Heather Booth

Heather Booth and The Jane Collective: Judaism in Pursuit of Justice

This is a scary time for the pro-choice movement. With Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court, a new six-to-three conservative majority, and pro-choice laws being tried regularly, a woman’s right to her body autonomy has again become tenuous and fragile.

When confronted by challenge or sorrow, I often turn to the past for perspective. Recently, I’ve found hope in the work of a Jewish feminist icon whose pro-choice activism is palpable and awe-inspiring: Heather Booth.

Booth grew up as a proud Jewish woman, and let Jewish values guide her towards the moral and the good. When she was eighteen, she traveled to Israel and visited Yad Vashem. After leaving the museum, she made a promise to herself that “in the face of injustice [she] would struggle for justice.” She participated in the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi and left with a newfound appreciation for tikkun olam, repairing the world.

A year later, in 1965, Booth received a call from a friend asking for advice on where to get an abortion. After calling around, Booth found a doctor involved with the Civil Rights movement who was willing to perform the procedure, which, at the time, was illegal. She soon received another call from a woman requesting the same service. And then another call, and another. Her network grew and grew as she began to counsel and refer more and more women. Booth began to use a pseudonym, Jane, out of fear of getting arrested for her illicit activity. The “Jane” project continued growing, and she helped provide treatment for over 10,000 women before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in 1973.

Heather Booth’s story calls to mind the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, which teaches that the preservation of human life should trump any other halacha (Jewish law). Booth knew that improving and saving the lives of others was more important than abiding by the government’s laws. Using Jewish values and Jewish experiences as her guide, Booth changed her community and her country for the better.

While I’m not trying to advocate for breaking the law, I do think it’s important in this time of political strife to pay attention to the political, religious, and social conflicts that emerge in our secular lives—and then act based on the values and convictions that we believe to be righteous, just, and good.

This past June, the National Council of Jewish Women published a press release announcing their new campaign, Rabbis for Repro. Rabbis for Repro encourages rabbis to pledge towards speaking out and fighting for reproductive rights in their rabbinic capacity this year. Over 45 rabbis have already signed on and, in doing so, committed to pursuing equity in the realms of reproductive justice. Like Heather Booth, these rabbis let their Jewish values guide them in their acts of tikkun olam. Unfortunately, you can’t sign the aforementioned pledge unless you are a rabbi. But, if you are looking for other ways to get involved and utilize your Jewish values in the pursuit of justice, look no further. The National Council of Jewish Women has provided a plethora of diverse action items that you can take on by yourself, with your friends, or in your community.

As I ponder our uncertain political future, I try to channel my inner Booth and decide which values I’m going to let drive me and my activism. While I may not have control over the laws that will inevitably be deemed unconstitutional by our new Supreme Court, I do have control over my own actions, the ones I choose to move forward with, and the ones I choose to leave behind.

I can’t fully rid myself of my anxiety over our country’s future. Like Heather Booth, the best I can do is to anchor myself in my deeply-held values—my Jewish values—and commit to acting from a place of courage and hope.

This article was originally published on Jewish Women, Amplified, the blog of the Jewish Women’s Archive, and was written as part of the Rising Voices Fellowship.

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