.  

What does this moment, the first anniversary of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, mean to you, especially as leaders in Ohio and Florida, where abortion rights are restricted and at further risk? 

Rabbi Kahn: The overturning of Roe was earth-shattering. Reading the news left me in tears. I wrote a post on social media about how I was soaking in the news, the moment, and the heartbreaking ramifications. Looking back on it, I see how palpable my emotions were. I was terrified for all the people whom I felt were suddenly sentenced to a lifetime of sadness, anger, and fear; to being brutalized again through memory; or to a world where dreams couldn’t thrive. And while I was almost frozen by the terror and anger I felt, holding my breath and hoping it wasn’t real, I recognized early on that we had no choice but to scream and rage, to protest and be seen, and of course to mobilize to give and to vote - to figure out how to protect the freedoms we had left and to make this moment in history as brief as it could possibly be. Now, on the first anniversary, the only thing that brings me comfort is knowing I’m not alone - knowing that my fear and terror is shared by millions and that we, these terrified millions, are mobilizing, we are working, and we are determined to ensure that reproductive freedom will again be a reality someday soon and hopefully forever. 

Cantor Roher: I remember, a year ago, feeling so shocked that Roe v. Wade was overturned, and reflecting on how much I had taken for granted in terms of my own access to reproductive health care. I remember as a teen marching in Washington D.C. for reproductive rights, traveling on a bus from New York City with fellow congregants from our synagogue. At that time, I did not sense that our rights were truly in danger, although they had been threatened, but that we were standing up for what we believed in and showing up to let our government know. The urgency of the overturning of Roe was really brought home last summer when a 10-year-old victim of rape from Ohio had to leave the state and travel to Indiana to receive care when she was 6 weeks pregnant. The story of this young girl has never left me in the past year. My heart continues to break for her and her family, and for all the other people whose lives could be permanently damaged by legislation that strips us of the right to control our own reproductive health.  

What motivates you, personally, to fight for reproductive freedom in your state with the RAC? Why was it important for your congregation to get involved? 

Rabbi Kahn: I’ve been an abortion activist since I was a teenager. I will always remember having a meaningful conversation with my then-congresswoman when I lobbied her in D.C. as part of my L’Taken trip my senior year of high school. I’ve had friends who needed medically necessary abortions to save their lives and I’ve counseled women who learned the fetus inside them would live a short and painful life if brought to term.  

Even though I’m passionate about reproductive justice, the reason I’m motivated to spend so much time and energy right now in this fight is because of my congregants’ passions. When I had preschool moms come to me determined to find a way to fight for reproductive freedom, I was honored to connect them to the RAC and help support their activism. My congregation is a well-off community in Boca Raton, and many of these women have shared that their fear is not for themselves or their daughters. They have the means to leave the state and get the medical attention they deserve, should they ever need it. Rather, their passions are rooted in concerns for all those with the potential to get pregnant who are most at risk of being forced into untenable situations. They worry about access to medically necessary abortions being denied. They worry about all the people hurt most by abortion restrictions - those who already face systemic and discriminatory barriers to accessing health care. They are fighting for minority communities, those working to make ends meet, those fighting racism, members of the LGBTQI+ community facing additional hate and ignorance, immigrants, young people, those living in rural communities, and people with disabilities. Their unwavering support for the right to access abortions for all inspires me to spend my time and rabbinate in this fight. 

Cantor Roher: This is the first time our congregation has even been involved with the RAC working on an issue of social justice. The problem I think we are facing today is that more and more aspects of our lives that did not used to lie in the political realm are now being politicized. In the case of this particular issue, there were several factors that made it an accessible first issue for our congregation. First, Jewish teaching about reproductive health and women’s rights is pretty clear, and many Jews across denominations and beliefs agree that the pregnant person’s life is paramount. Second, the initiative in Ohio is a nonpartisan initiative. Overall, the universal support for this initiative across Jewish denominations and the political spectrum made it an ideal issue for us to advocate for as our first campaign. 

My personal motivation comes from what I believe to be the essence of religion. Religion is here to teach us and guide us to live moral and ethical lives. Ultimately, the goal is to make a difference in the world for the better. Judaism, in particular, is a religion of deed, and it is our responsibility to put the ideals of our religion into practice to defend the vulnerable in our communities and advocate for their well-being, health and equality. The Torah teaches us over and over to protect the stranger, the orphan and the widow. In this particular case, that is all women and people who can get pregnant, including ourselves. 

What role do your Jewish values play in your advocacy for reproductive freedom? 

Rabbi Kahn: For me, my advocacy is a direct outgrowth of Jewish values. Judaism is very clear that a fetus is not considered its own life, but rather is part of the pregnant person’s body and our text and commentary are even more clear that the life of the pregnant person is always more important than the life of the fetus - even up until and during the birthing process. Prioritizing the life of the pregnant individual is central to my understanding of reproductive justice.  

Cantor Roher: As Rabbi Kahn mentions, Jewish teaching is clear about the importance of the mother’s life during pregnancy and about the point at which a fetus is considered an individual (Mishnah Ohalot 7:6). Even beyond that, Judaism is clear in all cases about the importance of saving a life. Our understanding of saving a life has evolved significantly over time. For me this goes far beyond literal life or death situations. The idea of saving a life surely extends to all kinds of situations where individuals have been or could potentially be traumatized, which is a truly individual experience. I think again of the 10-year-old girl denied access to abortion in my state, and the fact that legislation stripped her family of the right to decide what was in the best interest of her health. Judaism teaches us always to save a life, and that this is the most important consideration in any situation.  

As clergy, how do you navigate challenging conversations in your communities and engage folks across lines of difference? 

Rabbi Kahn: Florida is divided in many ways, and this can be seen in our congregation as well. And politics can be divisive, but to be involved in social justice work and to strive for systemic change requires political engagement. The important thing to remember as we navigate these conversations is that there is a big difference between being political and being partisan. This is why I’m so excited we’re engaged in a ballot initiative. We’ve had donors and supporters in our community who have made it clear that while this issue isn’t enough of a priority for them to determine the politicians they’d vote for, they never actually expected Roe to be overturned and they are supportive of a ballot initiative that can ensure reproductive justice. While not everyone feels this way, it is our job as passionate Reform Jews to work for justice, grounded in our Jewish values, through advocacy.  

Cantor Roher: In this campaign, the biggest problem for us was all the misinformation that seems to be out there, or assumptions that people made about the campaign that were untrue. We had some people who were concerned that what we were doing was actually illegal, since they had heard that religious institutions can’t be involved politically. We did have a very few people who were upset because they do not support reproductive rights. This is a huge challenge living in a state where congregants hold diverse views politically and may feel alienated in their congregation due to their opposing beliefs. As we continue the work of justice in our congregation, we will continue to learn ways to make sure all our congregants have the facts about the campaigns we are involved in. It’s very important to me that none of our congregants feel alienated by the work we are doing in this area. We need to be able to work for justice and also remain a home to all our families, which is a huge challenge in today’s polarized world. That being said, probably 95 percent of our congregants were thrilled that we were providing an avenue for them to express their Jewish values in this way during the campaign, so despite the difficult spots, I’m glad we made the decision to participate.  

As we know, the fight to regain and advance abortion rights and access is a marathon. What inspires you to keep up the fight? 

Rabbi Kahn: My daughter. I refuse to accept that my children will have fewer rights growing up than their parents and grandparents had. And let’s be honest for a minute, Roe was incredibly important - but it was never enough. Now that we as a nation have been shocked out of complacency, I believe we can work for more rights and protections than we’ve ever known. Maybe now is the time and this is the movement that will finally protect our freedoms in the way we’ve always longed for.  

Cantor Roher: We are living in a charged time where so many issues have pushed people to be on opposite sides of the fence. It feels to me that many issues that I thought were moving in the right direction when I was a kid don’t seem to be any longer. From discrimination to women’s rights to welcoming immigrants to racism, there is much work still to do to work for a day when all truly live freely. We cannot shy away from advocacy simply because these issues have been swept into the political realm. Our Jewish sources are filled with calls to justice and righteousness, and it is our responsibility to work for a better world for ourselves and future generations. My hope is that for our congregations and others, we learn to move forward wisely and with compassion, education, and patience to build a better world.  

Do you live in Ohio? Get involved in RAC-OH’s Reproductive Freedom Campaign or email Rabbi Lindsey Danziger at  ldanziger@rac.org. Do you live in Florida? Get involved in RAC-FL’s campaign or email Michele Eiger at meiger@rac.org. Live outside of OH and FL but want to support their work? Donate to RAC-OH and RAC-FL! 

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