NCJW : The NCJW Insider

Cultivating Jewish Social Justice Leaders

By Simone Holzer, NCJW Legislative Intern

For two summers in high school, I participated in Camp Tel Yehudah’s (TY) youth leadership program. The culmination of this program is an advocacy trip to Washington, DC, in which we (the campers) choose a cause (our tikkun group), and then meet with the appropriate organizations to get further educated before spending a day on Capitol Hill advocating for the issue.

As a camper, my tikkun group was Israel Advocacy, and I was amazed that leaders in Washington wanted to hear from a group of Jewish high school students. When I returned to TY a few years later as a counselor, I led the group for Education Reform, and was even more amazed to be on the other side, watching the campers rise to the challenge of advocating for an issue they care about with federal lawmakers. These two experiences — both as a camper and as a counselor — helped me fully understand the importance of engaging Jewish youth to create powerful and substantive social change. And, I also learned that social justice work is a meaningful way for me to express and connect with my Judaism.

My worlds collided earlier this summer when I learned a group of TY campers were coming to NCJW’s Washington office to learn more about reproductive justice and pay equity. I knew many of these campers from my past two summers working at camp and was so moved to see and hear them discuss these important issues. I almost forgot they were high school students and not older! Like me, these campers have found an outlet for their Jewish values and identity in their advocacy — something right at the heart of everything we do at NCJW.

Interning at NCJW’s Washington office this summer has helped me understand the need for progressive Jewish voices in our communities as well as on the state and federal levels. I’ve seen the strength in numbers we can generate through coalitions and NCJW sections on issues such as reproductive justice, voting rights, judicial nominations, and ending domestic sex trafficking. Bringing a Jewish voice to a wide range of critical issues allows NCJW to join forces with other Jewish organizations to strengthen this voice, and to bring a unique Jewish perspective to other faith and secular coalitions. And when we amplify this progressive Jewish voice, we not only bolster our advocacy and impact on the issues, we also empower our communities.

While I did not expect to connect with TY this summer while interning at NCJW, it was indeed beshert. Thinking back to my summers at TY, I’m reminded of what I gained from my experiences there: my closest friends, a desire to make Judaism a part of my life, a sense of what it means to be part of a Jewish community, and the realization that we can strengthen our activism, our communities, and our personal connections to Judaism by engaging in progressive advocacy from a Jewish perspective. The passion for Jewish social justice work that brought me to NCJW this summer grew out of my time and experiences at TY, both as a camper and as a staff member, and I am thrilled that my experiences at NCJW this summer have strengthened my ability and resolve to be a Jewish advocate and ally.





The Voting Rights Act: Celebration and Reflection

By Faith Fried, NCJW Legislative Associate

In my first week as NCJW’s new Legislative Associate, I had the opportunity to attend an event at the White House for the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). NCJW was a key advocate for the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and in the intervening years has fought to protect these rights, so it was meaningful to be there with other progressive groups to celebrate this historic anniversary.

The event was scheduled to include speakers and two panels, and would kick off with a telecast of President Obama. Ten minutes before the event was scheduled to begin, I watched with curiosity as White House staffers rushed to replace a perfectly good podium with a different podium, arrange flags, and ensure that camera angles were perfect. Lo and behold, instead of a telecast address, President Obama himself came onstage with Representative John Lewis, hero of the civil rights movement, and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the first African-American woman to serve in the role. The crowd, myself included, leapt to their feet and my mouth dropped open with surprise, where I believe it stayed for at least the duration of the opening remarks.

Rep. Lewis opened the event by reminding us that though 50 years was an important anniversary, it was just a short time ago in the history of our nation. As he spoke about his experiences, I was reminded that the leaders of the civil rights movement were young people who drew upon their internal reserves of courage, energy, determination, and justice to change the world around them. The link between this movement and other grassroots, youth-driven movements like #BlackLivesMatter was clear – we all have the innate ability to work for change, but we need to tap into that ability and connect with each other to effect change. Seeing Rep. Lewis speak was an incredible honor, and I thought a lot about how my grandparents, both champions of civil rights, would have loved sharing the room with me at that moment.

President Obama then took the podium to provide a call to action. The Voting Rights Act has been weakened by the courts, and state and local laws have been passed in the last two years (since the Shelby v. Holder decision gutting a critical component of the VRA) that make it harder for people to cast a ballot. These limitations erode our democracy, and place us further from our founding ideal of a government of the people, by the people. President Obama closed by giving his support for National Voter Registration Day on September 22, when groups around the country will mobilize to register voters.

President Obama, Rep. Lewis, Attorney General Lynch, and others at the event called for passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 (S 1659/HR 2867), which would protect the right to vote and end discriminatory voter laws that have a disproportionate impact on young voters, low income voters, and voters of color. So, at the end of first week that included an in-person presidential experience (not a typical week, I am told!), what have I learned?  I have learned how joyous it is celebrate the bravery and achievement that led, 50 years ago, to the passage of perhaps the most important legislation in our country’s modern history. I have also learned that voting rights continues to be challenged, and we must remain vigilant. I have learned that victories to overturn unfair voting laws, like the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling on August 5th blocking the restrictive photo ID law in Texas, are bittersweet because they come too late for those who voted in elections prior to the decision. Finally, I have learned how much there is to learn – about the issues, about the amazing work of NCJW, and about being an advocate. 





Looking Ahead in the Fight for Justice and Equality

By Simone Holzer, NCJW Legislative Intern

As I walked up to the Supreme Court less than an hour after they announced their decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges favoring marriage equality, I was awed by the masses of people, sprinkled with rainbow flags and colorful posters. I found the entire scene overwhelming, a powerful mix of ecstatic and bittersweet energy.

Looking around, I noticed the demographics represented; while there was great diversity in age, the majority of the people there were white and seemingly upper-middle class. Taking note of this, I was reminded that while the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality is a huge win, the fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality, and equality for everyone in our country, is far from over.

We still have to work to not only protect and defend this newfound standard of dignity, equality, and societal legitimation of gay and lesbian couples, but to also extend these standards to all people and communities. While we are already seeing backlash against the freedom to marry specifically, particularly in conservative states, it is likely that there will continue to be discrimination against LGBT individuals and couples in related areas such as housing and employment, against which there is still no federal protection.  

As we consider marriage equality a civil rights win, we should also note that it comes at a time when our country is engaging in a renewed and necessary conversation about racism. In this light, we must take this opportunity to acknowledge the intersections of racist and heterosexist discrimination facing LGBT people of color. Studies have found that anti-LGBT laws disproportionately affect LGBT people of color, and especially undermine their financial security, leaving this population with higher rates of poverty compared to other demographics. Additionally, the lack of anti-discrimination laws in many states leave LGBT people of color particularly vulnerable within the education system, where bullying, harassment, and violence can create serious educational barriers, also impacting their future financial security. These disadvantages are inherently systematic-perpetuated by our state and federal laws-and leave LGBT people of color, as well as other marginalized groups, without the necessary protections to ensure their safety, dignity, and equality. This is why anti-discrimination laws are so crucial.


Graphic: Movement Advancement Project

As I think about all of the work ahead for those of us fighting for social justice, I’m also reminded of why I personally am drawn not just to nonprofits, but specifically to Jewish nonprofits. Across the country, conservative opponents of marriage equality are holding up “religious freedom” as a legitimate reason to deny civil equality and discriminate against LGBT people. In a time when so many religious voices are coming out against equality, we must lift up our Jewish and faith voices in favor of equality and justice, rather than using religion to discriminate. We must send the message that civil rights and religious freedom do not exist at odds with one another; in fact, they go hand in hand.

In lifting up our voices, we must remember that we are part of a much larger movement in the struggle for justice, which I strongly felt as we stood at the Supreme Court following the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. Amid all of the expressions of emotion and excitement that I came across, the one that resonated with me the most was a poster with an adaptation of one of my favorite quotes: “The arc of history bends towards justice.” These fights for justice and equality are marathons, not sprints, and although we’ve won this race, we still have more to do to transcend LGBT and racial oppression.





New Voices: NCJW's Social Justice Thought Leaders Convening

By Leanne Gale and Rebecca Krevat, reprinted with permission from eJewish Philanthropy

As college students, we were the definition of plugged-in Jewish leaders; one of us created a Jewish feminist organization, and the other served as president of the Reform Jewish Community at her campus Hillel. We were also deeply committed to social justice, as Jews and as human beings. But neither of us were strangers to the growing distance between young people and the establishment Jewish community.

We’ve watched our communal leaders sponsor surveys and initiatives to engage young adults for as long as we can remember. This is why we were pleased to experience, through the National Council of Jewish Women, a moment in which we were genuinely engaged and our voices elevated. Instead of building a program “for” millennials, NCJW decided to make space for us to be heard.

Through the support of the Dobkin Family Foundation, NCJW gathered 37 women under 40, including ourselves, to participate in a convening last March in New York City to test the hypothesis that women in this bracket are interested in social justice from a Jewish (and gender) lens.

For the first time we were given the opportunity to meet young Jewish feminist thinkers and activists from across the country and develop our collective vision for progressive political action. None of us could recall a similar gathering in our lifetimes, and for many of us, it was validating to experience this community in-person.

We represented broad diversity of religious affiliation, geography, profession, education, race, LGBTQ identity, and social justice interest, and we were very excited at the prospect of sharing our experiences to help make NCJW and Jewish communal life generally more inclusive of our age group. Throughout the day, we explored our interest in social change from a Jewish lens, examined which issues we are most passionate about, and discussed how we identify as feminists. It became clear that we shared some key hopes and dreams:

Local, community-based organizing: We feel responsible to the communities in which we live, and we know we can have the greatest impact on a local level. From fighting abortion restrictions in Louisiana to combating voter disenfranchisement in Florida, we are drawn to grassroots organizing on the ground.

Time and talent, not treasure: Money is often a barrier to involvement. Young adults do not have the capacity to pay dues, donate generously, pay for travel to national meetings, or take time off during the day for our social justice work. How can the Jewish communal world make us feel valued for our passions and skills while we do not necessarily have the financial capacity to give?

Intersectionality: We are not interested in single-issue struggles; we are interested in how multiple forms of oppression, such as sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, racism, ableism, and others, are experienced together. We embrace an intersectional approach in our activism (acknowledging a debt to Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality” in the late 80s.)

Reproductive justice: When asked to identify the issues about which we care most passionately, the top two were reproductive justice and civil rights (Last on the list: advancing civil society in Israel, and tax reform.) And we’re moving beyond the basic legal “right to choose” toward a broader reproductive justice framework, developed by women of color – the right to have full autonomy over our bodies, to have or not have children, to birth and/or parent our children with dignity, and to live and/or raise a family in a safe, healthy environment.

Without the investment of young individuals, the organizations that the generations before us so boldly established will become unsustainable. Some might argue that it doesn’t matter, that we should have “out with the old, in with the new” attitude. But we see value in intergenerational activism, the sharing of wisdom, and the exchange of ideas. We see value in Jewish social justice organizations creating space to grapple with our history of anti-Semitism, our experience of privilege, and our struggle to work in solidarity.

Because our community has raised us to take the reins and ensure the continuity of Jewish life in all of its forms, we’re telling it like it is: for organizations that consider themselves progressive, it is time to progress.

Engaging us without condescending requires more than strategic thinking; it demands face-to-face conversations with Jewish young adults. At a major Jewish conference that one of us attended, a prominent and well respected leader bemoaned the fact that the next generation didn’t care about the future of the Jewish people, and that millennials were not living up to the standards of Jewish advocacy that his generation had set on Israel, Russian Jewry, and rebuilding communities in a post-Holocaust world. Ironically, listening to this leader speak were thousands of students active in Hillel programming and young professionals dedicated to the future of Jewish communal life.

We’re sure that most Jewish organizations would like to avoid this type of situation. Take this as a challenge and an opportunity. How can we listen to young people and honor their profound talents? How can we make space for young people to claim the power they so richly deserve in our communities? How can we allow our institutions to radically transform as we bring new voices to the table? Get in touch – we would love to talk.


Leanne Gale lives and works in Washington, DC as a Grassroots Associate with a focus on reproductive justice and sex trafficking for NCJW. She received a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and served as New Israel Fund-Shatil Social Justice Fellow in Jerusalem.

Rebecca Krevat lives and works in New York City as a Community Engagement and Communications Associate for NCJW. She received a BA from the University of Maryland, and serves as an Advertising Manager for Know Your IX, a national survivor-run, student-driven campaign to end campus sexual violence.

Of Sheaths and Sexuality

By Megan Sims, NCJW Legislative Intern

The first condoms I ever possessed came from an activities fair at Harvard’s admitted students weekend. I justified the acquisition on the grounds that the wrappers had good puns (for the record, these were One Condoms, my favorite brand). I kept them in my purse for months, feeling like a proud beacon of safe sex wandering the halls of my conservative Christian high school in Dallas.

Despite the religious morality foregrounding my secondary education, I still count myself as one of the lucky ones. Our teachers never addressed issues of consent, didn’t take seriously topics of sexual assault and harassment, and never got close to LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning) issues. I remember a classmate’s mother even once insisted that “we don’t have gay people here” (oh honey, do I have news for you…). But at least we talked about birth control. We got the uncomfortable presentations, the condoms on the wooden penises, the clear plastic vagina models. Luckily, my synagogue went further, delving deeply into some of the tougher issues and questions surrounding sexual health.

Despite the Supreme Court’s hold on the recent 5th Circuit Court ruling upholding severe regulations on abortion clinics, many of which provide much-needed contraceptive services, Texas’ prevailing abstinence-only-until-marriage school curriculum standards and clear judicial attitudes are already leaving many young people in the lurch. Without access to contraception and without education to properly use it, Texas youth are suffering at the hands of a system that glorifies abstinence and shames any other choice. The conversations we aren’t having lead us right to the mistakes we often don’t know we’re making.

My decision to seek out free condoms was a conscious and deliberate one. I was seeking out the people who understand that birth control should be accessible to anyone and everyone regardless of location or financial status. I was seeking out those who don’t believe that sex is something that should be hidden away in the backs of school district filing cabinets and in the sock drawers of nervous teenagers.

My condom search  led me to the board, and now presidency, of Sexual Health Education and Advocacy Throughout Harvard College. Our organization puts on an annual sex week in which we hold events dealing with various topics of sexual health, sex ed, and sex practices. This year’s sex week garnered us quite a bit of media attention when a student called our Anal Sex 101 event “downright vulgar.” This student clearly didn’t understand that the event was targeted towards LGBT youth who have likely never been able to have open conversations about safe, healthy sex practices.

Questioning the allocation of university resources for sex education related events are symptomatic of a larger problem. We are still scared to talk sex. But if we can’t talk about sex, how can we discuss the ways to make it safer?

In light of the current #BirthControlHelpedMe media campaign, I’m proud to declare that birth control helped me get to where I am, getting an incredible education, becoming a leader, and working this summer with NCJW to expand access to contraception for all women. My good fortune in this matter, though, should not be a privilege. Every person should have the right to choose when and if they have sex or raise a family, and they should know the best and healthiest ways to do so.

Join the conversation. Tweet @NCJW using the #BirthControlHelpedMe to share your own story. 



The Threat to Religious Liberty

Author: Michelle Erenberg, NCJW Louisiana State Policy Advocate

While most of the country is celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision that there is a constitutional right to marriage that must be equally extended to same-sex couples, a small but loud group of conservatives are screaming foul. At issue, they claim, is that this ruling will erode the liberty of religious institutions whose beliefs in “traditional” marriage position them to oppose same-sex marriage. Let’s examine this argument.

The opinion in this case is clear, that religious institutions who do not wish to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples will not, by this ruling, be forced to do so. Nor is there any indication that same-sex couples or proponents of marriage equality will now seek to force them to do so. Rather, this opinion upholds the long-held principle in this country that all people, regardless of religious beliefs, should be afforded the same equal protections and rights.

Those pushing against marriage equality on the basis of protecting “traditional” marriage have revealed the true motivations of their opposition. The arguments for “traditional” marriage indicate marriage as defined by religious text or doctrine. More specifically, marriage as defined by Christian doctrine. This is an affront to the very essence of the religious liberty principle. If the Supreme Court had upheld the state bans on same-sex marriage, it would have been stating its agreement that States should be allowed to make laws based on the religious beliefs of its lawmakers or some majority of its voters.

The recent efforts in Indiana, Arkansas and Louisiana to pass laws claiming to protect religious liberty by allowing businesses to discriminate in who they serve based on their religious beliefs is essentially an attempt to enact the same tactic: protecting a certain religious point of view while undermining the principle of religious liberty. The First Amendment is clear; it “prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion.” Laws that protect acts of discrimination motivated by religious beliefs are unconstitutional.

The First Amendment is also clear in prohibiting the making of any law “impeding the free exercise of religion.” Religious institutions are still free to marry who they wish, or not. The Supreme Court ruling does not challenge that. The plaintiffs in the cases before the court were challenging the States, not religious leaders. They were seeking marriage rights and recognition in the States, which are secular institutions, and not bound by religious beliefs or prohibitions. Understanding this, it is difficult to understand how the decision can be interpreted as a threat to religious liberty, unless one believes their states should have laws that reflect or react to the religious beliefs of the people.

This is the real threat to religious liberty. States are under pressure by those who seek to use religious protections provided in the First Amendment to enact laws that impose one religious view on the general populace, denying others the basic rights and protections afforded by the Constitution. As a person of faith I am speaking out against those that are distorting and abusing religious freedom and our First Amendment.

From Stonewall to SCOTUS: How an Anniversary Makes a Movement

Molly Kraus-Steinmetz, NCJW Intern

Molly Kraus-Steinmetz, NCJW, Legislative Intern/post author.  

Each year around this time, we’re reminded of June 27, 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York. They expected to find only passive compliance, but instead, the drag queens, gay men, and transgender women at Stonewall fought back, rioting for three days and igniting a wave of change across the country. Thus, we celebrate Pride Month in June to commemorate the bravery of those who stood up for their rights at Stonewall and sparked the gay liberation movement.

It’s a very nice story. It’s dramatic, it’s stirring, and it’s inspiring. But, as I’ve learned, it isn’t the full story. There were plenty of other instances of discrimination and efforts to fight back against police and others before Stonewall, and networks of gay activists were already establishing themselves. And yet, Stonewall is still the event heralded as the starting point for modern gay rights. Why?

The answer is in the Pride parades taking place across the country this month. Basically, commemorative events like Pride make for really great programming. Working year round on challenging homophobia and transphobia, passing legislation, and changing cultural attitudes about different sexual orientations and gender identities is a full-time job and a noble goal — but it’s also exhausting on a daily basis! Without annual celebrations, members of movements can start to lose hope or interest after long periods without tangible success. But with anniversaries, there are endless opportunities to rejuvenate. Annual celebrations can inspire members of a movement to look back with, well, pride on how far they’ve come, mourn how little has changed, and vow to finish the work that their forbearers started.

Commemorative events and anniversaries are good for keeping a movement alive, but as activists are quick to remind each other, it’s not enough. We have to find ways to continue highlighting the importance of issues all year, and turn anniversaries into opportunities to actively improve the lives of people across the nation. In my short time at NCJW, I’ve been lucky enough to see firsthand how powerful that strategy can be.

On June 2, organizations and individuals across the country wore orange for the first National Gun Violence Awareness Day. NCJW and other groups used the increased media attention on gun violence to push for a ban on selling handguns to people with a history of dating violence and stalking.

On June 7, women’s health organizations celebrated the 50th anniversary of Griswold v. Connecticut, the landmark US Supreme Court decision that ensured a right to contraception for married couples. And this week, these same organizations are using the memory of Griswold to encourage their members to speak out against disastrous proposed budget cuts that would completely eliminate funding for public family planning programs that provide millions of women with access to birth control.

On June 25 2013, the Supreme Court gutted key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby v. Holder by eliminating protections designed to stop states with a history of discrimination from restricting voter access. This June 25, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights — of which NCJW is a member —organized a massive protest in the DC area to fight back against the wave of discriminatory voter ID laws by advocating for a fix to address the new loopholes Shelby opened in voting rights law.

Across the nation, activists are using commemorative events as an opportunity to make the world a better place. The message seems clear: Pride parades and anniversary events are fun and a great way to highlight important issues, but protecting the beliefs we hold dear can’t stop there.

Just recently, on June 26, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states, in what is being hailed as the continuation of the Stonewall Inn Uprising. But even as flag-waving crowds celebrate outside the court, anti-LGBT discrimination is still alive and well in employment, housing, education, and law enforcement; LGBT individuals living in conservative areas will now be in even more risk of violence as a result of this decision; conversion therapy is still largely legal; and LGBT immigrants in detention centers are still facing inhumane treatment.

This doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the marriage equality victory, of course. But my hope is that by June 26 2016, we’ll be able to look back on another year of successful advocacy. I’m excited to join NCJW this summer as we enjoy every one of these short term celebrations and work to turn them into long term opportunities for action and social change.

My Experience at the Center for Reproductive Rights State Leadership Summit

Author Phoebe Pollinger is on the board of NCJW/Essex, NJ, and serves as an active member of its Advocacy Committee. She is also the 2015 recipient of the NCJW/Essex Hannah G. Solomon Award.

At the Center for Reproductive Rights State Summit, from left, are Leanne Gale, NCJW Grassroots Associate, Phoebe Pollinger, NCJW/Essex board member, and Jody Rabhan, NCJW Director of Washington Operations.  

They came from all across the country — state legislators and representatives from a wide array of organizations — to take the lead and get proactive in advancing policies for reproductive health and rights. 

The statistics are staggering — in 2015 alone, over 300 bills attacking women’s health have been presented in state legislatures and in Congress. For reproductive rights advocates, it often seems that we’re constantly on the defensive as we try to beat back this legislative onslaught. And while we may revel in a victory here and there, as the marvelously inspiring Margarida Jorge, National Director of the Women’s Equality Center, pointed out: we haven’t yet fully embraced the concept of power and how it is built. For the opposition, it is perfectly acceptable to lose because they know they will be back with the same proposal next year. And, more importantly, they believe that in spite of a loss, they will have increased their base of support by publicizing their proposal and identifying new followers. Ms. Jorge spoke passionately for the need to be proactive in all of our efforts for reproductive justice. “You cannot just pass policy. You must increase power!”

Ms. Jorge was one of so many wonderful speakers, from Nancy Northup, President of the Center for Reproductive Rights, to Lizz Winstead, Founder of Lady Parts Justice, from Lucy Flores, former Nevada State Assemblywoman, to Wendy Davis, former Texas State Senator. While each spoke from very personal perspectives, they all beautifully related their stories to a broader vision of women’s lives, women’s experiences and how the issue of abortion is underpinned by the need for dignity and fairness.

The insights of the legislators were invaluable. They consistently spoke of the gap between the public opinion and legislative action on reproductive rights and health. And, more than one legislator observed that the subject of abortion, or any subject relating to reproduction, seems simply too “uncomfortable” for the opposition to discuss. Such realities challenge all reproductive rights advocates to find paths to dialogue. With a proactive agenda constantly moving forward, including several bills at the state level and the federal Women’s Health Protection Act, I am confident we can succeed.

There is no time like the present to start preparing for NCJW’s Washington Institute in March, 2016, as well as next year’s elections, which will be critical for advancing reproductive justice. The advocacy information at is invaluable for maximizing our effectiveness. I’m thrilled to report that my home section, Essex County, NJ, has just hired a staff person to work on expanding our advocacy efforts and we are already working on next year’s event to honor the landmark court decision Roe v Wade, which affirmed the right to safe and legal abortion in this country. NCJW/Essex also recently co-sponsored “My Health, My Life” rally in Trenton to advocate for restoration of funding for family planning services. We look forward to more legislative work at both local and statewide level!

Thank you, Center for Reproductive Rights, for an inspiring conference. It was a privilege to attend.

Marriage Equality at the Supreme Court

By Amy Cotton, NCJW senior policy manager

In April, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, a case which could change civil rights history. The justices could agree to grant equal access to marriage to all loving, committed couples, regardless of each partner’s gender or identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). I was honored to speak on behalf of NCJW to the hundreds rallying for equality near the Court steps, and I had four thrilling and terrifying minutes to deliver my message.

Taking a deep breath, and with my partner by my side, I spoke of being shocked by Matthew Shepherd’s murder when I was a high school freshman. While he was brutally killed in Laramie, Wyoming — 500 miles from where I lived in Omaha, Nebraska — it felt like next door. Shortly thereafter, the tragic death of Brandon Teena, a young transgender man from Lincoln, Nebraska, was depicted in the movie Boys Don’t Cry. The final punch in the gut moment was when Nebraska voters approved a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage across the state.

Taken together, these events clearly communicated that LGBT individuals and families didn’t have rights worth protecting. They resonated with me as a Jew, whose cultural history illustrated discrimination taken to its worst possible extreme. As with the 6 million Jews and 7 million others whose lives were cut short during the Holocaust, I was aghast that Matthew and Brandon were killed just for being who they were. These messages had a chilling effect on my journey discovering and accepting that I could fall in love with a woman.

But I was lucky to have many adults around me who took a stand against these injustices. Individuals who, like so many NCJW leaders do in their communities today, encourage younger leaders to channel their passion for justice into creating social change. The folks who volunteered long days to teach teens a social justice leadership curriculum; the guidance counselors who agreed to advise the Gay Straight Alliance I established; and local artists who used drama to empower LGBT and ally youth to share their stories were critical in nurturing my strength. From volunteers who mobilized voters against Nebraska’s ban on same-sex marriage, to my parents who, despite political differences, both stood up for my efforts to create a safe space for all students — they were critical in fueling my hope.

Further, despite conservatives who would have you believe that people of faith stand universally opposed to LGBT equality, many religious people in my life prove them wrong. My Catholic best friend knew just the right thing to say when I came out. My hometown rabbi lovingly offered to officiate my wedding to whomever I chose to marry. Like millions of people of faith across the country, they delivered a message that affirmed my humanity. Like so many other diverse clergy and lay people in every community, they understand that extending civil rights to LGBT people is simply about ensuring equal treatment under the law.

This must be the message delivered to today’s young people. The nine justices who sit on the US Supreme Court will make a decision impacting all aspects of our lives. It won’t just be about our right to marry who we love and access critical federal protections that marriage confers. The ruling will signal to LGBT individuals and families whether or not their lives hold just as much worth as any other in the eyes of the law. No matter the outcome of this case, we must keep speaking out, mobilizing our neighbors, and welcoming rising leaders in our quest to achieve fair treatment for all. 

Click here to watch Amy Cotton, Senior Policy Manager, speak on behalf of NCJW at the Supreme Court rally for marriage equality. Below are Amy’s remarks as prepared for the rally held April 28.

“My name is Amy Cotton and I’m Senior Policy Manager at the National Council of Jewish Women. This is what a queer, Jewish woman looks like!

My family moved to Omaha, Nebraska when I was 11. In my freshman year of high school, Matthew Shepherd was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, 500 miles from where I lived. Then, the movie Boys Don’t Cry hit theaters, about Brandon Teena, a trans man from Lincoln, Nebraska — also murdered. And in my sophomore year, Nebraska voters approved a ban against same sex marriage — a ban which still stands today. A ban that tells LGBT people our lives aren’t valued; our rights aren’t worth protecting.

These were the messages I received growing up in the Midwest. But come June, we are going to change that, right?!

In June, the justices inside that court will make a decision that will impact all aspects of our lives. The question at stake may be about our basic right to marry who we love. But the ruling will go far beyond the issue of marriage. It will be the message we send to today’s high school students about the value and worth of their lives.

The court must advance marriage equality because it’s not OK for queer students to be bullied at school. It’s not OK for LGBT people to be fired because of who we are. It’s not OK for our transgender brothers and sisters of color to be killed in the street.

The court must advance marriage equality so today’s young people hear that their lives are worthy of fair treatment! And for the next generation, the children I hope to have someday with the woman I love and hope to marry? Our children must – from day one – know that in the eyes of the law, our family is as equal, as protected as anyone else’s’.

Even AFTER we WIN in June, some in the faith community will still try to use religion to discriminate. But millions more people of faith across this country believe in equality. If you’re one of them here today – let me hear you!

Jews believe in the principle of b’tselem Elohim: that we are all created in the image of God. We are all of equal worth. We all deserve fair treatment under the law.

Jews are also called to fight for tzedek, or justice – justice for all. And we will not stop fighting until LGBT, queer, or questioning young people in Omaha, and across the country, have NO need to question their worth in this world. This June’s headlines WILL send them a clear message: the US Constitution means exactly what it says. Everyone deserves equal treatment. Everyone has a right to pursue happiness. Everyone counts.

And by speaking out, pushing for progress together, we WILL achieve justice! Thank you.”


Human Trafficking Awareness Event Inspires Hundreds

Author Linda Fox is an NCJW California State Policy Advocacy Co-Chair.

The Exodus from Egypt is a central part of Jewish collective memory and identity. Still, many of us remain unaware of the extent to which modern-day slavery continues, even in in our own backyards. At NCJW, we are working to combat human trafficking, including sex trafficking, in our communities across the country. Reflecting on the Jewish story of liberation from slavery, I am moved to share a recent local effort in Long Beach, California.

400 attendees, 125 volunteers, a great keynote speaker, and to boot, an energetic DJ! All this came together on “a wing and a prayer” —that is, no budget!—after more than 6 months of planning and commitment. Several constituent members  of the Long Beach Human Trafficking Task Force, including NCJW Long Beach, came together to plan our first annual Youth Exploitation Safety Symposium (YESS!) on January 31, the very last day of Human Trafficking Awareness Month. I was very proud to be a part of it.

My personal interest in human trafficking and other abuses of gender-based violence grew in the late nineties when the Women’s Studies Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where I was director, sponsored a talk in honor of Women’s History Month by attorney and founder of the Tahirih Justice Center, Layli Miller Muro. The incredible power of Ms. Miller Muro’s story told of her involvement in the case of Fauziya Kassindja, who in 1996 was granted the first instance of asylum in the United States based on gender persecution, moved me greatly. Still, I knew little about the extent of domestic human trafficking of US citizens until I became involved in NCJW; subsequently the Long Beach Human Trafficking Task Force, only 3 years old, has brought me and the Long Beach Section to the present moment of advocacy.

The Youth Exploitation Safety Symposium (YESS) in Long Beach specifically targeted middle and high school students, their parents and their teachers. The Task Force sought out the Long Beach Unified School District as a co-sponsor, which enthusiastically joined the effort “to help prevent human trafficking through dialogue, education and increased awareness,” in the words of Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser. The keynote speaker, documentarian Nicole Clark, explored the media’s impact on self-image and self–esteem. Additionally, 20 workshops and speakers covered a range of topics, including the Role of Teachers on the Frontline Against Human Trafficking and Cyber Safety and Social Networks for Teens and Parents. NCJW Long Beach served as guides to the workshop sessions.

What a deep example of partnership among the 80 plus agencies and organizations of the Task Force and the School District! From the event site at one of the largest high schools in Long Beach, to the printing of materials, to the hot dog lunch, to tote bags and raffle prizes, everything was donated. Plans are underway to make this symposium to help youth stay safe from human trafficking an annual event.  

While there may be controversy as to whether the Exodus was historical, there can be no question that the retelling of the story will continue to provide impetus for the members of NCJW, called through Jewish values and social justice to improve the lives of women, children and families, as we undertake the task of healing the world in which we live. YESS makes an important contribution to the national NCJW initiative to combat human trafficking, and NCJW Long Beach Section will without a doubt continue to say, “Hineni,” here I stand. 

Linda Fox is an NCJW California State Policy Advocacy Co-Chair, and proud member of NCJW since 2007. She is also a Professor Emerita of Spanish and former Director of Women’s Studies at Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne.  In addition to her advocacy work, she currently serves as chair of the Docent Guild of the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California. 

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