By Jackie Hajdenberg
(JTA) — Before sundown last Friday night, as American Jews prepared to light their Shabbat candles, some also lit yahrzeit candles.
The additional flames, which signify mourning, burned in commemoration of the first anniversary of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court ruling removing a federal guarantee of abortion rights.
That is far from the only way religious observance is playing a role in Jewish efforts for abortion rights. Nearly 90% of Jewish voters believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a recent survey, and one year ago, the court’s decision sparked opposition from a range of Jewish groups and mobilized others to advocate for abortion rights on the state level. In the months since, Jewish law, or halacha, has played a central role in those campaigns.
According to most interpretations, halacha allows abortion in some instances, and requires it in cases where the pregnant person’s life or health is in danger. That imperative has formed the basis of legal efforts in several states where abortion has been restricted or banned.
At least one haredi Orthodox group, Agudath Israel of America, came out in favor of the Dobbs decision. But Jewish activists who have gone to court to fight abortion restrictions cite Jewish law in their arguments that the new measures infringe on Jews’ religious freedom.
Both rabbis and rank-and-file Jews in Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, and Indiana have sued their respective states on religious freedom grounds, and some have partnered with leaders from other faith groups. Jews in states where abortion rights are not at risk are also working to more deeply anchor them in law.
Jews have also mobilized outside the courthouse. As the Dobbs decision appeared imminent, the National Council of Jewish Women created a fund to help people access abortions. Since the Supreme Court decision, that effort has raised $1.5 million and, according to the group, has aided 10,000 people who live in states with abortion restrictions — paying for travel, accommodations or the medical procedure itself. The group has also spearheaded initiatives to discuss reproductive rights at synagogue and to organize rabbis to speak out.
Jody Rabhan, the organization’s chief policy officer, told JTA that “the Jewish community is engaged like never before, mobilized like they have never been.”
Here’s where Jewish-led efforts to roll back abortion restrictions — or entrench abortion rights — stand in four states, one year after Dobbs.
A Kentucky law banning nearly all abortions took effect as soon as the Dobbs ruling was issued, one of more than a dozen “trigger laws” in states across the country. In October, a group of three Jewish women sued Attorney General Daniel Cameron challenging the law.
The suit says Kentucky law denies the three women — Lisa Sobel, Jessica Kalb and Sarah Baron — the right to undergo in-vitro fertilization, or IVF, a procedure that often involves the disposal of embryos. The plaintiffs argue that the ban interferes with their religious freedom because it prevents them from fulfilling the biblical command to “be fruitful and multiply,” which they can only achieve through in-vitro fertilization.
“Our clients don’t want abortions. Our clients are IVF patients who want to have children,” said Benjamin Potash, one of the attorneys representing the women. He said the Kentucky law makes his clients “beholden to a Christian definition of life under a secular law, and that’s an infringement of their religious beliefs and the harm is they can’t have kids.”
The lawsuit currently sits before a Kentucky state circuit court, and the plaintiffs’ attorney has filed a motion for summary judgment. Another court challenge to the law, brought by local abortion rights groups, was rejected by the state’s Supreme Court in February, which returned it to a lower court. Last week, the abortion rights groups withdrew it.
The Jewish womens’ complaint argues that “Judaism has never defined life beginning at conception.” In a court filing in response, state Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who is running for governor, twice denied that claim, and also denied that the women are “speaking on behalf of all Jewish people.”
Missouri’s own trigger ban took effect following Dobbs, and bans all abortions except in cases of emergency. In January, an interfaith group of religious leaders filed a lawsuit challenging the ban on religious grounds.
Two weeks ago, Missouri’s attorney general’s office asked a state judge in St. Louis to throw out the lawsuit on the grounds that only health care providers — not the religious leaders bringing the suit — can be prosecuted under the state’s abortion ban. But attorneys for the faith leaders have told their clients that the state’s tactic is standard court procedure.
“We’re feeling really hopeful and optimistic about it,” said Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis and one of the plaintiffs in the case. “I think these processes are never quick processes.”
She added, “We’ve been heartened both by the conversation that’s been started as a result, and people understanding the impact of particularly Christian nationalism, but these attacks against separation of church and state. [We] are hopeful of the impact that it will have in Missouri.”
Picker Neiss, an activist who has trumpeted other progressive causes in Missouri, said that even before the Dobbs ruling, she and other Jewish activists had campaigned for reproductive rights in Missouri, which had restricted abortion access before banning it last year. “I feel like I’m just another link in a chain of generations of Jewish women and men who have been on these frontlines,” she said.
Current Florida law bans abortions after 15 weeks, and one year ago, Rabbi Barry Silver of the nondenominational Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor in Boynton Beach challenged that ban in court. His complaint has since been amended three times, and has added additional plaintiffs, including a Quaker group, a Buddhist reverend, a Unitarian Christian pastor and a Jewish obstetrician/gynecologist.
But though the case drew attention last year as an early faith-based challenge to abortion restrictions, it has yet to be heard in court — a move that Silver claims is political.
“When ours was filed, we drew a judge, unfortunately, who was appointed by a Republican governor of Florida who is not very sympathetic to our cause,” Silver said, referring to Leon County Circuit Judge Lee Marsh, who was appointed by former Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
Nevertheless, Silver, who is also an abortion rights attorney, said he and his fellow plaintiffs have “a lot of evidence and a lot of allegations.” He said a Holocaust survivor and congregant of L’Dor Va-Dor, Helen Daniels, recently submitted an affidavit to the court saying that she has seen what happens when a government tries to criminalize Jewish law.
The 15-week abortion ban is being challenged elsewhere in Florida state courts, and if it is upheld, then a recently passed six-week ban would also take effect. But Florida courts have delivered victories for progressive activists on other issues, partially blocking a ban on healthcare for transgender minors and lifting a ban on Medicaid payments for gender-affirming care. A court also temporarily blocked a state ban on minors attending drag shows.
“I think it bodes well for us because I think it shows that even in Florida, the courts can rule in favor of progressive issues and issues of freedom of religion and speech, and thought and education,” Silver said. “These are good signs that these types of cases can succeed.”
New York state has robust legal protections for abortion, and NCJW’s New York chapter celebrated a victory last week when Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a bill protecting New York-based doctors and medical providers who provide abortion or reproductive health-related services to patients from out of state.
Aviva Zadoff, director of advocacy at NCJW-NY, said her chapter organized a virtual “lobby day” with Jews for Repro, an initiative from the organization centered around mobilizing Jews to advocate for reproductive rights.
NCJW-NY has other items on the agenda for the next legislative session, including advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment, which would enshrine abortion protection into the New York State Constitution; a comprehensive bill mandating sex education in public and charter schools, and a bill that would regulate crisis pregnancy centers — which are generally run by Christian activists and counsel pregnant people against abortion — that pose as genuine, full-service reproductive health clinics.
“Since the Dobbs decision came down a year ago, we’ve seen states across the United States, passing abortion bans and making abortion access very limited,” Zadoff said. “We believe New York as a progressive state, as a state where its leaders say that they support abortion access, should be stepping up at this time and doing everything it can to not only protect and preserve abortion access for people who live in the state, but also to make sure that those who live in states where abortion is inaccessible, can come to New York and access the services that they need.”
At the national level, NCJW is keeping an eye on medication abortion — an issue which is set to return to the courts as early as October. In April, the Supreme Court froze restrictions on abortion pills that had been put in place by lower court rulings.
“We know that we’re on the right side of history, we know that Jews support the ability to access abortion, we know that people of faith overwhelmingly support abortion access,” Rabhan said. “And so it’s a matter of keeping up the fight for the long term. And I think that is our challenge, and we’re ready to do it.”