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Jews On First!

... because if Jews don't speak out, they'll think we don't mind

Curtailing Options for Reproductive and Sexual Health: How Jews See It

The important public health lessons of Leviticus

A sermon by Angela J. Davis, at Leo Baeck Temple, Los Angeles, May 4, 2007

We are honored to post this sermon on Leviticus with important lessons on public health and abortion. In her profound interpretation of the portion called Emor of the book of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, Davis acknowledges that the book is widely used by "religious leaders who would consign gays and lesbians to eternal damnation and politicians who would consign them to second-class citizenship – or worse. There is also plenty in Leviticus to offend feminists and all who champion gender equality, as well as individuals with disabilities..."

But, she says, Leviticus's "approach to public health in which our leaders do not arrogate to themselves a supernatural understanding, but instead look unflinchingly at human illness and suffering is an urgent message for our time." Davis considers that message in light of the Supreme Court's recent decision outlawing a medical procedure for abortion -- and in light of her family's experience with the Tay Sachs genetic mutation; babies born with this mutation all die a painful death.

Angela J. Davis is a member and Trustee at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, where she presented this talk during a Friday night service. She also serves as president of California Women Lawyers, which seeks to further the interests of women and girls. Click here to read the PDF document.

Still Struggling for the Right To Choose

Opinion article by Phyllis Snyder, Forward, January 16, 2008. Snyder is president of the National Council of Jewish Women.

Next week marks the 35th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision. In the ongoing struggle to keep abortion safe and legal in the United States, there is no rest for the weary.

It was only a generation ago when as many as 10,000 women died each year from illegal abortions. Many thousands more suffered permanent injury, and countless others were forced to bear children against their will.

Not only did Roe affirm women’s constitutional right to control their bodies, but it underscored that women are entitled to freedom of conscience to act in accordance with their own religious and moral beliefs, rather than a state-imposed doctrine. Those 35 years have been marked by legal and legislative setbacks and open hostility from three presidents, but Roe has survived. Despite the ideological onslaught against it, a majority of Americans still favor the substance of the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision. Continue.

Conservative rulings have groups rethinking advocacy strategy
Following the close of this year's Supreme Court term, Jewish groups are wondering whether or not their legal strategy is off kilter.

By Ron Kampeas, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, July 2, 2007

WASHINGTON (JTA) – Following a string of conservative rulings in the closing weeks of this year's Supreme Court session, some Jewish officials are suggesting that they may be forced to abandon their decades-long strategy of relying on the courts to protect liberal gains on a host of issues. For decades many Jewish groups counted on the top court to correct what they saw as the excesses of legislatures and chief executives across the country. But with the close of the court's first full term with two recent conservative arrivals, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, Jewish groups say the situation has reversed itself.

Not only has the Supreme Court thoroughly abandoned a decades-old tradition of upholding the liberal gains of the 1950s and 1960s, it has become the premier bulwark of conservatism now that Democrats have retaken Congress and the White House is weakened to the point of impotency. Click here.

A Sermon for Jewish Congregations

by Rabbi Raymond A. Zwerin & Rabbi Richard J. Shapiro, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, spring 2007

A few years ago, a woman called the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, looking for rabbinic counseling. A divorced mother of two teenage sons, she was an active member of her local Jewish community, attended the Conservative synagogue regularly, and studied with a local Orthodox rabbi. She had had an abortion the previous week, at six weeks of pregnancy. She was very concerned that people in the small Jewish community would find out and disapprove. Her comment when speaking to the rabbi at the Religious Coalition was that, while it had always been her custom to light the Shabbat candles every Friday night, on that previous Friday night she did not because she did not feel "clean enough."

As a rabbi, that story is particularly poignant, because of that woman's pain and also because it points up to me what a bad job we rabbis have done in educating the Jewish community about Judaism's position on abortion. For the reality is, Judaism has always allowed for the possibility that abortion may, in some circumstances, not only be the best choice for a woman to make, but also may be the only possible choice for her to make. For the Mishnah says, in Oholot 7.6:

"If a woman has (life-threatening) difficulty in childbirth, one dismembers the embryo within her, limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over its life. Once its head has emerged, it may not be touched, for we do not set aside one life for another." Continue

Just Say ‘No’: O.U. Pushes Abstinence, Pans Condoms

by Amy Odell, Forward, May 25, 2007

Borrowing a page from Christian conservatives, the country’s largest Orthodox Jewish organization has launched an “abstinence” Web site warning teenagers of the physical and psychological dangers of premarital sexual activity, and challenging the effectiveness of various forms of contraception.

The National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the youth department of the Orthodox Union, recently unveiled what it is dubbing “The First Abstinence Web Site for Jewish Teens.”

“Christian groups have such Web sites that emphasize abstinence, and we wanted to make it a word in the vocabulary of our kids, as well,” said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the O.U. It was Weinreb who gave the final nod to go ahead with the project. “I’m convinced that the problem is out there, and it’s enough to justify addressing very directly, and there’s no better way to do it than with the Web site.” Continue.

This election year, national battles being fought through local initiatives

By Ron Kampeas, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, October 24, 2006

WASHINGTON, Oct. 24 (JTA) — In an election year that already defies the dictum that “all politics are local,” U.S. Jewish groups are urging their voters to help decide national issues through a decidedly local means: the ballot initiative.

The message a number of national groups have sent to members is that the future of issues as diverse as abortion access, gay-partner rights, the death penalty, affirmative action and stem-cell research will play out Nov. 7 in local ballot initiatives. Continue.

Stop Senate Action to Restrict Young Women's Abortion Access

National Council of Jewish Women urges action on S 403, September 28, 2006

NCJW says: "Determined to finalize action before the election on a bill that severely restricts young women's access to abortion, Senate leadership plans to consider the House-passed "Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act" (S 403) later this week. In July 2006, the Senate approved a similar measure, the "Child Custody Protection Act" and then, on September 26, the House amended that bill, passing a more restrictive version. This week, the Senate will consider the House-passed version in an attempt to move the legislation to the President's desk before the election. As it is written, this bill would create what amounts to a nationwide parental notification system. In effect, it would make it a crime for anyone other than a parent to accompany a minor across state lines for an abortion to avoid parental notice laws in their own state -- and even further, it would hold doctors criminally liable for enforcement. This measure endangers the lives of young women who might seek an unsafe alternative to legal abortion in order to avoid involving their parents." Click here to take action from the NCJW website.

No Jewish backlash against Plan B

By Jacob Berkman, The Jewish Standard (Northern New Jersey), August 31, 2006

When the FDA last week approved the over-the-counter sale of Plan B, a post-intercourse oral contraceptive, conservative and right-wing Christian groups scored the move, but Jewish groups seem fairly nonplussed by the decision.

The "morning after" pill, which when taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex can reduce the chance of pregnancy, has been available by prescription for three years, but now will be available over the counter to anyone over 18. While right-wing groups looked at the move as one that will further loosen the country’s morals and could lead to a wider spread of AIDS through unprotected sex, Jewish groups — at least from a halachic point of view said that the pill itself poses few problems. Continue

Worries Build As GOP Seen Pushing Bills To Rally Base
Groups Respond With Liberal Lobbying Blitz

By Ori Nir, Forward, June 30, 2006

Leaders of the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, the American Jewish Committee, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs gathered congressional signatures on a letter urging FDA Acting Director Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach to make a decision on over-the-counter sales for Plan B, the emergency contraceptive. Continue

Tell teens the facts about sex

Opinion Article by Rabbi Dennis S. Ross, director of Concerned Clergy for Choice in Albany, The Times Union (Albany, New York), June 19, 2006

When it comes to sex, teenagers need the facts. Four out of every 10 teenagers report having sex before graduating high school. Yet our education system fails to provide students with the most basic health information, as clergy witness every time we sit down to counsel teenagers and their families about unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

Teenagers need more than "Just Say No." Normal and powerful hormones and passions challenge even the most intelligent and educated adults. Teens need the truth about sex in order to keep themselves safe and healthy. Continue

Increase Access to Contraceptives Abroad

Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, in support of H.R. 4736, the Ensuring Access to Contraceptives Act , received by email May 21, 2006

A Global Gag Rule imposed by President Ronald Reagan, removed by President Bill Clinton, reinstated by the Bush administration prohibits US-aided family planning organizations from providing abortions, contraceptives or educating about preventing HIV/AIDS. This bill would free contraceptive supplies from the political restrictions set by the Global Gag Rule. Read more and take action

A Son at the Center of the Abortion Debate
Review of Absolute Convictions by Eyal Press

By Holly Lebowitz Rossi, Forward, March 31, 2006

"As the child of a Buffalo, N.Y., gynecologist who performs abortions, Press had a front-row seat for the abortion debate during its most tumultuous and violent years of the 1980s and '90s, peaking with the 1998 assassination of Dr. Barnett Slepian, Press's father's colleague. Gunned down in his home by an anti-abortionist sniper's bullet after attending Friday night services, Slepian became a symbol of the violent wing of the movement to oppose abortion." Click here

Protecting the Court, Protecting People
Rosh Hashanah Reflections 5766 (Fall 2005): Sheltering the Vulnerable

Rabbi David Adelson (of East End Temple, New York, NY), Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, October 2005

Rabbi David Adelson tells of one of the women the Haven Coalition helped get access to abortion services to illustrate how reproductive options for all women are diminishing. "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." Click here to read more.

Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism Supports the Unintended Pregnancy Prevention Act

Remarks by Rabbi Eric B. Stark, director of the Union of Reform Judaism - Greater New York Council, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, August 4, 2005

"Reform Judaism has a long history of supporting a woman's right to have control over her body and over the reproductive process. We have long advocated for the availability, and use of, contraception. Regrettably, contraception sometimes fails. So too, not all acts of intercourse are the result of a loving, committed relationship. Sexual assault is a reprehensible, but present, reality in our world….The availability of safe Emergency Contraception would increase the ability of women to control their reproductive health." Click here to read the complete statement.

Op-Ed: Roe As A Jewish Issue

Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, August 4, 2005

"The continuing viability of Roe v. Wade is uppermost in many of our minds. At stake is not only a woman's right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, but also the fundamental rights of privacy and religious freedom….Some have argued that reproductive rights are not a 'Jewish' issue. This is just plain wrong." Click here to read more.

Abortion: Perspectives from Jewish Traditions

By Rabbi Raymond A. Zwerin and Rabbi Richard I. Shapiro on the website of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (

All four non-Orthodox Jewish movements (and some Orthodox groups) have taken positions opposing any governmental regulation of abortion. This paper, one of a collection of documents on the positions of major religions posted on the site of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, surveys centuries of Jewish codes and teachings on abortion and the many situations in which it has been considered. In conclusion, they summarize "the guiding principles on abortion in Jewish tradition: a woman's life, her pain and her concerns take precedence over those of the fetus; existing life is always sacred and takes precedence over a potential life; and a woman has the personal freedom to apply the principles of her tradition unfettered by the legal imposition of moral standards other than her own." Click here to read the PDF document on the coalition's website.