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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 faith@ncjwdc.org


*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.

Washington Institute 2016: A Photo Essay

By Eleanor Levie, NCJW Greater Philadelphia Section


More than by changes in hair styles and fashion, my life can be measured by the issues and connections of nine NCJW Washington Institutes: as a publicity chair, then Vice President of Public Affairs & Community Service of Stamford (CT) Section, three or four times as an State Policy Advocacy Chair (SPA) for Pennsylvania, overlapping with a term on the National Board, as a trainer for Capitol Hill etiquette, and introducing my congressman, the sponsor of the bill ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. WI has invariably been a zenith of empowerment – every single one, I say, is the best one ever.

WI 2016 was no different. It seemed as if all my old friends were sharing pictures of grandchildren, and what a kick to meet the young women who came with their mothers! Even more exciting, in measuring the strength and staying power of NCJW, was the sea of young faces among us. Just check out the youth and passion of the women below!

Our complete NCJW Pennsylvania delegation poses following a wonderful state caucus meeting led by our SPA and fearless leader, Lynne Jacobs, pictured in the center of the first row. Lynne is flanked by yours truly and Paula Garret, NCJW Pittsburgh President. Back row, far left, is Samantha Dye, NCJW Pittsburgh Director of Programming and Outreach, and far right is Andrea Kline Glickman, Executive Director of NCJW Pittsburgh. Rounding out our Greater Philadelphia presence was Kami Knapp, second from the left in the back row. Kami is a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Next to her are Tanya Bielski and Cheryl Kleiman of NCJW Pittsburgh. Barbara Nussbaum, second from the right, is NCJW Philadelphia’s Programs Queen, and was a glamorous ball of energy to boot. We missed you, Sherry Kohn, and hope you’re on the road to recovery!

 
After receiving an award from NCJW UN Representative Marjorie Weiser, Wade Henderson, President of the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights, thanked NCJW for decades of working closely together. He explained that we — and our Senators — should look at the Constitution, Article II, Section 2, Clause 2, which clearly states that the president has the duty to appoint judges to the US Supreme Court with the advice and consent of the Senate. To the US Senate: #DoYourJob!

 

Clearing out after the workshop “Why is #BlackLivesMatter a Reproductive Justice Issue?”: Monica Raye Simpson, with Lynne Jacobs close behind. Executive Director of SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, Monica led participants to some unusual, personal places.

 

On Monday afternoon, Susan Weiss, Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Women’s Justice, explained the court system in Israel while Slate Senior Editor Dahlia Lithwick shared her candid opinions on the US Supreme Court vacancy. Nan Aron, Founder and President of the Alliance for Justice, moderated the panel.

 

I felt privileged to take in the incredibly moving story behind US v. Windsor (Edith Windsor pictured on the right), as argued brilliantly before the US Supreme Court by Roberta Kaplan (pictured on the left). These courageous women shared their experience of how the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, was defeated. Another NCJW family shared its story of triumph for same-sex marriage, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

 

Tuesday morning found hundreds of us proceeding silently (yes, progressive Jewish women were silent!) in single file, from the US Supreme Court to the US Capitol. Each of us carried a copy of the Constitution, which were then delivered by NCJW CEO Nancy K. Kaufman and NCJW President Debbie Hoffmann to Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley (R-IA), along with our letters telling him to #DoYourJob and advance the process of filling the US Supreme Court vacancy in a fair and timely manner.

 

Here we are after meeting with Devorah Goldman (fourth from the right), aide to Senator Toomey. Devorah promised to tell her boss our points of view — particularly on “Advise and Consent” responsibilities.

 

And here the NCJW Pennsylvania delegation surrounds Gwen Camp in blue, aide to Senator Casey. She tipped us off there would be big news later that day — which turned out to be a nomination to fill Judge Marjorie Rendell’s seat.

 

After our lobby visits, we were thanked by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Representative John Yarmuth (D-KY), and Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz! NCJW also honored Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO), the lead co-sponsors of the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH Woman) Act! Did you know that Congresswomen Wasserman Schultz and Schakowsky are also lifelong NCJW members?

 

Like every other Washington Institute, Washington Institute 2016 was thrilling, invigorating, and empowering. We are excited to bring our messages of social justice home and reinforce our determination to raise our voices for Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). And why not? After all, we have a faith in the future and a belief in action.

 

Reading, Writing, & Activism: My Mother's Legacy

By Carolyn Eichner,
Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton,
Associate Professor, Department of History and Women’s & Gender Studies Program, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee   

In last month’s NCJW eJournal, Carolyn Eichner allowed us to share a lovely note to her niece that accompanied a donation to NCJW, explaning how fighting for women’s rights is in their blood. This month, we bring you the full intergenerational story spanning from Eichner’s Betty Friedan-reading mother to Eichner’s teen niece embracing feminism’s fourth wave.


In the mid-1960s my mother, Corrine Bochan Eichner, read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Having married “late” at the age of 30 in 1959, she gave up her career as legal secretary to a top Chicago lawyer, moved to the suburbs with my father Norman, gave birth to me in 1961 and my sister two and a half years later, and climbed the walls with boredom and frustration. Unable to drive and less than thrilled with domesticity, she fit the profile of Friedan’s target audience of middle-class white women who felt deep and confusing dissatisfaction despite “having it all.” The book planted a seed. A few years later a neighbor invited Corrine to attend a meeting of a Jewish women’s group. NCJW’s progressive political and social agenda drew her in; this was an organization not about card playing, luncheons, or fund-raising, but instead about social justice and women’s equality. These activist engagements (her first of any sort) grew and deepened, germinating the seed planted by Friedan’s book. Increasingly, our mom went to evening meetings, and our truly supportive dad “babysat” my sister and me. Her commitment and curiosities expanded; she became involved in electoral campaigns, took – and ultimately taught – the era’s feminist “assertiveness training” courses, marched against nuclear arms, and brought her daughters to the state capital to lobby for the ERA.

But NCJW remained Corrine’s prime focus. She started and ultimately became President of a new suburban Chicago section, West Valley, which held evening meetings specifically to accommodate women with young children, like her, who had difficulty attending daytime meetings, and which successfully attracted younger women to the organization. Corrine’s myriad NCJW projects included conducting amblyopia (“lazy-eye”) tests for impoverished school children; traveling to Washington D.C. to represent NCJW at a White House tea with First Lady Rosalynn Carter; and serving as the co-chair of the Illinois State Public Affairs Committee. In a 1978 letter to the editor published by the Chicago Tribune, Corrine and her co-chair Diane Kessler stated that NCJW opposed “an abortion ‘control’ ordinance” introduced in the Chicago City Council, calling it “another attempt by the ‘right-to-life’ lobby to chip away at the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling assuring women the option of legal abortion.” Corrine also held the National Legislation chair for Area 14, covering all of Illinois and Wisconsin, and representing over 4000 NCJW members. In this capacity she testified for National Health Insurance in 1976 before the House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee’s Subcommittee on Health, calling for universal and comprehensive health care (including mental health) for all Americans.

I was in the audience during her testimony. As a 15-year-old, I had already marched, picketed, canvassed, and lobbied with my mother. And now I witnessed her Congressional testimony.Inspired by my mother, and convinced of the value and efficacy of activism, within a few years I started a NOW branch on my campus, traveled to Washington to march for reproductive justice, and became increasingly involved in campus and electoral politics. My mother’s example and lessons made feminism central to me and my worldview; I became a feminist historian and a professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and History.

Corrine became a grandmother at the age of 69 (thanks to my sister Susan and brother-in-law Tom). My niece Tess spent nearly every Friday night staying with her grandparents, lighting Shabbos candles, learning our family histories, being loved and doted on. When Tess was three years old, Corrine was diagnosed with her third bout of breast cancer – this time Stage IV. Told she had three to six months to live, my mother announced she would not die until her granddaughter was old enough to remember her. She succeeded, surviving three and a half more years. And Tess most certainly remembers her: she talks about their relationship, expresses deep sadness that her Grandma is no longer with us, has pictures of Grandma around her room, and wore Corrine’s 1960s pink leather pumps to her Middle School graduation. Now a 17-year-old budding singer-songwriter applying to colleges, Tess identifies as a feminist, writes songs with feminist themes, and looks forward to taking Women’s & Gender Studies classes. Corrine’s legacy rests safely, capably, and lovingly in Tess’s hands and heart.

This is why, when I contributed to NCJW last December, I did so in memory of my mother and in honor of my niece. I wanted to commemorate Corrine’s work and legacy both through a donation and by connecting it to her granddaughter Tess. I am thrilled and privileged to be able to tell her story here, as we approach the 10th anniversary of her death. NCJW held enormous importance for my mother. I deeply value the organization not only for its work, but also because it initiated generations of my family’s feminist consciousness and activism.

Speaking Out for Birth Control Access and Religious Liberty at the Court!

Amy Cotton, NCJW Senior Policy Manager

The Purim festival tells the story of Esther, a Jewish woman who stood up for justice. On March 23, the morning before the holiday began, my NCJW colleagues and I honored this powerful legacy by speaking out for reproductive health, rights, and justice as the US Supreme Court heard arguments in a critical case, Zubik v. Burwell. In the seven consolidated cases that make up Zubik, religiously affiliated non-profits are challenging an accommodation to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) guarantee of contraceptive coverage.

We began the day with a short breakfast briefing featuring partners from the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the National Organization for Women, and NCJW, featuring yours truly! Each of these groups is a member of the Coalition for Liberty and Justice, a broad alliance co-convened by NCJW that works to ensure our nation’s public policies protect the religious liberty of all individuals, and oppose policies that would impose one religious viewpoint on everyone.

The room was abuzz with just how outrageous the claims in Zubik truly were, given the facts of the case that speakers laid out. Essentially, the religiously affiliated non-profits are seeking to use religion to discriminate — to force a woman to abide by someone else’s religious beliefs and deny her access to birth control coverage. (For background, see “What’s At Stake in Zubik v. Burwell?” below and NCJW’s fact sheet on key cases before the US Supreme Court this term).

We took a last sip of coffee, grabbed our NCJW signs, and marched one short block to join the diverse crowd that had gathered by the US Supreme Court steps. We chanted, “When birth control is under attack, what do you do? Stand up, fight back!” and “Pro-faith, pro-birth control!” We danced to a curated playlist of awesome female artists. And we got revved up by a powerful line-up of rally speakers, including students, clergy, and members of Congress. I was honored to be among them, representing NCJW’s unique faith voice for religious liberty and birth control access. As I grabbed the microphone, I drew courage from the thousands of NCJW advocates nationwide who, like powerful Jewish women throughout our history, speak out when justice demands it.

Watch the video of NCJW Senior Policy Manager, Amy Cotton, addressing the Zubik v. Burwell rally or read Amy’s remarks as prepared:

My name is Amy Cotton and I am Senior Policy Manager at the National Council of Jewish Women. I am a queer Jewish woman, I use birth control, and I believe in religious liberty!

Are there other people of faith here today? Are there people who believe in safeguarding religious liberty? Am I with people who support access to birth control?  And what about folks who know that these three areas of faith, religious liberty, and birth control access are wholly compatible?

Millions of people of faith like me believe in access to affordable birth control. We know expanding affordable coverage is critical to advancing women’s equality, health equity, economic security and reproductive justice – closing gaps in access to contraception for folks struggling to make ends meet, women of color and young people.

And millions of people of faith like me cherish a bedrock principle of our democracy — religious liberty. Part of what religious liberty means is the right to make personal decisions guided by our own faith and values.

I carry with me the voices of thousands of NCJW members across the US. As Jewish women in America, we cherish the right to religious liberty — and believe no one should be forced to leave this right at the door when they arrive at work or school.

We respect the right of every person — be they an employer, school official, or politician — to hold their own religious beliefs and make decisions about their health, their bodies, and their families as they see fit. But we ask no less for ourselves.

As a person of faith, I affirm the right of women, workers, and students to access affordable birth control. I believe we all deserve the right to make personal decisions according to our own religious beliefs – but not to use religion to discriminate.

And as a person of faith, I believe we all deserve these basic rights, no matter where we work or go to school. And I know that the people, united, will never be defeated!

* * *

What’s at Stake in Zubik v. Burwell? 

Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), all FDA-approved methods of birth control are guaranteed without copays in most employer and school-based insurance plans. Houses of worship are fully exempt from providing this benefit. Religiously affiliated non-profits, like schools, hospitals and social service agencies, are allowed an accommodation to opt out of providing this coverage if they hold religious objections. In order to opt out, they have to sign a form certifying their objection. The ACA then ensures the health plan or other third party provides coverage directly to women.

But in Zubik, the religiously affiliated non-profits are objecting to the opt out process itself. They claim the accommodation places a “substantial burden” on their religious belief under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, arguing that completing the form involves them in providing birth control by triggering coverage. Contrary to this claim, the health reform law itself guarantees such coverage; the ACA ensures women can seamlessly access information and services directly from their insurance company if their employer or school refuses to provide it. As noted in NCJW’s press statement, this case is really about whether religious non-profits can use religion to discriminate, forcing workers and students to abide by someone else’s religious beliefs and to deny them access to birth control.

NCJW joined an amicus brief asserting that the accommodation does not erode the non-profits’ rights, and urging the justices to consider the harm that women would face if the accommodation is struck down. Zubik threatens the health of millions of individuals — workers employed by religiously-affiliated non-profits, students who attend faith-based schools, and their dependents. Contraceptive services support women’s health, allowing women to avoid unintended or mistimed pregnancy, and treat other conditions unique to women. Affordable coverage also ensures that a woman can obtain the birth control services that work best for her. For women struggling to make ends meet, women of color, young people, and others who already experience barriers to comprehensive health care and health education, this benefit is critical.

Through it all, individual women’s religious liberty also hangs in the balance. A woman’s right to make her own faith-informed decisions about her health will be eroded if she is denied coverage.  With so much at risk, this case is yet another stark reminder of how much courts matter to every aspect of our lives.

Reflections on the Washington Institute Opening Plenary

By Suzanne Crowell, NCJW Senior Writer


The opening panel of Washington Institute, our premier public policy event that brings 350 progressive Jewish women to Washington every three years, focused on what’s at stake for women in the 2016 elections. But panelists Janell Ross of the Washington Post and Mara Liasson of NPR could not help but dive into the presidential race with its dark implications for the future of one of the two major parties and indeed the country.

Led by moderator Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward, Ross cited numerous instances of speech “outside the bounds of what is considered reasonable” in the political discourse of a presidential campaign, to say nothing of a Nazi salute. She recounted several instances of violence before the Chicago uproar, and wondered why it took so long “to call a spade a spade.”

Liasson called the GOP race “utterly different,” from anything seen before, stating that we are witnessing the dissolution of a major political party or at least its complete transformation. Some Republicans are now asking “what is the straight line from birtherism to the Tea Party to ‘you lie’” hurled at Obama during his first state of the union address. That insult, she noted, came when Obama declared that illegal immigrants would not get health care under his plan—a statement that was in fact true.

There are reasons for many Americans to be angry about stagnant wages and income inequality, Eisner noted. “Why did we miss it?” We didn’t, Liasson noted. Candidates have just pulled it together: stagnant incomes, a world on fire, gridlock, the sense that the majority is losing its majority status—with immigration as the match to a kind of lighter fluid.

Eisner asked Ross and Liasson to share something ennobling or heartwarming they have found in this political season, and both reporters appeared momentarily stumped. Liasson pointed to positives about health care and some bipartisan movement on infrastructure and criminal justice reform, and Ross to some soul searching among Republicans. “What does it mean to have a party that is almost completely white as the GOP has been since the 1960s?” she asked. It’s not good for the party, for women, or for the country, was the implied answer, left hanging in the air.

NCJW Rallies to Protect Abortion Access at US Supreme Court

On March 2, the US Supreme Court heard one of the most significant cases about abortion in two decades, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. At issue are two provisions of a 2013 Texas anti-abortion law which has closed nearly half of all clinics in the state. The outcome of this case could impact abortion access nationwide, for generations to come, providing a stark reminder of just how much courts matter – as do the judges who sit on the federal bench.


Rabbi Lori Koffman, NCJW board director and chair of NCJW’s Reproductive Justice Initiative, was among the powerful, diverse line-up of speakers at the Rally to Protect Abortion Access, held outside the court during oral arguments. Addressing a crowd of thousands, Rabbi Koffman described how our Jewish values affirm every person’s right to make their own decisions about abortion. She echoed the call made by many communities of faith to stop sham laws – those created under the guise to protect women’s health, but which are in fact designed shut down clinics and push safe, legal abortion out of reach. Other rally speakers included members of Congress, state legislators, students, abortion providers, clinic escorts, organizational leaders, filmmakers, and faith leaders.

Learn more about this case and ways to take action via NCJW’s Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt Guide and resources available through BenchMark: NCJW’s Judicial Nominations Campaign.

Watch the video of Rabbi Koffman’s remarks, or read her remarks as prepared for the Rally to Protect Abortion Access below.

What follows are remarks as prepared for Rally to Protect Abortion Access, held March 2, 2016 as the US Supreme Court heard Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, presented by Rabbi Lori Koffman, National Council of Jewish Women board director:


Good morning.

I join you today as a National Board member of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) and Chair of its reproductive justice initiative, as a rabbi, and as a mother of two fabulous and amazing daughters.

Becoming a parent was not a decision I took lightly. Because the decision about whether and when to become a parent was probably the most important decision I have ever had to make.

Which is why I know that every woman must have the freedom to make that decision at the time that is right for her. Because the decision about whether and when to become a parent is not only one of the most personal decisions a woman will ever make, it is also one of the holiest.

When politicians deny us access to abortion, they not only interfere in our personal decisions, they deny us our religious freedom. They deny us the ability to follow our own faith, our own values, and our own religious beliefs when making this most holy of decisions.

When politicians deny us the power to make personal decisions about our family, our health, and our future, they rob us of the fundamental dignity due to every one of us, because we are all created in the image of God.

Jewish values teach we are all of equal worth; that we must never cause another person harm. And that we cannot stand idly by when we see others harmed.

These sham laws harm women!

These sham laws not only compromise a woman’s dignity, but they threaten women’s very lives, making safe, legal abortion harder or impossible to obtain — sometimes with dire consequences.

These sham laws go against our basic values of justice and equity.

Because these sham laws most harm women struggling to get by, women of color and immigrant women.

Like all parents, I want my daughters to have every opportunity to explore their lives to their fullest, to dream big, and to soar.

In order to do that, they — and every other woman in this country — must have full agency over their bodies, without interference from politicians, and without sham laws that undermine their very humanity.

As a rabbi — representing millions of Jewish women across the country — I say stop the sham!

And as a parent, I say stop the sham!

And together, WE say stop the sham!

Thank you.

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