As Americans mourned the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – the most influential female judge in U.S. history – Jews in Greater Boston also paused to reflect on the seminal figure who devoted most of her life to protecting the rights of all citizens.
“I think we’ve lost a great justice and a great Jewish justice,” said U.S. District Court Senior Judge Mark Wolf. Ginsburg was as an example and an inspiration for women lawyers and others, he said.
Ginsburg died on Sept. 18 — Erev Rosh Hashanah — at age 87. A week later, she became the first woman, and the first Jewish person, to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol. Her casket was set on the same platform built for the casket of President Abraham Lincoln after his assassination in 1865.
“The Torah is relentless in reminding and instructing and commanding that we never forget those who live in the shadows, those whose freedom and opportunity are not guaranteed,” said Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt of the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., while eulogizing Ginsburg as she lay in repose in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court.
Ginsburg was a superhero to Rabbi Alison Adler, the spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly.
“For Hanukkah, my husband got me a Ruth Bader Ginsburg action figure that’s sitting in my office,” Adler said. She said she spoke with her son, as kids are into comic book figures like the Avengers, about how Ginsburg was someone who fought for justice.
“That was what she was to me, a superhero,” Adler said. The rabbi admired Ginsburg for the way she broke through barriers, and for the clever way she brought gender discrimination cases forward that eventually changed the way women are viewed in the American workplace and society.
In her more than 27 years on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg was often in the dissent as she fought for equal treatment of women and men under the law.
She has become an inspiration to established judges, attorneys, and those in law school as a tireless judge, lawyer, and mother who balanced family and work life, and for being a Jewish woman who broke barriers to sit on the nation’s highest court. She also suffered her share of gender discrimination as she began her law career, they said.
Ginsburg, who was the first Jewish woman to serve on the Supreme Court, took pride in her heritage in its call for justice.
Adler said she had written a sermon in advance of the High Holidays on the topic of search for meaning, and when Ginsburg died, she talked about the late justice’s legacy.
“We all can commit to the basic idea of bringing more kindness into the world,” Adler said. “That’s one of the things that she taught.”
Wolf, who served as the chief judge for the District of Massachusetts from 2006 through 2012 and continues to hear important cases, did not know Ginsburg well. But, in 2016 he attended a program with her at Brandeis University to mark the 100th anniversary of the nomination of the first Jewish justice to the Supreme Court, Louis D. Brandeis.
A video of the event shows the “Notorious RBG” being greeted like a rock star before she spoke about the lessons she learned as a lawyer and a judge from Justice Brandeis, according to a video of the event posted on YouTube.
Wolf said they spent an afternoon and evening together. The dinner was especially memorable, because Wolf was with his wife, Lynne, and his daughter-in-law, attorney Chanda Ouk – a graduate of Brandeis and of Northeastern University School of Law.
“Her history, A., she was Jewish,” Wolf said, “but B., she had a lot of diversity in her own life, and certainly it was extremely difficult for women lawyers.”
“I think that gave her a lot of experience and empathy, as I said, for people who were disadvantaged, or powerless, or discriminated against,” Wolf said.
Ginsburg attended Harvard Law for two years, one of nine women in a class of more than 500. After her second year, Ginsburg went to New York to be with her husband, Martin, after he took a job at a law firm. She transferred to Columbia Law School, and was tops in her class. She was awarded an honorary degree from Harvard in 2011.
State Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem of Newton spoke about the spiritual connotation of Ginsburg’s passing on Erev Rosh Hashanah, and how people found out about her death at a time of year when Jews take into account “who shall live and who shall die.”
Creem said she also experienced the kind of gender discrimination that Ginsburg suffered when she found it difficult to find a job after graduating from law school. It was not easy being a woman and being Jewish, she said.
“For me,” Creem said, “I’m a lawyer and I’ve experienced similar things in not being able to get a job.”
Creem said Ginsburg was able to persevere.
“Her whole life was spent in changing American jurisprudence,” Creem said.
Ginsburg was on the frontlines for those who had been traditionally left behind in the legal system. They included women, people of color, those with disabilities, and the LGBTQ community. And she did it one case at a time.
“To appreciate her, you had to read her decisions to see how she felt,” Creem said.
Creem said Ginsburg was able to excel and not shy away from her Jewish identity at a time when people may have been nervous about it. But Ginsburg’s Judaism was a profound part of her and a public part of her, setting an example Creem said she follows.
In a statement, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Judge Scott Kafker of Swampscott said: “I extend my deepest condolences to the Ginsburg family and to the Justices of the Supreme Court on the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
“We on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts,” Kafker said, “just lost our own beloved Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants last Monday (Sept. 14) and even as we continue to mourn his sudden death, we were saddened still further to learn of Justice Ginsburg’s death.”
Kafker noted that they lost “two bright stars in the legal community in the same week” who embodied Jewish values.
“Not knowing much about Justice Ginsburg’s personal observance, I can say that she represents values that are central to Judaism – to live a life in pursuit of human rights, equality and justice for all. I understand from doing a little research that she had signs in her chambers that an artist rendered the Hebrew letters for the command from Deuteronomy: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
“It was such a punch in the gut to lose her on Rosh Hashanah,” said state Representative Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead. “But through her writings and the example she set, we must all go on dissenting in her memory.”
Said Ehrlich, “RBG, and her Jewish peers born pre-World War II grew up seeing the consequences of rampant discrimination and internalizing lessons of the Holocaust. It’s not at all surprising that, like Thurgood Marshall, she became most well-known for her powerful dissents. Underdogs like immigrants, the disabled, and the environment had a reliable advocate in her.”
Ginsburg has also inspired up-and-coming lawyers like Emily Chazen, a second-year student at Harvard Law School who comes from northern New Jersey.
“As a young Jewish woman navigating law school,” Chazen said in an email, “I know that everything I am able to do is because women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg paved the way. Her work inspires me every day to look injustice in the face and ask: What can I do to change this? The world lost a bright light with the loss of Justice Ginsburg, and I think I speak for most when I say she truly changed my life.”
Journal Editor Steven A. Rosenberg contributed to this article.