From the stage, looking out at a rainbow of bobbing placards, the energy and commitment of the crowd massing on the national mall in Washington, D.C. was palpable. The April 25 March for Women’s Lives was one of the biggest demonstrations in American history. And whether you agree with press estimates of 800,000 marchers or the organizers’ count of 1.15 million, the diverse multitude was brought together by a single imperative: the need to speak out for women’s reproductive rights and health.
Among the animated faces in the crowd this past Sunday were tens of thousands of Jewish women and men. Although an exact count of Jewish participants is unavailable, it is clear that our community turned out in droves and played a major role in the day. Representing the National Council of Jewish Women alone, nearly a thousand members and friends from Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, Louisville, Miami, Houston, New York City, Atlanta and many other cities rose at dawn and came by plane, train and chartered bus to speak out in Washington.
As for the rest of the Jewish community — the t-shirts told the tale. Hadassah’s large delegation sported red and white while the thousands from the various organizations of Reform Judaism were decked out in bright yellow and purple. The Conservative movement was represented by Women of Conservative Judaism and the United Synagogue. Banners throughout the march identified numerous other Jewish groups and institutions. I was one of at least three Jewish communal leaders invited to address the rally.
In addition to those who chose to affiliate with a Jewish communal delegation, it was clear that thousands of other Jews — primarily women — were marching on April 25. Throughout the day, Jewish grandmothers, college students and professionals approached me and other NCJW women carrying our distinctive green and blue signs and volunteered that they, too, were Jewish and thrilled that a Jewish organization was so prominently involved in the pro-choice movement. I can only imagine that other Jewish marchers had the same experience.
Clearly this issue resonates with huge number of Jewish women everywhere. At a time when Jewish organizations lament the difficulty in attracting active members and leadership, surely there are a number of lessons to be learned from Sunday, April 25, 2004.
The first lesson is that the progressive domestic agenda works. This is an agenda that stirs the passions of a critical mass of American Jewry. As concerned as they may be about the Middle East and global antisemitism, the strong and largely untapped constituency for domestic social justice issues includes people eager to exercise their activism in a Jewish context.
There are many Jewish organizations with progressive policies on the books dealing with reproductive rights and other women’s issues that are not active on these issues. The ever-narrowing focus of these organizations has the effect of creating a disparity between the social justice concerns of Jewish activists and Jewish communal leadership.
The second lesson is that women make things happen. Many of the pro-choice leaders and march organizers are Jewish women — including the talented march director Alice Cohan. In the Jewish communal world, women play a strong grassroots role — raising money, organizing events, recruiting members and advocating for public policy platforms.
Yet, with the exception of their roles in Jewish women’s organizations, women have not risen to the ranks of professional or lay leaders commensurate with their numbers and strengths. Is this the reason why so many young Jewish marchers wore the t-shirts of NARAL and Planned Parenthood rather than those reflecting their Jewish identity?
The third lesson is that when it comes to reproductive rights, Jewish women get it. They understand that we are at a critical juncture. Whether in the legislature or in the courts, this fundamental constitutional right is under attack and is in danger of being lost for generations. They also know that reproductive freedom and religious liberty are intertwined. (The chant: “Not the church, not the state. Women must decide their fate!” was popular among Jewish marchers and others.)
This truth galvanizes women, including Jewish women, and many men, as evidenced by the numerous families that marched together on Sunday. As these rights are being eviscerated, the more than 90% of American Jews who identify themselves to pollsters as pro-choice may well ask why their leaders are silent in the face of this crisis.
In my speech to Sunday’s crowd, I reminded the marchers: “As Jews, we know the heavy cost of silence. And at this moment in history, the cost of silence will be measured in women’s lives, not only in this country, but around the world.”
As I stood in the shadow of two symbols of American democracy — the Capitol and the Washington Monument — I was keenly aware that we the people, fighting for freedom, are the true symbol of American democracy. As the Jewish community celebrates 350 years of freedom in America, we must renew our vigilance and commitment to protect fundamental freedoms, including reproductive freedom, for us all.
Marsha Atkind is president of the National Council of Jewish Women.