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Behind the Headlines: Abortion Rights Issue Galvanizing Jewish Women’s Groups in America

Jewish women, ranging from blue-jeaned college students to well-heeled Hadassah members, are among the thousands planning to gather in Washington and in state capitals around the country for the “Mobilize for Women’s Lives” rally on Nov. 12.

Women’s groups comprise nearly half of the 14 Jewish advocacy, social welfare and religious organizations that have signed on in support of American Jews who support a woman’s right to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy.

The organizations endorsing the Nov. 12 coalition range from Jewish women’s groups that have been behind the pro-choice cause for decades, such as the National Council of Jewish Women, to relative newcomers to the issue, such as Hadassah.

Hadassah, by far the largest and best-known American women’s Zionist organization, issued its first pro-choice statement in 1981. An “action alert” issued at its convention in August encouraged Hadassah chapters to join abortion-rights advocacy coalitions and educate their communities about the Jewish religious traditions regarding pregnancy and abortion.

Hadassah’s stance, and its participation in the upcoming pro-choice rally, along with that of NA’AMAT USA, B’nai B’rith Women, Women’s American ORT, and the women’s arms of the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism, represent the result of a gradual evolution among the ranks of American Jewish women’s groups.

91 PERCENT OF JEWISH WOMEN

These organizations, which traditionally have tended to focus on support of charitable works in Israel, are now vocal on a number of women’s domestic issues and, most vigorously, the abortion question.

Longtime Jewish feminist Susan Weidman Schneider, editor of the Jewish feminist magazine Lilith and author of “Jewish and Female,” sees a distinct contrast between the activism of mainstream Jewish women’s groups today and their earlier approaches toward issues like reproductive choice.

Many of feminism’s early leaders were Jewish, and over the years, Jewish women, like the vast majority of Jews, have consistently supported reproductive freedom.

A 1985 study by B’nai B’rith Women found that 91 percent of Jewish women believed that every woman who wants an abortion should be able to obtain one, as opposed to only 56 percent of non-Jewish women.

Yet, Schneider recalls that in the 1960s and 1970s, there was reluctance among the ranks of Jewish women’s organizations to mobilize their membership on the abortion issue.

But today, “the issue of reproductive rights is not seen as scary and as fringelike,” Schneider said.

Officials of the women’s groups said that a great deal of the spur for their activism was pressure from the grass-roots membership.

Aileen Cooper, director of programming and public affairs for B’nai B’rith Women, said its involvement in the abortion question did not come from the initiative of its leaders; rather, it stemmed from concern expressed from its membership nationwide. “And like all organizations, we have to be responsive to our membership,” she said.

Shirley Blumberg of Gaitersburg, Md., who serves as Hadassah’s lay representative in Washington, agreed that it was the grass roots that pushed the pro-choice issue.

Blumberg’s background is typical of the traditionally active “Hadassah lady.” Involved in the group for 40 years, she has visited Israel frequently and has been active on Zionist issues.

CONCERN ABOUT MEMBERSHIP ROLLS

But she is equally concerned about reproductive rights. She represents Hadassah at national pro-choice strategy meetings. At last April’s massive pro-choice rally in Washington, her husband and grown daughter joined her in carrying the Hadassah banner.

She speaks proudly of her daughter’s generation, which is active in the pro-choice battle through Hadassah. “Our young women, juggling professions and families, are making time for this,” Blumberg said.

Like all Jewish organizations, the women’s groups are greatly concerned about their membership rolls, especially as they face a shrinking pool of women who have time available for the volunteer activities to which they have been traditionally oriented.

In addition, the women’s groups must contend with the fact that previously all-male organizations, like B’nai B’rith International, are not only opening their doors to women, but actively recruiting them as members in order to boost their own numbers.

Hadassah President Carmela Kalmanson can point to concrete examples of the abortion issue’s power to attract interest among Jewish women.

In Atlanta last August, after Kalmanson was interviewed about her pro-choice stance by the local CBS affiliate, a young woman who worked at the television station approached her and said, “I’m Jewish and I want to be involved in this.” Kalmanson reported that the woman has since joined Hadassah’s Atlanta chapter.

Kalmanson said she does not fear losing her older, more traditional constituency, over the issue. While “there is an opportunity and a danger” in taking stands on any controversial topic, she said, the potential benefits outweigh the risks in speaking out on abortion.

A WIDE RANGE OF GROUPS

Likewise, Bernice Balter, executive director of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, says the abortion issue has inspired women to become more active in synagogue sisterhoods. “Those sisterhoods active on social issues have to be more attractive to their members than those that don’t,” she said.

The pro-choice stand cuts across traditional divides in the Jewish community, bringing together groups that sometimes oppose each other on religious and Israel-related issues.

The wide range of Jewish groups endorsing the Nov. 12 rally include the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, B’nai B’rith Women, Hadassah, Jewish Labor Committee, National Council for Jewish Women, National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, New Jewish Agenda, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, United Synagogues of America, Women’s American ORT and the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.

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