The turning point for me was Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
I have 20 years of Orthodox Jewish education behind me and the first time I learned about her was in a college course taught by a famous American rabbi. He went toe to toe with Justice Ginsburg in a Supreme Court case on birth control, in which he was respectfully dismissive of her, and I followed his lead. I didn’t know anything else about her.
Four years later, I was working at a soul-crushing job in a male-dominated field, trying and failing to prove my worth to a sexist boss. I was good at my job and I knew it, but nothing I did was enough to impress him. I bought a blazer and got a men’s haircut, but instead of making me feel like a responsible man, I felt like a teenage girl in a men’s business costume. Then I stumbled across a trailer for the movie “On the Basis of Sex.”
“Which one makes me look more like a Harvard man?” asks Felicity Jones as a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the start of the trailer, holding two dresses up for her husband to assess. “I am thrilled to report that you look nothing like a Harvard man,” he replies.
Oh my God, that’s me, I thought. I dragged my husband to see the movie. For two hours I watched a small, quiet woman like me fight for men’s and women’s rights – for my rights, long before I was born – and succeed. I loved it. It lit a fire in me. A few weeks later, I quit my job, waved goodbye to my sexist boss, and went into business for myself.
I learned of Justice Ginsburg’s passing on Rosh Hashana this past September. I was off the grid for Yom Tov, but a friend saw it in the paper. “Oh no,” was all I could say. A few minutes later, as the shock wore off, I gave a much more emphatic, “Oh, no.” Judge Ginsburg had inspired me and fought for me, and everything I knew about her was from a based-on-a-true-story movie. I wanted to learn more about her.
As soon as Rosh Hashana was over, my husband and I sat down to watch our next movie: “RBG,” the 2018 documentary on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life. This time instead of Felicity Jones, I saw photo after photo of the real Ruth, from a young age until her final years.
First she looked like me. Then she looked like my late mother, also named Ruth. Then she looked like my grandmother.
I knew women could be powerful, and I had felt a connection with Ruth’s short stature in ‘On the Basis of Sex,’ but a powerful Jewish woman who looked like me, who could have been a member of my own family?
I struggled to wrap my head around it. I knew women could be powerful, and I had felt a connection with Ruth’s short stature in “On the Basis of Sex,” but a powerful Jewish woman who looked like me, who could have been a member of my own family? I had never seen that before. I started to consume everything I could find about her life, especially her early years.
Like me, Ruth’s mother died just as she was entering adulthood. She became disenfranchised with traditional Judaism while sitting shiva, frustrated that the women in the house did not count towards the daily minyan. From a young age, she rejected the sexism I still struggle with in my own experience with traditional Judaism. And when she pursued a legal career fighting sexism, she changed the entire country.
Here was the turning point. It was like a math equation solved in slow motion in my mind. If Ruth started off like me, and became one of the most powerful people in the U.S. legal system, and I am like a young Ruth, then… could I be powerful too? I wasn’t a lawyer or a judge like Justice Ginsburg, but was there something I could do?
As I grew more empowered, my anxiety about the upcoming presidential election also grew. Now, I love voting, whether my vote is going towards a Republican or a Democrat (and I have voted for my share of both). In this electoral season, there is nothing more meaningful than looking at local district maps of voting results and seeing how I made an impact. A fair election is the mark of a true democracy.
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In this electoral season, there is nothing more meaningful than looking at local district maps of voting results and seeing how I made an impact. A fair election is the mark of a true democracy.
I decided to channel my newfound empowerment and went straight to the list of “get out the vote” organizations, chose the first one with a volunteer opportunity I could participate in, and got to work. For the last month, I have been text banking with Stand Up America. I contact citizens all over the U.S. and help them register to vote, get access to mail-in ballots, and find polling sites.
The work has been thrilling. Every day I am thanked, ignored, and cursed at by absolute strangers. And every day I help someone vote. A few weeks ago, I helped a Texas voter who was worried that she would have trouble at the polls after buying a house and changing her permanent address. I helped her double check that her voting address and voting ID matched, assured her that she was good to go, and congratulated her on the house. I may not have the impact of a Supreme Court justice, but neither did Ruth at my age. I am still making a difference.
I may not have the impact of a Supreme Court justice, but neither did Ruth at my age. I am still making a difference.
“Fight for the things you care about,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said. “But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” I care about voting, and I am helping other people vote. Thanks to Justice Ginsburg, I have found my power as a young Jewish woman this election season. I hope my fellow Jewish women find their power too. Vote. Volunteer. Let’s live up to the legacy Ruth Bader Ginsburg left for all of us.
Leora Veit Skier runs a video editing business and volunteers with Stand Up America. She lives with her husband in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. In her spare time, she reads Jewish feminist philosophy books and collects unique siddurim. You can see her professional work at skylightedit.com.
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