NCJW : The NCJW Insider

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. 

What's Reproductive Oppression Got to Do With Passover?

Leanne Gale

Leanne Gale is the NCJW Grassroots Associate. She formerly lived and worked in Jerusalem as a New Israel Fund/Shatil Social Justice Fellow, where she worked closely with the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. She is a published author with pieces appearing in the Journal of Peacebuilding and Development and the Jewish Daily Forward.

My head hurt. I was riding the train home for Passover with my family, and the air was dry, and my head hurt. Between the “personhood amendment” pre-filed in Louisiana (which could virtually ban all abortion in the state, and some types of contraception), the “abortion reversal” law passed in Arizona (requiring doctors to provide medically inaccurate information to patients seeking abortion care), and the chilling outcome of the Purvi Patel case in Indiana (imprisoning a woman basically for having a miscarriage), it had been a miserable week.

How could I celebrate liberation this Passover? I closed my eyes and sunk under the weight. In just a few hours, I would be raising my fourth cup of wine at the Seder table while a young woman, probably just a few bocks away, would be frantically collecting the funds to pay for an abortion out of pocket. Because Medicaid doesn’t cover abortion in most states. Because states across the country have proposed over 235 anti-abortion laws in just the past three months. Because these days, as has long been the case, unfettered access to abortion is only for wealthy white women.

Then I got to thinking. State sanctioned restrictions on abortion access constitute a form of reproductive oppression: the control and exploitation of women, girls, and individuals through our bodies, sexuality, labor, and reproduction. Reproductive oppression can take the form of population control and sterilization, as many women of color have faced throughout our country’s history, or it can take the form of restrictions on access to abortion and family planning. At its core, reproductive oppression is about the denial of agency to women to make our own decisions about whether and when to become parents. It’s about restricting access to the full range of reproductive healthcare services, including contraception and abortion. And it’s about forcing parents to raise children in unhealthy, unsafe environments, where families may be targeted by police or denied proper accommodations for disabilities.

That’s when I realized that the Passover story is also about reproductive oppression. In the Passover story, fearing that the Hebrews will grow powerful and undermine the Egyptian labor economy, Pharaoh attempts to control the Hebrew slave population by commanding his Egyptian midwives to kill the male infants born to Hebrew women. This is a form of reproductive oppression, wresting control from the Hebrew women over their own bodies, families, and reproductive lives. The Egyptian midwives, however, refuse to carry out their orders and stand in solidarity with their Hebrew sisters. They use their privilege in service of justice.

It gives me hope to think that the Passover story, the central story of Jewish liberation, is rooted in a resistance to reproductive oppression. I’ve learned that discrimination often acts itself out on women’s bodies, shrinking us into vessels for desirable or undesirable children. The Pharaoh was threatened by the Hebrews, and it was birthing mothers who were forced to pay the price. Today, as anti-choice politicians play politics with our lives, women are forced to remain pregnant against their will, or to raise children without access to healthcare, or to face interrogation and prison simply for having a miscarriage. And it’s no coincidence that the women most affected are those already struggling to make ends meet, who are disproportionately women of color, young women, and immigrant women.

This year, may we stand in solidarity with the women denied the basic human right to decide when and whether to parent. Next year, may our solidarity set us free.

Next Year, May We All Be Free

Next Year, May We All Be Free

Passover, Human Trafficking, and Gender-Based Violence

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. Ms. Cohen has spoken widely on trafficking in the United States and abroad, and her work with Sanctuary for Families has been reported extensively in the media, most recently in Newsweek magazine’s cover story, “Sex Slaves in America.” She is a member of the Board of Trustees of NCJW and a lifetime member of NCJW-NY Section.

Lori L. Cohen “Don’t pack matzah. They have everything they need for Pesach.” As a participant in a peer-to-peer program that brought me and two other American colleagues to Russia, I was keenly aware that our travels fell just before Passover. Recalling my college years, when images of the imploringly beautiful Avital Sharansky predominated our Hillel gatherings, I had inquired if I, like American Jews before me, should celebrate the feast of freedom by smuggling Pesadik goods to my sisters in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Smolensk. Disabused of this notion, I looked forward to visiting Jewish and non-Jewish leaders, focusing only on our mission—an investigation of the state of trafficking in Russia and local efforts to stem it.

The US State Department has repeatedly flagged Russia’s role as a “source, transit and destination country” for both forced labor and sex trafficking. After years of being placed on State’s human rights “watch list,” Russia received the lowest possible grade of “3” in 2013, and remains there today, for its failure to secure minimum protections for victims of trafficking or hold perpetrators accountable. Having read the reports of egregious labor abuses perpetrated against immigrant workers, as well as the tabloid exposes of Russian women, known as “Natashas,” being sold on the international market, we were eager to draw our own observations during our nearly two weeks of travel.

And yet, when we arrived in Russia, bearing boxes of flyers, informational brochures and stickers about trafficking, we were stymied in our search for answers. Meeting agency after agency to discuss trafficking, we instead found ourselves fielding questions that had been entirely unexpected: Is it true that it is illegal for a husband to hit his wife in America? What is an order of protection? Can an abusive man be forced to leave his home if he has been paying rent?

Because my colleagues and I work for an organization that addresses a broad range of gender based rights, we could speak about these protections, but we were haunted by the statement of one Russian colleague that the Russian Orthodox Church has blocked anti-domestic violence legislation on the grounds that its passage would destroy the family unit. When I countered that domestic violence destroys the family, not the legislation meant to protect victims, no one replied.

Similarly, a prolonged silence lingered when we offered another host agency some tchochtkes from our office as token remembrances: pens, small tote bags, and stickers emblazoned with our organization’s logo in rainbow colors, indicating to LGBT clients that we are a “Safe Space.” Gathering up the pens and tote bag, a human rights worker jerked her hand away from the rainbow stickers, murmuring, “Oh, I can’t have these in my office. It would cause too many problems.” When I later remarked on this exchange during a question and answer session with Moscow law students, one young man remained until his classmates had departed, and softly requested the rainbow stickers to share with his friends.

In some ways, our trip to Russia mirrored a Seder in the questions that it generated, rather than the answers we found. We arrived expecting to speak with the wise child: what are the laws, statutes and customs regarding human trafficking? Instead, we found ourselves in the world of the child who cannot even form the question. How can one discuss human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking, when one cannot even speak of domestic violence or violence against LGBT people? And yet, as during Pesach, both children are equally significant, and one must answer both with equal care and consideration. Dialogue about human trafficking is critical, but it must also take place in an environment that recognizes its interconnectedness with the broader spectrum of gender-based rights.

It is not the mere access to matzah that makes us free, but the ability to ask questions and explore the answers. This year, we are slaves in Russia, but also in America and throughout the world. Next year, may we all be free.


What Selma Teaches

By Suzanne Crowell
Senior Staff Writer, NCJW

I was less than a month away from my 19th birthday, a sophomore in college in New York City, when I tried to board the chartered bus for the last day of the third and court-sanctioned march from Selma to Montgomery. The organizers told me I was too young and needed my parents’ permission to go. I don’t remember if I would have had to be 21 or what, but it would not have occurred to me to ask them, because I am quite sure they would have said no. They supported the civil rights movement in principle but they were pretty apolitical and demonstrating was not on their radar. To say nothing of the fact that the sight of state police bludgeoning demonstrators three weeks before would have given any parent pause. Luckily the bus was full and an older couple (well, at least 25) decided to rent a car, and that is how I got to the Selma march.

My memories of that weekend 50 years ago are impressionistic. The church rally the night before the triumphant march into Montgomery was my introduction to the power of mass protest. The freedom songs, the speeches, the collective will to force change that I absorbed that night has motivated my politics ever since. It is not just individual witness, or eloquence, or motivation alone that makes change. All of that must be organized and marshalled and directed at the right target at the right time to bend the arc a little further down toward justice. When we marched the next day on the Alabama state capitol, we certainly felt a sense of collective victory, no matter how small the role we played that day – and those of us who showed up on the last weekend played a pretty small role. But the reality was that for another four-plus months, organizing and advocacy and mobilization continued, until on August 6 President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, presaged by his March 15 speech declaring in the words of the movement, “we shall overcome.”

To be honest, I was not that impressed with his declaration back then. So much blood had been spilled, so many decades and even centuries of racism had prevailed, that the Voting Rights Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act had to prove themselves to me and to perhaps millions of others. I identified, as did many my age, with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s drive for longterm community organizing and fundamental radical economic and social change, not just reform. The mass demonstrations that swept through Southern cities and then receded like the tide did not seem to me up to the task of creating permanent change. In retrospect, the new laws did hit hard at sacrosanct values of the time – that if you owned a business, you could discriminate however you wanted, and that elections held in the unregenerate South were nobody else’s affair. The combination of organizing and demonstrating had been potent and remains so to this day.

Sadly, one can’t now envision a step so radical as an army of federal registrars flooding the old Confederacy and its ideological allies to bring the Constitution to bear. Instead we witness state after state enacting laws to make voting more onerous in order to stem supposed corruption of the individual ballot. Not the corruption that comes of systems designed to keep people from voting. Not the corruption of elections that comes when so few have megaphones so loud and campaign treasuries so enormous. That corruption persists and worsens.

At an earlier time, Tom Paine warned against “summer soldiers” and “sunshine patriots” in the war against the English. An ardent abolitionist, he would surely have warned against complacency in the task of uprooting racism, root and branch, that still awaits completion. What the movement taught me fifty years ago was that freedom is indeed “a constant struggle.” It is one punctuated by slave rebellions, abolitionism, civil war, Jim Crow, and Black Lives Matter. We each have to join that struggle in our time for the long haul. We need to be winter soldiers. That is the message of Selma.

Voting Rights Restoration

By Betsy Yarosh
Voting Rights Restoration Initiative Chair, NCJW Minnesota

Last week the Minnesota section of NCJW held a house party to spread the word on the importance of restoring the right to vote for those on parole or probation.

Over 47,000 Minnesotans living in our community and paying taxes are currently unable to vote due to a felony conviction.  There is a bill before the Minnesota legislature which would restore the right to vote for these individuals.  Because of the bill’s bipartisan support, the prospects of passage are looking positive.

As chair of the Voting Rights Restoration initiative at NCJW, I have found it challenging to engage our membership in this issue.  We’ve had to come up with some very salient talking points to break through racial misconceptions and engage our membership on why they should care about this issue and the communities it effects.

So Why Change the Law?

  • Greater access to voting encourages positive participation in society. Studies have shown that people who vote take a more active and positive role in their community. There are even benefits passed down through families; when children watch their parents vote, this models positive behavior and it increases their likelihood of voting then they are adults, ensuring that we are preparing the next generation to take a more active and positive role in society.
  • The current law disproportionately affects men of color, primarily African American men.  In Minnesota, African American men are disenfranchised at a rate of seven times more than whites. 
  • Laws inhibiting voting among people on parole or probation were initially established to suppress voting in minority communities.

For our house party, we brought in an individual with first-person knowledge of what happens when you deny someone the most basic of all American rights: the right to vote.  Andre Dukes is a pastor at a Minneapolis church, and an African American man.  When he was young, he committed a crime and was sent to prison for several years.  Upon his release, he was informed that we would not have the right to vote until after he had served out his parole.  If he tried to vote, it would be considered a violation of the terms of his parole and he would be sent back to prison.  He was so fearful of breaking parole that he chose not to vote for many years, even after his parole had ended.  

The disenfranchisement he felt from society once he was released from prison was only reinforced by the state denying his right to vote.

His message was that in order to prevent recidivism, we as a community need to ensure that young men returning from prison are embraced by society.  Voting is one way to make these individuals feel empowered and to break the cycle of young men being released only to find themselves right back in prision.


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