NCJW : The NCJW Insider

What's Title IX Got To Do With Me?

By Julia Alford, NCJW Legislative Intern

June 23rd marked the 44th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. Title IX is often associated with athletics as the law mandates that girls and boys have equal opportunities to play sports. But Title IX is more than just sports, it helps to advance and protect both women and girls in 10 keys areas: access to higher education, athletics, career education, education for pregnant and parenting students, employment, learning environment, math and science, sexual harassment, standardized testing, and technology. 

Most of us never think about Title IX in our daily lives, but I was reminded of this landmark law several weeks ago when Buzzfeed released a letter from a Stanford rape survivor. In the powerful letter, the woman recalls what she remembers from the night and next morning, her internalized pain, and the failure of the justice system. Brock Turner, a Stanford swimmer, was found guilty of three felony accounts by twelve jurors. However, Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Turner to six months in jail, and he will be released three months early due to good behavior. Turner will walk freely after three years of probation. Though Brock Turner will spend the rest of his life as a registered sex offender, the woman he raped will spend the rest of her life overcoming this tragedy. 

It is unclear if the woman who wrote the letter is a Stanford student or not but, what is clear is that she is not alone. One out of four college women will be sexually assaulted during their time in higher education. Under Title IX, colleges and universities are required to address sexual assault and sexual violence. Sexual assault has become an important topic on campuses in the United States and students are increasingly holding their administrations accountable to Title IX standards, including at UNC Chapel Hill, Columbia University, and the University of Virginia. In 2014, the Obama administration took steps to combat this issue under the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and later created the It’s On Us campaign, of which I’m proud that NCJW is a partner. President Obama and Vice President Biden are committed to protecting students from sexual assault on campus. But the commitment cannot stop there.

In a few short weeks, millions of college students (including myself) will be going back to campus. A new class of freshmen will arrive and the statistic may likely still be the same: one out of four. This is unacceptable. University administration and law enforcement must comply with Title IX and simultaneously raise awareness about this issue.

States, too, can play a role. In New York State where I attend college, the “Enough is Enough” law was passed in 2015 to create an “uniform definition of affirmative consent, a statewide amnesty policy, and expanded access to law enforcement [on college campuses].” But New York is only one out of four states with laws like affirmative consent. It’s critical that states update their laws to protect individuals on their campuses (in addition to those living in the state).

Despite the horrors described in the Buzzfeed letter, we must not let the survivor’s cry for action be in vain. Let’s enforce Title IX, hold universities accountable, work with university and local law enforcement, and ensure states play their part. If we don’t, we run the risk of the statistic becoming one out of three.

Righting the Wrongs: Referencing the Injustices That Drive My Activism for Abortion Access

by Kristen Strezo

Many NCJW advocates have their own point of reference as to why they feel compelled to work for abortion access, whether a personal experience or one observed through the eyes of a friend or family member. My own fight for abortion access has been fueled by what I experienced trying to start a family with my husband years ago as strangers in a new land.

It was the summer of 2008 and I was pregnant—very pregnant, actually—preparing for the birth of my first child. My husband and I were newcomers to Atlanta, Georgia, having relocated just two years earlier. Everything was new to us.

So it wasn’t really a surprise when a friend from synagogue pulled me aside one evening after Shabbat services to inform me. As she knew me to be a staunch feminist, she wanted me to be prepared.

“Sometime after the birth,” she said, “somebody from the hospital will get ready to give you your child’s birth certificate. But, before they do, they will ask you if you’ve had an abortion.”

Wait. What?

She continued, “They will then tell you that if you do not answer the question, you would not receive your child’s birth certificate.”

But…why? How could they do that?

She didn’t know. But she did say the hospital administration would claim the answer would be used for “records”.

I shuddered. It wasn’t important whether or not I had an abortion. What bothered me was that Georgia legislators could drive their fanaticism so deep into the lives of women that even the sacred moment of birth was desecrated.

So, there I was: the pregnant feminist forced to play the game designed by anti-choice lawmakers, forced to answer an unnecessary and intrusive question in order to get my child’s basic, yet vital, forms.

I did not know if it was true or not, if withholding the birth certificate because of a medical nondisclosure was legally bound or hearsay. But, every pregnant woman and seasoned mother around me said it was true. It’s the law, I was told, expect it.

Today, I think about that moment — that time just before the baby came — when I’m asked why I fight for abortion access, and reproductive rights more broadly. And, today I summon those memories to fuel me to work for change.

What I saw in my years living in the South—living among some of the most oppressive laws against women in the country—pushed me to be more compassionate, more involved in my community, more tenacious in my fight to help fix a way-too-broken system.

It is also the reason I chose to attend the Act for Women Lobby Day (hosted by the Center for Reproductive Rights) last May in Washington, DC in support of the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA 217/HR 448).

WHPA would stop many new types of state abortion restrictions, which seem to be sprouting up by the month. It would prohibit state restrictions that mandate medically unnecessary procedures or doctor’s visits, restrictions that shame women for their health care decisions, and restrictions that push abortion out of reach in other ways. And I believe in the bill’s potential. As it stands today, the bill has the support from 146 US representatives and 34 US senators.

Legislators need to know that their constituents are paying attention, and they need to see a face that stands for WHPA. I felt compelled to meet with lawmakers in DC and I am always honored to represent NCJW. NCJW fights for abortion access within the broader context of NCJW’s Reproductive Justice Initiative, drawing on a framework developed by women of color. NCJW works an as an ally to the reproductive justice movement, which is working to ensure that each person has the power to make their own decisions about their body, sexuality, and future regardless of race, income, sexual orientation, immigration status, or any other factor. I find it imperative that legislators know about the work of the reproductive justice movement, as well as NCJW and other allies, as they continue to help repair this world, l’dor vador — from generation to generation.

On the day my daughter was born, my husband and I were struck with the profound amazement many new parents feel: we were utterly exhausted, yet unable to sleep off the rush of joy our newest family member ushered in with her.

I won’t tell you how I answered the hospital administrator with the birth certificate that day. The answer is completely irrelevant.

What does matter is that our tiny little being had fallen into a world where two stupidly devoted parents waited to catch her and cradle her. She was ours to soothe with Stevie Wonder songs whispered into her tiny little ears.

Nobody has the right to destroy that effervescent feeling of love and family. I find it nothing less than sinister for Georgia’s anti-choice zealots to try to stain a moment so pure.

I know that the US Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt has invigorated the reproductive rights, health and justice movement with the joy of a watershed win. May this Yiddish proverb continue to remind us of our power: Ven ale mentshn zoln tsien af eyn zayt, volt zikh di velt ibergekert — if everyone pulled in one direction, the world would tip over.

Kristen Strezo is an award-winning writer and journalist who focuses on women’s issues, caregiving and elder care in America. She has written for magazines such as Harvard Magazine and Penn Stater Magazine, among other print and online news sources. Follow her on Twitter: @strezo_is_write


Not Worth a Gamble

By Carol Consalvo

Preface: This story was originally published as part of the Jewish Daily Forward’s series Silent No More: Forward Readers Tell Their Abortion Stories. Carol Consalvo is the NCJW Arizona State Policy Advocacy Chair. In her words: 

The decision in Roe v. Wade was such an important event in my lifetime. I grew up in the 1950’s when getting pregnant before marriage was not socially acceptable. If one did make the mistake of having unprotected sex, it could become a life or death situation. At that time, because of the legal barriers to abortion care and social stigma, abortions could be physically and psychologically disastrous for women. Roe v. Wade changed that, and since 1973, abortion has been safe and legal for many. But safe and legal abortion care is still not accessible to all women, particularly low-income women, women of color, immigrant women, and young women. That has to change! I was drawn to the NCJW Arizona Chapter in the 1980s because NCJW works to make abortion accessible to all. Reproductive decision-making should be available to everyone and any deviation from that is absolutely unfair. My work with NCJW contributes to the fight to make America a fairer, more equitable place.

What should I do? What should I do? What should I do? Those four words went around in my head in the spring of 1973. I was 28 years old, wife, mother of two sons and I was pregnant. Being an only child, my dream was having a house full of kids with all the commotion that goes with raising a big family. At that time, my children were ages seven and four and I really, really wanted a daughter to begin to even out the sexes in my family dynamic.

I do not have any emotional scars and have not second-guessed myself on the decision I made 43 years ago.

However, my marriage was not “made in heaven,” as I had hoped it would be, and we constantly had financial setbacks due to my husband’s gambling habits. Gambling brings not only the lack of funds, it also brings lying, mistrust and disappointment into the marriage. I was miserable. My four-year-old son was severely asthmatic and caused us much worry and concern. That same year he had spent one week, at two different times, in an oxygen tent, and we also made countless trips to the emergency room, usually during the night. I never knew when he would have an attack, and our family life was filled with worry and interruptions. If I wasn’t worrying about the bills, I was worrying about his health.

I was two months pregnant and in no position emotionally or financially to take on another responsibility. Roe v. Wade had just been decided, and having an abortion was safe and legal. Was that an option for me and my family? After discussing this decision with my husband and my obstetrician, the doctor agreed to perform the procedure at the same hospital where only four years earlier he had delivered my son. Due to the high demand for the procedure and the hospital scheduling only four a day, I had to wait 10 days for my appointment.

Those were the hardest days of my life….I was not feeling well, my heart was breaking, but the voice in my head kept saying, “This is the best approach to the problem at hand.” Along with my voice, my mother was 100% in favor of my decision and she too kept me strong by supporting my decision. Thank you, MOM! My husband was indifferent and left the decision to me.

The day finally came, and my husband took me to the hospital, and when it was all over, I felt a wonderful feeling of relief. I have never regretted the decision. I do not have any emotional scars and have not second-guessed myself on the decision I made 43 years ago. I behaved responsibly to my family and made it possible for me to care for the children I already had without additional burdens. It took me seven additional years to have a tubal ligation, because at 28, I was not ready to make the decision to not have any more children. I wanted to leave that door open if I felt there might be a better time to add to my family; however that opportunity never presented itself.

I was a lucky woman then due to the wisdom of the Supreme Court justices at the time. And now I am a lucky women because my granddaughters still have the opportunity to make choices when it comes to their health care. This country cannot let this right to privacy become history and disappear.

Carol, now 71, was born and raised in Manhattan, New York. Her parents and grandparents were German Jewish refugees. She attended college in Rochester, New York and relocated to Arizona as a young wife and mother, where she worked in the financial services industry for 31 years. She has been married to Joe Consalvo for 17 years.

Holding the Floor for Justice

By Kate Friedman, NCJW Legislative Intern

I sat in the Eisenhower Executive Building screening room, stunned, as families who had lost loved ones in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting filled the room. I was invited to attend the official White House pre-screening of Newtown, a moving documentary about the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting on December 14, 2012, and its aftermath. I arrived expecting the audience to be Washington, DC-based colleagues I might recognize, and possibly some Congressional aides. Instead, the room was filled with dozens of families who had lost children, parents, and friends to the gun violence epidemic.

The documentary began, filling the darkened room with the sounds of gut-wrenching 911 recordings from that fateful December morning at Sandy Hook Elementary. The families of the children and educators killed wept and held each other. Afterwards, the Newtown families spoke about their anger that Congress had yet to pass any gun violence prevention legislation and their heartbreak over the continued loss of life. The horrific Orlando shooting, occurring just a few days before, intensified their anger and sadness.

I left frustrated with the continued Congressional inaction, only to learn that Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy was holding the Senate floor, refusing to give it up until gun safety legislation received a vote. My spirits rose as I arrived to the Senate gallery about 5 hours into Senator Murphy’s filibuster. I sat in one of the seats in the small Senate chamber and watched as senator after senator discussed substantive gun policy. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown (my senator) asked Sen. Murphy “how do we go home and look people in the eye and say we failed again? …How do I go back to Cleveland and say, ‘well, we tried it again [but] we didn’t do it?” Senators Tim Kaine of Virginia and Jeff Merkley of Oregon spoke about the Virginia Tech and Umpqua Community College massacres, respectively. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand angrily asked her colleagues “where is our spine?”

Watching the filibuster, I was filled with hope. The purpose of the filibuster was to force a vote on two gun safety amendments to an appropriations bill, both supported by NCJW. One proposed banning people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns and the other, closing the gun show loophole by requiring background checks for all gun purchases, including those sold online and at gun shows which account for 40% of purchases. With upwards of 85% of the American people in favor of additional reform to reduce gun violence, it seemed like the Senate was finally becoming more in-tune with the American people.

Our Jewish faith teaches us tzedek tzedek tirdof — to pursue justice. When our senators stood for fifteen hours and when millions of people across the country raised their voices to demand common sense gun violence prevention measures, they were pursuing justice. I was inspired. Unfortunately, both amendments failed to get the 60 votes required to pass. As I watched the number of “nays” ticking up on C-SPAN, I was enormously disappointed in the Senate for failing to protect the American people from the daily gun violence across our country. It seemed unconscionable that some lawmakers would refuse to even discuss legislation that could save lives. Frustratingly, the pace of policy change is slow; a marathon, not a sprint. Looking back, the gun violence prevention movement did gain a great deal of momentum in the last few weeks. The filibuster was followed by further action for justice in the House — with lawmakers holding a sit-in urging similar legislative action. These Congressional efforts galvanized celebrities, organizations, and individuals to speak up and get involved, whether by calling their lawmakers, posting on social media, or talking to friends about the need for change.

Remembering the overwhelming grief from the families at the Newtown screening, I am impatient waiting for change to come, but hopeful for what is already being done. Change won’t happen unless we take action and mobilize others to raise our voices together.

Turning Prayers for Orlando into Action

By Madeline Budman, NCJW Legislative Intern

On the Sunday morning following the Capital Pride Parade, I slept in and woke up with glitter still on my face. Stickers and handouts I had collected while I marched with NCJW and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism at the festivities were scattered around my room. My afterglow from this celebration of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender nonconforming, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) community was cut short as soon as I turned on my phone. When I first saw the news, the Washington Post was reporting 20 dead in an Orlando gay nightclub; by the time I had gotten out of bed and made breakfast, the number had risen to 50 dead and 53 wounded, making it the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Numb with shock, I thought back to the rainbow-filled and joyous celebration that had taken place just the day before. Unable to process the horror of this shooting, I did what most people of my generation tend to do: I posted my thoughts on Facebook, concluding with the line, “Praying for the victims and their families.”

What followed was the loudest, rawest outcry against religion that I have ever seen on social media. Dozens of posts filled my newsfeed with messages such as, “Please, keep your prayers,” and “Prayers won’t do anything to stop homophobia and gun violence.” My Facebook friends were not unique in their outrage. On Monday, some members of the House of Representatives made waves when they protested a moment of silence for the victims of the Orlando massacre. In an interview on Monday, Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) expressed his frustration: “‘Thoughts and prayers’ are three words that cost you nothing. I’m sick of it. Show some courage.”

I understand Rep. Himes’ and others’ frustration. Words, social media posts, and moments of silence can be empty, especially when those expressing their sympathies have not previously moved on issues of gun violence and LGBTQ justice. Yet, I was surprised by this response, because I have a different understanding of prayer. As an intern at NCJW, my social justice work is guided by Judaism, and I cannot separate the two. When I say that I am praying, I mean that I am ready to take action. In the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel famously reflected, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.” To me – and in my experience, to many other Jews – praying with my feet and working for tikkun olam, or repairing the world, is the only way to effectively pray. On Wednesday, I saw that leaders in the Senate began to pray effectively with their filibuster to address gun violence. Showing courage, and interrupting the regular business of the Senate, they turned thoughts and prayers for the victims of the Orlando massacre into action.  Religion and prayer can be a source of healing and comfort after yet another instance of gun violence and a hate crime against the Latino and  LGBTQ communities. Prayer becomes problematic when it is used as an excuse for complacency. Instead, we should follow the lead of the members of Congress who spoke out and stood on the Senate floor for nearly 15 hours. We cannot pray away the violence and hate in our world with mere thoughts alone; instead, our prayer must incite us to action, lead us to march in the streets, and do the holy work of advocating for justice for all.

Join me in praying through action for the victims and families of the Orlando shooting, and for all LGBTQ members of our communities. Here are some ways to take action:

  • Tell your lawmakers to cosponsor the Equality Act to ensure federal protection against discrimination for every individual regardless of sexual orientation, gender or gender identity.
  • Learn more and educate your community about the Equality Act and the positive impact it would have for LGBTQ individuals, using NCJW’s talking points and frequently asked questions.
  • Consider adding your name to a condolence message for the LGBTQ community of Orlando, coordinated by NCJW’s coalition partner, Keshet.
  • Find more resources for ways to respond in the wake of the shooting in Orlando on Keshet’s website.

A Gift of Life

If you were at Washington Institute in 2013, you might remember me. I was one of the women sitting behind the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Registry table calling out to you, “Would you be interested in swabbing your cheek to save a life?”

Back then, I had just finished my time as a legislative intern in the NCJW DC office and was inspired to volunteer in honor of Elissa Froman z’’l, who was, at the time, the senior legislative associate. She was on medical leave during my internship, but I felt her profound impact in the office every day.

I would have been at that same table at Washington Institute this past March as well, but before I could call out to you again, the Gift of Life called out to me.

I have to admit, when my donor coordinator let me know I was a potential match for an unrelated recipient, I wasn’t too surprised; I always had an intuitive feeling that they would call me one day. I also always felt strongly that when they did, I would see the process through as far as it took me. Within 24-hours of receiving my call, I had blood work done and it was sent off to the recipient’s transplant team to determine if I was the best possible match.

Just about one month later, Gift of Life called me again to tell me I’d been selected to donate peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC) to a 39-year-old male with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). This is sort of like hitting the lottery: only about 1/40 people who are in the registry ever get called as a possible match. Only about 1/380 are selected as the best possible match. Only 1/540 in the registry actually donate their bone marrow or stem cells.

I had all sorts of questions, and Ana, my coordinator, was wonderful in helping answer all of them. I wanted to know if he would get my DNA (yes, but only sort of). I wanted to know if I could have the whole procedure done where I live in Jackson, MS (no, there are places that specialize in these procedures). I wanted to know when my donation would be (as soon as possible, hopefully within the month). After my donation physical, they determined my veins were not strong enough and my donation would happen via a central line in my jugular vein. I was suddenly very scared. Incredibly, Ana put me in touch with someone who’d made her donation in the same way. The woman I spoke with explained exactly what would happen with the procedure and told me about her choice to go through with the donation. Most importantly, she mentioned that even though the central line was unexpected and more intrusive than she’d anticipated when she started the donor process, she would do it again if asked. No question. I was reassured and more resolute in my decision to donate than ever.

Finally, donation day came. My dad graciously drove up from Columbus to meet me in Detroit, where I was to have the procedure. We checked in at the hospital, I had my line placed, and was wheeled up to the apheresis room at Karmanos Cancer Center. PBSC is collected via apheresis; essentially blood is drawn from the body just like any blood donation, then filtered through an apheresis machine and spun such that it separates into different levels. The level with the blood-forming cells are stored and the rest is heated and returned to the body.

During the actual donation, it did not feel like what I was doing was that special – I could see the tube with the blood going out and another with the blood coming back in. It was all very clinical. The standout moment for me came at the end, when I saw my cells get put into a cooler. The bag my cells were in noted that they would expire within 24 hours and there was a courier standing by. I knew that as soon as that courier got the bag, he was headed to the airport to deliver hope for recovery to someone eagerly anticipating its arrival. My job was over. It was up to my little stem cells, my little donation to go save a life.

Had it not been for NCJW or Elissa’s memory. This moment might not have come to be. The Mishnah Sanhedrin 37a teaches that if you save one life, it is as if you saved the world. I am no Talmud scholar, but the mere possibility of saving just one life seems like the most important opportunity I will ever have.

Leah Apothaker is an Education Fellow at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, MS. She is a Life Member of the Columbus Section and looks forward to joining the San Antonio Section when she becomes the Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Beth El in July.


Thoughts from NCJW's 2016 Enduring Advocate

By: Marlene Hammerman, Immediate Past President St. Louis Section

I was honored to receive the 2016 Enduring Advocate Award at Washington Institute 2016. When you come from a state like Missouri-where life begins a little sooner, where you can walk out of a store with a gun but a woman has to wait 72 hours to get an abortion, where you can still be fired for being gay, where women make less than even the low national average and where Voter ID bills get ever closer to passing —one must have endurance to be an advocate! I share this award not only with the committed advocates of the St. Louis Section, but all those advocates in challenging states like Missouri who day after day, year after year, and decade after decade speak up for social justice, despite knowing successes are likely to be few. Never will we let our decision makers go to bed without our words tugging at their conscience. With hopes for a better tomorrow, and even some small successes, we will continue to advocate and to endure.

Why North Carolina's New Anti-Transgender Law Matters – to Everyone

One month ago the North Carolina state legislature passed the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. The bill was then signed into law by Governor Pat McRory. This Act, known informally as HB 2, seeks to “provide for single-sex multiple occupancy bathroom and changing facilities in schools and public agencies and to create statewide consistency in regulation of employment and public accommodations.

HB2 is dangerous and offensive. This law doesn’t just allow for discrimination based on gender identity, it also diminishes the rights of people to fight claims of discrimination “with respect to race, color, religion, sex, marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or national origin.” This law, while seemingly designed to “protect women and children” only serves to ostracize men, women, and children alike who identify as transgender, as well as members of our community who do not identify on the gender binary (i.e. male or female).

The harmful effect of systemic discrimination and stigmatization on the mental health and wellbeing of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people has been documented. Youth who identify somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum are six times more likely to experience symptoms of depression than their cisgender* counterparts, and just under half of all transgender people report attempting suicide at least once — a rate that is almost ten times the national average. Furthermore, trans women, and trans women of color in particular, are murdered at alarmingly high rates as a result of violence and conditioned hatred brought about by ignorance and intolerance.

Laws like HB 2 only make it easier to discriminate against this already marginalized population. I recently finished a qualitative study on access to trans-related health care in North Carolina. None of the participants were able to find care that was both accessible and affordable within their home city. Almost all reported experiencing some form of trauma — physical, mental or both — at the hands of various health professionals. As a proud Jewish nurse and midwife, I work every day to fight the disrespect and abuse shown against women and girls of all ages. I believe that we as human beings are more than just the sum of our (body) parts. We should not be solely defined by our reproductive anatomy.

Last week, as we observed Passover, we remembered the Exodus from Egypt. We are told, “And you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23: 9) It doesn’t matter whether or not you are transgender or whether you don’t (think you) know anyone who is; when we fail to fight prejudiced and unjust legislation like HB 2, we allow systematic oppression to continue against a group who ask only for support and acceptance. Discrimination like HB 2 is not solely a transgender or LGBTQ issue anymore than feminism is a women’s issue or anti-Semitism is a Jewish issue. All human beings are created equal and have a right to dignity, respect and equal protection under the law.

Join me in speaking out against this harmful law:

  • Check out the letter that a broad coalition of organizations, including NCJW, sent to President Obama in opposition to HB 2, as well as a letter signed by faith leaders
  • Find out more about the transgender community and ongoing advocacy for transgender equality at the National Transgender Equality Center. And, read this “Transgender 101” resource by Keshet. 
  • If you’re unsure what you can do … ask. It’s OK not to know. E-Mail NCJW Legislative Associate Faith Fried at

*A cisgender person is someone whose gender identity aligns with that which they were assigned at birth.

Rebeccah Bartlett is a Registered Nurse-Midwife from Australia and Rotary International Peace Fellow. She holds a BA with honors in History and Anthropology and is about to graduate with her Master of Public Health from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Rebeccah is passionate about reducing health disparities and promoting respectful maternity care. She is currently working on a mobile health application for refugees in Europe. Follow her on Twitter: @beccahbartlett

"We Did Everything We Could" – a speech from Cindy Amberger and Lynne Hvidsten

The below transcript is from a speech delivered by NCJW-MN’s own Cindy Amberger and Lynne Hvidsten at the Washington Institute Social Action Awards Dinner, where DOMA-defeating women Edie Windsor and Roberta Kaplan were honored. Cindy and Lynne tell the story of how they fought for their right to marry each other, as well as the rights of all same-sex couples in Minnesota and America as a whole.

CINDY: My name is Cindy Amberger, I am a past president of the Minneapolis Affiliate, and a Director on the National Board for this extraordinary organization.

LYNNE: I am Lynne Hvidsten, a State Policy Advocate for Minnesota. And, we are privileged beneficiaries of the Supreme Court’s ruling argued by Robbie Kaplan in favor of Edie Windsor. Thank you Robbie and Edie; and thank you to all you who worked for marriage equality, especially our NCJW Minnesota sisters & supporters.

CINDY: So, a funny thing happened on the way to Washington Institute… With how busy the weeks have been, I went shopping and brought dresses home for Lynne. When it came time to pack, Lynne left before I did and when I was packing, I realized we were going to be wearing the identical dress in different colors! (Luckily, I had a back up.)

Unlike the near wardrobe malfunction, there are moments in life that anchor true meaning. We don’t know when these moments may occur. It may not be until long after, when we reflect back do we realize how that moment influenced our life. These moments bring the greatest love into our hearts and sense of humanity to our lives, because we’ve made our time here worth something. NCJW is at the forefront of creating moments that allow us to change the world, and, in turn, we too, become changed.

20 years after our first commitment ceremony, on August 30th, 2013, Lynne and I were legally married in our synagogue, surrounded by our children, family and friends.

Like Edie and Thea and the many who’ve come before us, it took so much to reach that day.

LYNNE: We live in Minnesota, where, in 1972, the state supreme court ruled unanimously, in what was among the first same sex marriage cases in the world; that it did not violate the state constitution to limit marriage to opposite sex couples and the U.S. Supreme court refused to hear the appeal. Fast forward 40 years, fueled by fear and a conservative momentum, in 2012, Minnesota became the 30th state to introduce legislation, this time to amend the constitution to preserve marriage for only one man and one woman.

CINDY: We lived such a normal, day to day life, we actually forgot that we were gay and suddenly we were reminded all the time; driving, we’d pass yard signs to VOTE YES, Marriage = one man and one woman; television commercials warning of the dangers to our communities should same sex couples be allowed to marry; reminding us that we have been, and always should be, marginalized.

What was even more painful, was the realization that children across the state, with two loving parents would grow up knowing that no matter how nurturing their family life may be, the state says, they are not good enough to legalize that relationship and they too, would remain marginalized.

LYNNE: Immediately, I got involved and led the group that mobilized the state-wide Jewish Community to Vote NO. I told Cindy when we wake up the day after the election, regardless of the outcome, we could not say, “We should have done more”, we had to be able to say, “We did everything we could”. This was our moment and we knew it.

CINDY: “We did everything we could” became our mantra, it was the spark that ignited deep in our souls that kept us going for the next 11 months. NCJW joined the coalition with Minnesotans United and Lynne and I managed two phone banks. Every Sunday and Wednesday evening we’d head out to call voters, and then, brace ourselves for their response, ready to share very personal stories and persuade them to move along the continuum toward a solid NO vote in November.

And there were many times, after a full day of work, when it was cold and dark outside that we didn’t feel like going – sometimes it was only 3 or 4 of us making calls. But we reminded each other of our mantra, “When we wake up the day after the election, we will be able to say, “We did everything we could.”

So we returned, every week and something remarkable occurred, more and more people started showing up to make calls and persuade voters with their own personal stories, emotionally connecting the person on the phone with how voting YES would hurt people they cared about.

One evening, I looked around, there were so many people making calls, mostly straight allies, every available space in the building was full. At that moment, I realized, we had been so focused on doing this work for others, and here, all these volunteers were standing up for people like us – including us!

LYNNE: While I converted to Judaism before Cindy and I got together, I did grow up Lutheran in a small farming town, 25 miles south of the Canadian border. My parents were stoic Scandinavians and instilled values I carry with me today. I was never able to come out to my family, as that was surely something about which we would not speak.

My father passed away some time ago and after years of decline, my mother slipped into non-communicative Alzheimer’s. She was living in a nursing home in North Dakota and Cindy and I would drive 7 hours to visit her. In her prime, she was a feisty woman who wore designer clothing in a town with nowhere to go. But now, she was confined to a wheelchair and required complete assistance and had long ago ceased to recognize me as her daughter.

On one particular visit, we sat with her by the window, Cindy and I making small talk, simply to be in her presence, when my sweet mother looked up. As I leaned into her, she whispered, “Are you happy?” and I said, “Yes mom, I am very happy.”; then she said, “Do you love each other?” and I said, “Yes, we love each other very much.” and then she said, “Good, that is all that matters.”

Those were the only words my mother had uttered in more than five years and what came to be, her last words, as she died a few months later.

CINDY: Well, as you know, Minnesota became the first state to successfully defeat an anti-same sex marriage bill by popular vote. The campaign led by Minnesotans United was truly grassroots organization at its best – mobilizing 28,000 volunteers throughout the state. NCJW was a strong coalition partner and our volunteers worked hundreds of hours to ensure the defeat of this amendment.

Because of our NCJW training, we found the courage to speak, sharing personal stories in hopes that it will inspire others to share their story and however slowly, tip the scales of justice in the direction of equality and fairness.

Little did we know, that plans were already in place to introduce a bill in the legislature for full marriage equality. And once again, we found ourselves on the front lines of grassroots advocacy, this time advocating with legislators to support the Bill.

Again, this was our moment, a moment we never imagined possible. Our legislators knew that how they voted on this issue would determine their future. And we knew, that how they voted would determine OUR future as well.

On the day of the vote, shoulder to shoulder with supporters and opponents alike, we stood outside the House Chambers, waiting for the outcome. We knew that the Senate would pass the Bill and the Governor would sign it, but first we had to get the House to approve it. We remained hopeful yet steeled ourselves for a possible defeat.

In an unbelievable surprise we heard cheers coming from inside the House chambers and we all started screaming and crying and hugging and kissing – years of being sidelined, not allowing ourselves to imagine this day possible and so many months of work, first to defeat the amendment and then to urge legislators, all came crashing together with the reality that we had won marriage equality in Minnesota!

As Edie surely understands, when your fate rests in the hands of our elected (or appointed) officials, life gets very real.

LYNNE: We know from our own experience that federal court decisions have a very personal impact on our lives. When there aren’t enough judges on the bench, justice cannot be served. Fortunately, NCJW has long been a leader working to ensure our courts are fully staffed with competent judges who have a commitment to constitutional rights.

CINDY: For the record, being married does feel different, even after 20 years of “dating”. When we say, we’re married, people understand who we are to each other. We are free to represent our relationship publicly without hesitation, knowing our state and our country, recognizes our love and our family for what it has been for so long. In coming to Washington you have come face to face with an opportunity to create one of those moments and share our mantra, “Whatever the outcome, I did everything I could”.

Trafficking will remain a Jewish problem as long as we commodify women

This piece was adapted from a Purim-themed sermon delivered at Congregation Beth El on March 18, 2016.

The plight of women trafficked from Mexico to the United States has been the focus of much of my work this past decade at Sanctuary for Families, New York’s largest provider of services to victims of domestic violence, sex trafficking and other forms of gender-based abuse. Because of Sanctuary’s role in helping Mexican victims recover from their abuse, the Mexican government invited me to participate in a conference in Mexico City sponsored by their Attorney General. After sharing information with local service providers and government officials, I spent the following days visiting trafficked girls in a government-run shelter, and exploring the areas where thousands of women and children are sold, both in Mexico City and in the nearby state of Tlaxcala. I joined a Mexican nun at the daycare center she and her sisters operate to care for the children of women being sold for sex, and together, we wandered through La Merced, an infamous red light district, speaking with trafficked girls and women ranging in age from 16-68. It was illuminating, but also heartbreaking.

As I traveled through Mexico, I thought of the journey my own clients had taken to the United States. Unlike the images commonly projected in the movies, my clients’ traffickers captured their prey not through force, but through seduction and abuse of trust. The experience of one client, Angela, mirrors those of thousands of other young women like her. Raised in an impoverished indigenous community, where Spanish was a second language, Angela was employed as a housekeeper when she was befriended by a handsome young man, Martín, whom she had met in the park on her day off. Originally, Angela fended off Martín’s invitation for coffee, but as the weeks passed and she continued to see him in the park, he was no longer a stranger, but an acquaintance, and one day, she finally accepted. The friendship turned into a romance, and when Martín proposed that Angela meet his parents as a first step towards an engagement, Angela happily agreed. Instead of preparing for a wedding, however, Martín took Angela hundreds of miles away from her family and friends, cut off all communication, raped her, and sold her for sex to thousands of men in Mexico, and ultimately, the United States. Angela could not escape; she did not speak English, she had no idea where she was living, and she was deeply afraid of the authorities who, she had been warned, would arrest, imprison and deport her.

Angela’s escape was almost accidental. In Queens, Martín became increasingly violent, beating her for not earning enough money on some nights, and (if one can imagine this) beating her even more severely on other nights for “cheating” on him with other men. When Angela became pregnant, Martín tried to force her to undergo an abortion. She refused on the basis of her personal Catholic beliefs and Martín pummeled her in an effort to induce a miscarriage. Angela ran out of her apartment in stocking feet, and a neighbor, seeing a young woman in her night clothes and covered with bruises, called NYPD, who in turn contacted Sanctuary for Families.

The devaluation of women is a widespread phenomenon that results in abuses across cultures, including my own. In full disclosure, I always had harbored some vague discomfort about Purim: as a baby feminist, I never wanted to dress up like Queen Esther for the children’s parade, always preferring Vashti for her defiance to authority. However, after witnessing the systematic commodification of my clients, I recognized the roots of their abuse in my own Jewish narrative. Vashti is banished, or perhaps murdered, because she refuses to dance naked before her husband and his drunken cronies. She is perhaps the first documented case of sexual abuse resulting from the equivalent of a semester long frat party. Esther, her replacement, does not become the new bride of Ahasuerus willingly — she is sent from the home of her uncle Mordechai, along with numerous other young virgins, to the king’s harem, so that he could “sample” one each night before choosing a favorite. We don’t know how Esther felt about being herded like cattle, or whether she had wanted Ahaseurus to have sex with her. Ultimately, Esther not only becomes a survivor, but a savior to her people by transcending her own victimization, and Megillat Esther ends happily, in its own fashion. But after the last grogger has been shaken, the twin images of the vanished Vashti and the orphaned Esther remain troubling testaments to a patriarchy that devalued women; Jewish and Gentile women alike are portrayed as commodities that can be discarded or destroyed when no longer useful, and replaced with a newer model.

Our tradition, while professing veneration for our mothers, wives and sisters, has struggled with the darker consequences of valuing women as “less than” men. Between the 1880’s until the outbreak of World War II, thousands of Jewish women were trafficked from Eastern Europe to the Americas, while even more were sold for sex in the first red light districts in the Lower East Side, Philadelphia, Chicago and across the Western United States. This piece of history, so stunning to me, was widely known in the Jewish community at the turn of the 20th century. When Sholom Aleichem penned his infamous short story, “The Man from Buenos Aires,” his worldwide Yiddish readership knew immediately that the exquisitely dressed “businessman” enjoying his whiskey on a train and searching for a bride, was not in the business of selling etrogs or prayer books, but of human flesh.

Contemporary Jews, learning of our tragic history, have often replied, “well, thank G-d, this is not a problem in our community any more.” In fact, trafficking will remain a Jewish problem as long as we commodify women. The Israeli government has struggled with an epidemic of sex trafficking throughout the country; initially detected with the influx of Russian emigres, many of them on falsified documents. After implementing stricter immigration controls, the importation of trafficked women stopped, but in its place, a widespread crisis has resulted from the internal trafficking of Jewish Israeli women, many from impoverished and marginalized communities. Here in the US, trafficking of Jewish girls continues to plague our community. Both secular and Orthodox Jewish girls have been brutally trafficked, often after running away from a home in which they had suffered sexual abuse from a relative or neighbor.

And let’s not forget the other element of the equation: demand. Jewish men purchase sex from trafficked individuals. It is normalized and often accepted as a right of their masculinity. Until our fathers, our brothers, our sons, and yes, our husbands, stop purchasing sex from trafficked individuals, trafficking will continue to flourish in our midst.

As Passover approaches, let us celebrate the liberation of our people from slavery under Pharaoh. But let us not forget that, for us to truly be free, we must respect the sacredness that is in every human life, and embrace both men and women, boys and girls, as equals.

Lori L. Cohen is the Director of the Anti-Trafficking Initiative at Sanctuary for Families, Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services in New York City, where she represents both immigrant and domestic victims of human trafficking and gender-based violence. She also the Chair of EXODUS: NCJW’s Anti-Sex Trafficking Initiative, an NCJW Board Director, and a lifetime member of the NCYW-New York section.

More Entries