When Amy Cohen was growing up in Chicago in the 1960s and ’70s, her father, Rabbi Martin Silverman, was the rabbi of Temple Mizpah. He told her a secret about the ark in the sanctuary that held the Torah scrolls.
There was a compartment in the back where he kept his files about the illegal abortions he’d helped women obtain, including a list of doctors willing to perform them.
Silverman, who died in 2004, was a Reform rabbi and a member of Clergy Consultation Services, a network of rabbis, ministers and other religious leaders that operated until the Supreme Court made abortion legal nationwide with its landmark 1973 decision in the Roe v. Wade case.
“If someone was pregnant and couldn’t have or didn’t want the baby, he counselled women of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds about their predicament, explained what an abortion entailed, and then he’d refer them to where they could get a safe abortion,” said Cohen, who lives in Waltham and Rockport, and found the files after he’d died when she was cleaning out the family home.
Describing her dad as a “liberal, forward-thinking person, always involved in people’s rights,” she’s certain he’d be horrified about last month’s Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.
“If I believed in life after death, my father would be screaming from his grave,” said Cohen, who is involved in women’s reproductive health care herself, as executive director of the Newton-based adoption agency, Adoptions With Love.
Like many of the rabbis, ministers and even Catholic priests in the CCS network, Silverman took a grave personal risk by helping women get abortions, under the radar of police and the watchful eyes – and even involvement – of organized crime. They were only too aware of what dangerous acts desperate women with unwanted pregnancies were resorting to, and how hospitals and morgues were filling up with women with botched abortions.
“We could have been arrested, and there were some rabbis who were,” Rabbi Harold Kudan, 90, said in an interview. He was also a member of the CCS network, and lives in a suburb of Chicago. “But sometimes you had to break the law. There are times we had to stand up and say the law was wrong.”
Now, some 50 years later, we’re back to square one. But there’s a difference.
For the previous generation of Jewish activists, the fight for abortion rights went hand in hand with the other struggles of the time against political power and oppression – the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements, the fight for women’s rights. Kudan marched in Selma, Alabama with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Silverman “was always involved in different movements having to do with people’s rights,” said Cohen.
Between 1968 and 1973, the Jane Collective, a grassroots organization of women using the anonymous name “Jane,” provided access to 11,000 safe and illegal abortions in Chicago. As the recent HBO documentary “The Janes” makes clear, for many of them abortion work was related to their commitment to addressing other social issues, with the same broad ethical imperative. “We were building a new world,” one of the Janes said in the film.
These struggles have not, of course, gone away, but nowadays there are other ominous backdrops in day-to-day life in America – gun violence, threats to democracy, and, for Jews, a terrifying increase in acts of antisemitism. According to an Anti-Defamation League survey, American Jews feel less safe than they did a decade ago. For many, the ban on abortions feels like yet another assault on Jewish life and Jewish beliefs.
“It is all about the Christian view – or at least a certain form of Christianity – of when Jewish life begins,” said Rabbi Alison Adler of Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly. The case to restrict and end legal abortion is driven by a Christian belief that human life begins at conception, as she noted in a recent Shabbat letter to her congregation.
“That is not the case in Judaism,” she said. “As Jews we need to discuss how it is concerning when this country’s laws are being made based on a particular religious belief, thereby forcing that religion upon everyone.”
She added in an interview: “This is being thrust upon the whole country. As Jews, it is very scary.”
“There are wonderful authorities, scholars and Jewish legal experts who have emphasized that we, as a Jewish community, need to take this up as a Jewish issue,” said Rabbi David Kudan, the rabbi of Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester, and son of Rabbi Harold Kudan.
“In Judaism we respect the human body and we understand that a fetus is a potential life, but by no means on the same level as a full human person,” he said. “It is a Jewish issue of respecting our rights as citizens to fulfill our religious requirements and not be coerced into violating our traditions. The notion of life beginning at conception is an outlier in terms of world religions. It’s a pretty rare position.”
The Pew Research Center has found that about 83% of American Jews think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and the younger generation of Jews has jumped into the fight to support reproductive freedom. Many contend that abortion access is a Jewish value, and that the American narrative about religion and abortion has long ignored Jewish voices.
The National Council of Jewish Women has launched a Jewish Fund for Abortion Access, in partnership with the National Abortion Federation, to help pay for abortions and related expenses, such as travel and lodging.
The National Council also sponsors the Rabbis for Repro campaign, urging Jewish clergy to teach about the issue and work to protect access to abortion. “We now have 2,000 Jewish clergy of every denomination,” said Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, scholar-in-residence at the National Council, who is spearheading this campaign.
“We will be doubling down our efforts,” she said in an interview. “This does not mean we will start a Clergy Consultation Service as it existed. But I am very proud that we have a few former CCS members as part of Rabbis for Repro. They are our elders and our teachers and we are honored to learn from them.”
Nationally, organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel International have expressed dismay over the ruling.
Locally, the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis has condemned it and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston issued a statement urging expanded protections for reproductive rights. Sermons are being delivered, discussions sponsored, signs and lawn banners are being shipped to synagogues by Rabbis for Repro, “so that everyone can see that religion and abortion justice go together,” said Ruttenberg. “So that everyone can see this synagogue is a place where reproductive freedom is held as a sacred value, and everyone in that shul who might enter and need support can understand these clergy are people who have your back.”
But some who remember the days before Roe v. Wade – the days when advocates resorted to underground criminality for a higher purpose – are asking whether these new strategies will be enough.
“I wish I were more of an activist,” said Rabbi David Kudan, who distinctly remembers answering the telephone when he was a boy and speaking to terrified pregnant women asking for his father. They were too afraid to give their names, he said, and often just hung up.
Kudan said he just finished sitting shiva for his mother-in-law, Naomi Abrams, who died in June. A lifelong advocate for civil rights, she campaigned to end the war in Vietnam, demonstrated against nuclear proliferation – and was one of the Janes.
“I try to do what I can, but what we do doesn’t hold a candle to what the previous generation did and the sacrifices they made and the risks they took,” he said. “I think we will have to up our game.”
Linda Matchan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org