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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.

 

Calling for Health Justice at the United States Supreme Court

By Rabbi Lori Koffman, NCJW board director and chair of NCJW’s reproductive justice initiative

On March 4, I had the great privilege of being invited to speak — with 4 other wonderful and inspiring Christian and Muslim religious leaders — at a rally in front of the Supreme Court. While the lawyers were arguing their cases inside the Courthouse, we stood outside, in the rain, raising our voices loudly for the Supreme Court Justices to hear our cry for justice as they considered King v. Burwell. We spoke out to preserve the Affordable Care Act and its tax credits, the financial help challenged in this case, which enable over 8 million people to enjoy affordable, quality health insurance, some for the first time in their lives.

Why? Because while we may come from different religious beliefs and practices, we are united in the belief that we are obligated to raise our religious voices to protect the vulnerable, to stand up for those who may not be able to stand up for themselves, and to work in any way we can to build a better, stronger, and healthier society for all of its citizens. And as Dr. Sayyid Syeed, of the Islamic Society of North America, said at the rally, a healthy society is one where each and every individual has every opportunity to protect their own health and well-being.

In King v. Burwell, the nine justices on the Supreme Court will be making a decision that will impact the health and economic security of millions of women, children, and families — ruling to preserve or take away their health coverage. This is a matter of reproductive justice, as NCJW believes health care access is a basic human right. But this case is also is a stark reminder of how courts matter; and why it’s important for Congress to confirm federal judges who keep faith with constitutional values, and who are driven to uphold basic human rights.


On the steps of the Court, I was proud to represent NCJW because of the Jewish values that drive our work:

  • the obligation to pursue ‘tzedek’ or justice for all, which means a society in which everyone has affordable access to healthcare and not just the wealthy;
  • our obligation to protect ‘kavod ha briot’ or respect for every human being because we are all made in the image of God, so that the health and well being of each of us must be absolutely unassailable; and
  • our responsibility of Talmud Torah, to educate ourselves and others of the moral imperatives that drive us to ‘love our neighbors as ourselves.’  

I was proud to represent NCJW as part of a tradition that, for thousands of years, has specifically named health care as one of the most important obligations a society has to its members.

I was proud of NCJW’s leadership, together with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, in coordinating a joint public statement with 13 national Jewish organizations, affirming our belief that it is a moral imperative for our nation to advance access to health coverage by preserving the ACA tax credits, and expressing our hope that the Court rejects the challenge in King.

And I was proud to represent NCJW as a Jewish woman, in the spirit of Esther whom we celebrated on Purim this [week/month] and who reminds us that it our obligation to stand up and speak to power when the lives of others hang in the balance.

Learn more about how the health of women, children, and families is truly at risk in this case, a clear example of how the federal courts impact all of our lives, by listening to NCJW’s call, Courts Matter: Health Coverage at Stake. Then, join me in calling for health equity and reproductive justice by pledging to speak out with NCJW!

 

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Below are Rabbi Koffman’s remarks delivered at the steps of the Supreme Court. Check out photos from the event on NCJW’s Facebook page! To learn more about engaging in NCJW’s Reproductive Justice Initiative or BenchMark: NCJW’s Judicial Nominations Campaign, please contact Leanne Gale, NCJW Grassroots Associate.

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Remarks as Prepared for Interfaith Event at US Supreme Court, March 4, 2015

By Rabbi Lori Koffman, NCJW Board Director

 

Good Morning, I am Rabbi Lori Koffman, a board member of the National Council of Jewish Women.

I am here with you this morning, on the steps of the Supreme Court, because the Torah commands me to stand up for Justice. “tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” it says, “justice, justice shall you pursue, l’ma’an tichyeh so that you shall live.

When the health care of millions of individuals —and the very lives of thousands of individuals every year — hangs in the balance—THAT is not JUSTICE.

I am here this morning because Jewish sages for thousands of years have made clear that healthcare must not be exclusively for the affluent, that a JUST society is one that ensures access to healthcare for all of its people, no matter where they live.

And if the most vulnerable in our society are denied access to affordable healthcare coverage—THAT IS NOT JUSTICE.

I am here this morning because Jewish values teach that I cannot stand idly by the spilling of my neighbor’s blood, that it is my responsibility to save a life.

When someone is forced to choose between their health and their economic security— their very life becomes at risk.

Taking away the tax credits under the Affordable Care Act will force this question onto millions of women, children, and families across the country — and we know it will fall hardest on our sisters and brothers who can least afford to make up the difference; THAT is NOT justice.

I am here this morning because the Jewish tradition teaches us that each and every one of us is made in the image of God, which means that that the health and well being of each of us must be absolutely unassailable.

And I am here this morning in the spirit of Esther, the heroine of the Jewish holiday of Purim that begins tonight, who reminds us that it our obligation to stand up and speak to power when the lives of others hang in the balance.

We stand on these steps here, together today to pursue healthcare justice for all, in order that all have the ability to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Thank you.

We Need to Restore Voting Rights in the United States

Donna Benjamin is an member of the  Board of Directors and Advocacy Committee at NCJW Los Angeles

Donna Benjamin is an member of the Board of Directors and Advocacy Committee at NCJW Los Angeles.

Recently, the Los Angeles section of NCJW presented a panel discussion in honor of the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.  The panel, moderated by lifelong civil rights activist, Dr. Marcia Coppertino, included Ralph Fertig, freedom rider, civil rights lawyer and federal administrative judge, and Rick Tuttle, 1963 freedom summer volunteer. Robert Farrell, 1962 Freedom Rider and LA city councilmember was unable to attend. We were also lucky to hear from Lloyd Clayton, executive director of the Mayme Clayton Library and Museum of Black History. Renowned soprano, Gertrude Bradley, opened the program with an African American spiritual and closed with the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Johnson after the brutal attack by law enforcement on hundreds of nonviolent civil rights activists marching from Selma to Montgomery, demanding voting rights for African Americans. It gives the federal government the right to prohibit racist voting practices or procedures, such as requiring literacy tests, poll taxes, and registration practices that discriminate against minorities.

Since 1965, the US Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled to roll back the Voting Rights Act. Each time, Congress has come in to save the day, either by amending the law to counter the Supreme Court or by strengthening the provisions of the law itself.  

However, on June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that part of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. The court effectively gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act designed to protect minority would-be voters, and racial discrimination in voting practices immediately reared its ugly head. Within hours of the decision, many states that had been regulated under the jurisdiction of the Voting Rights Act began and continue to pass laws which make it harder for minorities to vote. 

The Shelby County decision was a crucial reminder of why courts matter – the third branch of government holds immense power to shape the very essence of our democracy. Further, the speed at which states across the country began to implement racially discriminatory voting laws was an especially stark signal of the ongoing racism in our political system.

It saddens me to see how much overt racism exists in this country. Racism is nothing new in the United States, and it is not easy to read about the many onerous laws recently passed in states across the country designed to keep folks from the polls. For a democracy to be strong and free, every citizen must be able to vote. In the 21st century, this should not even be an issue!

The blatant resurgence of racially discriminatory voting practices should be of concern to all Americans who love this country, and there is something we can do. Write your Congressional representative and senators and ask them to support the Voting Rights Amendment Act (HR 875), sponsored by Representative Jim Sensenbrenner’s (R-WI), Representative John Conyers’ (D-MI) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). You can also call their offices directly through the Capitol switchboard at 202 224 3121. Once connected to your Congressperson’s office, ask to speak with the staff person who handles voting rights. If they are not available, leave a message. Be sure to tell them you want your representative or senator to support the Voting Rights Amendment Act (HR 875). Feel free to adapt the following message:  

I’m calling to urge you to do everything in your power to protect the voting rights of every American, by opposing efforts to institutionalize burdensome requirements and qualifications and supporting legislation like the Voting Rights Amendment Act. Regardless of where they live or what they look like, every eligible voter in the US should be able to easily participate in our democracy through access to the ballot box. Today, voting is increasingly difficult for too many people because politicians are making it harder to vote. I urge you to support voting rights and cosponsor the Voting Rights Amendment Act today!

 

Put Your Faith into Action: Spread the Word to #GetCovered!

Amy and Lindsay advocating for the ACA at the SCOTUSHave you heard the one about the Catholic, the Muslim and the Jew who walk into a Methodist building…?

While it sounds like the start of a good joke, this actually happened in Washington a few short weeks ago. In late December, I was proud to represent NCJW at a gathering of interfaith advocates — clergy and lay leaders alike — at a meeting with Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell, head of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), The meeting was hosted at the United Methodist Church building on Capitol Hill.

I joined leaders from American Muslim Health Professionals, NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, among many others, to speak with and hear from the Secretary about the health insurance marketplace. Created under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the marketplace (or “exchange”) is the new way to enroll in affordable, quality health insurance at www.healthcare.gov.

If there is one thing that folks of all religious traditions and beliefs can get behind, it’s the importance of getting covered. And we have no time to lose in spreading that message — because this Sunday, February 15 will mark the last day for most people to sign up for coverage in the marketplace this year. 

Thanks to the ACA, the marketplace is giving women greater access to health care without jeopardizing their economic security. Before health reform, simply being a woman could force you to pay higher rates than men for the same coverage. A woman could be denied care if she had survived domestic or intimate partner violence, or given birth via C-section. Most health plans didn’t offer maternity coverage. Most women, and especially young and low-wage women, couldn’t afford basic preventive care. 

Today, when women get covered in the marketplace, the landscape is a whole lot better. Here are a few of my favorite improvements: 

Young women can stay on their parent’s health plan until they are 26. 

Maternity coverage is a standard health benefit in all marketplace plans. 

A range of preventive health benefits are available without co-pays — including birth control, annual doctor’s visits, cancer screenings, HIV and other STD testing, breastfeeding support and supplies, screening for intimate partner violence, and other services.

No longer is “being a woman” considered a pre-existing condition, and no longer can insurance companies deny you coverage for having a pre-existing health condition

What’s even better is that, along with financial help, the ACA has advanced health equity; many more women are able to access these benefits withoutDon't forget to get covered having to choose between caring for their health and paying for their rent, groceries, or childcare. Recent data from HHS shows that women make up more than half of the millions of adults who have signed up for coverage in the marketplace so far this year. And, most people — 4 out of 5 — are finding they’re eligible for financial help to afford the cost of their coverage. With that financial help, many individuals are able to sign up in quality plans that meet their needs for $100 or less.

But unless people know how and by when to get covered, they may have to continue relying on faith alone to stay healthy. At the interfaith meeting those few weeks ago, it was clear that regardless of our diverse religious traditions, we could all support the basic value of ensuring access to health care.

You can do something to help spread the word by February 15. In this homestretch of the marketplace open enrollment period, make a commitment to act. 

Need ideas? Send a loved one an early Valentine’s Day message about getting covered, to show you care about their health and well-being. Or, check out NCJW’s 18 ideas to take action for health equity, including speaking to a friend over Shabbat dinner; sharing an NCJW palm card with a neighbor or local business owner; making an announcement at a community meeting; or posting a message on Facebook. Whatever it takes to spread the word, show your faith in the future by taking action. 

Visit www.healthcare.gov to learn about your options for coverage and financial help. Most individuals must sign up by February 15 to avoid a fine of $325 or 2-percent of their income, whichever is greater.

Protest and Civil Disobedience in Our Nation's Capital

Young Jewish men are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than their non-Jewish counterparts. While Jews constitute 13.1% of the nation’s population, they make up nearly 40% of the prison population. Jews are more likely to be stopped and searched by police, and more likely to be seen as criminals in the eyes of the public.

Of course, we know this situation to be untrue. If it were true, we certainly hope that Congress would be working tirelessly to address the issue. It is painful to even read the scenario above, feeling deeply our own history of persecution and anti-Semitism. But the above
statistics are true for another historically oppressed community — the black community in America. As black people continue to die, Congress has done little to take up the mantle of racial justice. This is why, last week, NCJW joined Bend the Arc, Auburn Seminary, and faith leaders from across the country gathered to perform an act of civil disobedience in the Longworth Congressional Cafeteria. As a Jew, a woman, and an ally to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I was honored to represent NCJW at the action.

The plan was very simple. We were to enter the cafeteria, position ourselves by the cash registers, and lie down on the floor. In many #BlackLivesMatter protests, participants lie on the ground for four minutes and thirty seconds, representing the four and a half hours Michael Brown’s body was left bleeding in the street. And so we did — many of us wearing clerical collars and Jewish prayer shawls. As Congressional staffers gathered around to snap photos, police officers loudly threatened arrest.

 


It is worth noting that the act of protest runs strong through the veins of our tradition. It was Abraham who so courageously argued with God, begging that the innocent of Sodom and Gomorrah be spared. It was Moses who demanded, in his quaking voice, “let my people go.” And in 1908, it was Emma Goldman who said, “The history of progress is written in the blood of men and women who have dared espouse an unpopular cause, as, for instance, the black man’s right to his body, or woman’s right to her soul.”

Speaking of a woman’s right to her soul — last week was also the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the historic Supreme Court decision affirming every woman’s right to make her own decision about abortion. While the occasion should have felt like cause for celebration, I could not help but feel deflated by the passage of an extreme abortion coverage ban in the House, the introduction of countless anti-choice bills in states across the country, and the flurry of anti-choice activists who descended upon Washington, DC for the annual so-called “March for Life.” Here, too, I was moved to protest.

NCJW staff joined a peaceful, feminist demonstration on the steps of the Supreme Court. We carried signs declaring, “Advance Reproductive Justice” and “Keep Abortion Legal.” Amidst thousands of anti-choice marchers, I watched an ultra-Orthodox woman stand up and chant “My Body, My Choice” into a megaphone.

I’ll admit that I felt violated by many of the anti-choice marchers. I felt violated when groups of men began chanting, “We Love Babies.” I felt violated when an older woman whispered in my ear, “I’m praying for you.” And I felt violated when I saw a sweet little girl, no older than three, carrying a sign with a picture of a bloody fetus. Sometimes, in those situations, it can be hard to remember that 7 in 10 registered voters believe that abortion should be legal.

The struggle for racial justice and the struggle for reproductive justice are connected. Both are a demand for human rights — the basic freedoms to determine the destinies of our own bodies and lives. And indeed, there can be no reproductive justice when black people are targeted with police violence, black women imprisoned for resisting domestic violence, and black women deprived of access to basic reproductive healthcareReproductive justice means that every person deserves the power to make their own informed decisions about their body, sexuality, and future regardless of race, income and class, sexual orientation, immigration status, or any other factor.

In these urgent times, it is not enough to look back to our rich Jewish history of protest. Will recounting our history end mass incarceration in the United States or re-open abortion clinics in Texas? The time is now to draw on our vast reserves of solidarity and strength, and show up in protest. That is the truest honor to our tradition.

 

Black Lives Matter

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