From Suffrage to Hobby Lobby: Jewish Women's Advocacy

Rabbi Marla J. Feldman

[Adapted from ‘Why Advocacy is Central to Reform Judaism’ published by the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, 2007]

“We are a fellowship of women, religiously motivated… dedicated to the service of Jewish and humanitarian causes through the centrality of Judaism, the religion through which we translate our beliefs into deed for the benefit of K’lal Israel (the whole of the household of Israel) and mankind.”

So wrote Dr. Jane Evans, first Executive Director of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS, now WRJ) in a 1949 statement on the philosophy of our organization. For Dr. Evans, the two bedrock principles of WRJ were, first, the centrality of our Jewish faith, and, second, our devotion to social justice. For her, a belief in Judaism inevitably led to a passion for justice–and the demand that we act collectively to make the dream of a better world a reality.

Similarly, not so long ago, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, Past President of the URJ wrote:

“Reform Jews are committed to social justice. Even as Reform Jews embrace ritual, prayer, and ceremony more than ever, we continue to see social justice as the jewel in the Reform Jewish crown. Like the prophets, we never forget that God is concerned about the everyday and that the blights of society take precedence over the mysteries of heaven. A Reform synagogue that does not alleviate the anguish of the suffering is a contradiction in terms.” (1998 speech to the UAHC Executive Committee)

It has become axiomatic that to be a Jew is to care about the world around us. To be a Reform Jew is to hear the voice of the prophets in our head; to be engaged in the ongoing work of tikkun olam; to strive to improve the world in which we live.

The passion for social justice is reflected in the ancient words of our prophets and sages and in the declarations of our Movement’s leaders. The ancient command “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof! Justice, justice shall you seek!” constantly reverberates in our ears. It has become deeply embedded in the Reform Jewish psyche. This charge has led to a long and proud tradition of political activism by the Reform Movement.

So too, social action and advocacy have always been at the core of WRJ. As Jewish women deeply committed to the values of Judaism, we have played a critical role as agents of progress and change. From the moment NFTS/WRJ was established in 1913, Reform Jewish women marched together for suffrage, were advocates for peace while working to heal the wounds of war, adopted bold social justice positions on behalf of the vulnerable, and played a significant role in the landmark social justice movements of each generation. Today, we continue to embody the passion and principles of our early leaders. Finding the authority for our activism within Jewish values, sisterhoods have taken positions on a wide variety of issues that affect the quality of life, civil rights, and freedom and justice for all people.

The idea that people of faith have a mandate to bring their values into the public arena is not unique to Reform Judaism. There is a long tradition of faith groups “speaking truth to power” and advocating for social change. Religious voices have been central in the major social justice causes throughout history, from the abolitionist movement, to desegregation and civil rights, to today’s activists on both sides of the recent Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case. In the international arena as well, faith groups have led the way in advancing human rights around the world, seeking protections for women and the LGBTQ community so they may live free of persecution and violence, and an end to extreme global poverty.

The resolutions adopted by Women of Reform Judaism neither bind the members of individual sisterhoods, nor do we presume to speak for all. To be sure, in any group there will be divergent opinions (and policymakers certainly understand that!). Given that reality, there are some who may question why we should engage in advocacy when it can become divisive among our own members.

At times we find ourselves confronted by others who, while also claiming to speak in the name of faith, offer a different version of what God expects of us; those who proclaim themselves the upholders of family values yet who do not value individual rights or personal autonomy, and who have little respect for the Constitutional principles that have allowed religion to thrive in the U.S. and Canada unfettered by government coercion or corruption.

Ours is a different message. We proclaim that maintaining a strong safety net for those who are most vulnerable is the modern manifestation of our obligation to “leave the corners of our fields for the poor and needy.” We believe that supporting public schools, access to health care (including reproductive health), and paying workers enough to support their families, without having to choose between shelter and food, are family values. If we don’t bring these progressive religious values into the public arena with us, we will abandon the public square to those who offer a fundamentally different view of religious values.

Our diversity need not deter us from fulfilling our prophetic mandate. Reform Judaism stands for certain principles, and those who join our congregations and our sisterhoods take pride in our long history of “speaking truth to power.” Just as most of our members know that a hallmark of Reform Judaism is an openness to the “other”–whether lesbian or gay, interfaith families, or those with special needs–adherents of Reform Judaism should also know that our values will lead to the pursuit of justice in the form of social action projects, advocacy for women’s rights and gender equality, Israel engagement, and education about current issues of concern.

​Acting as Jewish women of faith, organized through sisterhoods and women’s groups, and embracing the values of Reform Judaism, we continue to bring our progressive, Reform Jewish values to bear in the community at large as we have done for one hundred years. As Jane Evans taught us long ago, our faith demands this of us.