At Repro Shabbat, Jewish congregations try to change the narrative on abortion

(RNS) — In many Christian congregations, abortion has been endlessly described as an unmitigated evil.

This weekend, Jewish congregations gathering for Shabbat services will make sure American Jews know and understand the Jewish point of view on the medical procedure.

Across the country, at more than 1,200 synagogues, Jews will be discussing abortion and reproductive rights in sermons, lectures, talks and other forums Friday and Saturday (Feb. 17-18) as part of Repro Shabbat.

The effort, so named by the National Council of Jewish Women, which first piloted the annual observance three years ago, is expected to be the largest so far following the overturning of Roe v. Wade last summer.

“The Jewish community is overwhelmingly in favor of abortion rights,” said Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, scholar in residence at the National Council for Jewish Women. “But a lot of Jews don’t know what Judaism says about abortion and reproductive freedom.”

Repro Shabbat is an effort to push back against the prevailing view that abortion is religiously forbidden and to shore up the Jewish belief that abortion is permissible and, on occasion, even required. The date of Repro Shabbat was intentionally chosen for the Torah reading recited in most synagogues each February from the 21st chapter of Exodus.

In that chapter, which addresses penalties for accidentally causing a woman to miscarry, the sentence for an induced miscarriage is financial. The loss of a fetus is not treated as manslaughter or murder because the fetus is not considered a person with full human rights until it is born.

The Repro Shabbat logo. Courtesy image

In post-biblical Jewish law, such as the Mishnah and the Talmud, rabbis further stipulated that the life of the pregnant person takes precedence over the life of the fetus, up until a baby’s first breath.

A poll of Jewish voters prior to the November 2020 midterm election found that 82% of Jewish registered voters disapproved of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Supreme Court ruling, which found the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion. An earlier Pew Research poll found that 83% of American Jews favor keeping abortion legal in all or most cases.

RELATED: Poll: Jewish voters are highly motivated and concerned about American democracy

Abortion has now become a contested religious freedom issue. At least three lawsuits have been filed by Jewish groups in Kentucky, Florida and Indiana, arguing that state abortion bans infringe on their religious freedom by imposing a Christian understanding of when life begins.

“This idea that one religion is dictating the conversation — and making it look like those that don’t agree with their stance aren’t moral — is ridiculous,” said Heidi Tyson, president of Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, North Carolina. “We need to educate folks that that’s not the case.”

Judea Reform is participating in Repro Shabbat with a guest speaker who will give the sermon on reproductive rights, followed by a reception. The congregation’s board of trustees will soon consider a formal statement on abortion rights. It has also encouraged members to donate to Carolina Abortion Fund, which provides financial and emotional support to people in North and South Carolina trying to access abortion.

In Massachusetts, some three dozen synagogues are participating in Repro Shabbat individually and coming together online Saturday evening for a service that will include an update from a state senator on legislation about reproductive rights. The event will also provide information on ways to get involved to fight for greater abortion rights.

“We’re giving people avenues so they can acknowledge the setbacks but keep going and make a path forward,” said Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch of Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, who will lead the online service.

In St. Louis, some Jewish congregations have partnered with abortion clinics across the Missouri state line in Illinois to provide clothing, feminine hygiene products and snacks to women traveling out of state for an abortion.

The National Council of Jewish Women first envisioned Repro Shabbat in 2020 after a previous Supreme Court ruling — June Medical Services v. Russo — made its leader anxious about the future of abortion rights. Later that year, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and was replaced with Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative justice thought to be open to overturning legal abortion. The first Repro Shabbat was held in 2021 with about 350 participating synagogues.

This year, the National Council of Jewish Women is encouraging people to publicly tell their abortion stories. It has produced a comprehensive set of resources to help congregations and individuals plan for Repro Shabbat, including a Spotify playlist of related music, with songs such as “You Don’t Own Me,” by Lesley Gore; “Respect,” by Aretha Franklin; and “About Damn Time,” by Lizzo.

The council estimates some 2,500 people have downloaded its Repro Shabbat resources.

“I want our community to get an infusion of energy about what’s possible now,” said Ruttenberg, who helped create Repro Shabbat. “It’s really important we show up now. Our rights are being infringed and we have a very unique voice in this moment.”

RELATED: 3 Jewish women file suit against Kentucky abortion bans on religious grounds

Previous ArticleNext Article