“There are people hurting, there are people suffering, so we have an obligation, a mandate, to do something.”
As Reform Jews, our history is steeped in the struggle for justice. “Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof!” our Torah instructs us. “Justice, Justice shall you pursue!” Justice is something we must seek here and there, for ourselves and others, now and always. It is not necessarily something that can be achieved in one lifetime or even in many. The journey toward justice is long and challenging, often riddled with road blocks and setbacks. Yet, we must persist. We must do something. One of my favorite teachings is that of the ancient sage, Rabbi Tarfon, “Lo alecha ha’melacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben horin l’hibatel mi’mena.” “It is not our obligation to complete the work, but nor are we free to refrain from doing it.” Engaging in the pursuit of justice is essential to living a Jewish life.
Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) has a long and proud history of advocacy and the pursuit of justice. Since its founding in 1913, WRJ has been at the forefront, leading our Reform Movement in justice work – especially on issues of particular concern to women. As a leader in the fight for reproductive health and rights, WRJ has brought individuals and communities together to pursue justice as a collective voice, guided by the value of kavod habriyot, respect for individual dignity, and grounded in the belief that each person should have the ability to make health care decisions for themselves. The journey to reproductive freedom is long and challenging. We still have a long way to go.
In June 2022, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning Roe v. Wade and dismantling nearly fifty years of legal precedent protecting the right to abortion. Several states immediately took action to enact total or near-total abortion bans, with some bans imposing criminal penalties for health care professionals who provide abortion care, forcing people to travel hundreds and thousands of miles to access abortion care or to carry pregnancies against their will, a grave violation of their human rights. Other states have continued to enact abortion bans and restrictions. Research studies in 2023 confirmed the catastrophic impact of the Dobbs decision: states with abortion bans have high maternal mortality rates and insufficient maternal health care providers. Abortion bans and restrictions disproportionately impact marginalized communities already facing barriers to health care. Even in states where abortion remains legal, available resources are strained, clinic appointments take longer to schedule, and patients must travel longer distances and incur greater expenses.
On a personal level, I often have felt overwhelmed by the rising tide of legislation against reproductive freedom. Yet, I know we must persist. We must do something. Here’s where state advocacy comes in.
When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and the federal constitutional right to abortion, it declared it was sending the issue back to the states, to the “people and their elected representatives.” For abortion rights advocates, state constitutions and state advocacy have become a critical part of a new strategy to overturn bans that have cut off access to abortion. State constitutions provide longer and more generous enumerations of rights than the U.S. Constitution, offering a way around gerrymandered state legislatures pushing stricter laws. Initiatives to establish state constitutional protections are a way to establish a firmer guarantee for abortion rights than the one in Roe, which rested on a protection of privacy that was not explicit in the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, citizens often can take the lead in this work. In states that allow citizen-initiated amendments, citizens and advocacy groups can bypass legislators who might not support their issues. Amendments to state constitutions take precedence over previous state Supreme Court rulings to the contrary. So, even when state Supreme Courts won’t recognize a right, voters can use the amendment process to get it.
Time and again, when abortion is on the ballot, voters vote in favor of reproductive freedom, and abortion wins. Indeed, since the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, every ballot measure that has sought to preserve or expand abortion access has been successful, while measures that have sought to restrict abortion access have failed – even in states that skew conservative. Weeks after the Dobbs decision, voters in Kansas defeated a ballot measure that would have removed abortion protections from the state’s constitution. In November 2022, voters in Michigan, California, and Vermont approved ballot initiatives to provide explicit protection for reproductive freedom, including the right to abortion, into their respective state constitutions, while voters in Kentucky and Montana defeated anti-abortion ballot measures.
This past November, Ohio voters added the right to abortion to their state constitution, also protecting decisions around accessing birth control and other reproductive health care. The Reform Movement in Ohio (RAC-Ohio) led an exhaustive effort to get the initiative on the ballot and then mobilize people to vote. WRJ partnered with RAC-Ohio in these efforts. WRJ women’s groups and individuals, in Ohio and across the United States, wrote thousands of postcards to eligible Ohio voters and sent many more thousands of text messages during nationwide textbanking events co-sponsored by RAC-Ohio and WRJ.
The recent victory for reproductive freedom In Ohio demonstrates the power of collective action and shows how we can create significant change through state level advocacy, even if we live elsewhere. Small actions – like writing postcards and sending text messages - can make a big difference, especially when we work together.
Writing postcards to voters is a great gateway to activism. Many people want to get involved with state advocacy efforts but need something that doesn’t involve a crazy time commitment. Writing postcards is fantastic for folks who have brief windows of time rather than blocks of hours. It also is an engaging group activity. WRJ members have gathered for postcarding parties (both in person and virtual) on local and district-wide levels; we’ve written postcards to voters at various women’s group and district events and retreats; we wrote hundreds of postcards during our WRJ Civil Rights Journey in October 2022. My own congregation – Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, California – hosts a weekly drop-in event for people to come together and write postcards to voters. Over the years, we have found it a wonderful way to build community, sharing our stories and passions with each other while writing our postcards and discussing pressing concerns of the day. During the last election cycle, we engaged members of our community in writing over 40,000 postcards to voters.
I love writing postcards to voters! I enjoy figuring out which different color pens to use and how to draw the reader’s attention to important details with highlights, creative designs, and arrows. Postcarding is one thing all of us can do to help make a difference. It’s easy and fun! More importantly, it is effective. According to data compiled by the Center for Common Ground, postcarding significantly increases voter engagement, and reaches voters who do not have a phone number on file or may not have a mobile phone for texting outreach. If you or your women’s group have not yet gotten involved with postcarding to voters, now is a great time to start, as we begin to gear up for the 2024 elections – where the fate of abortion rights will again be on the ballot in certain states.
As we continue to fight for abortion access through state advocacy, our collective voices are more important than ever. The task of justice is too much for one person to bear. We have a responsibility to reach out to others and find ways to work in partnership. What we accomplish together is greater than anything we do alone. There is holiness in collaboration. By meaningfully involving other people in our work, we build trust, motivation, and commitment. It’s how we build our power as social justice advocates, and ultimately, how we change our world.
Join us! Subscribe to WRJ’s Advocacy Matters e-newsletter to keep informed about opportunities for education, action, and advocacy. Find out who is doing reproductive freedom work in your community and how you and/or your women’s group can contribute to their work. Write a postcard to get out the vote. Gather your friends and people in your communities to write more. Together, we will continue to fight to create a world of justice and freedom for all bodies, where we make choices freely and determine for ourselves the future we intend to create.