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Why we observe Shabbat outside an abortion clinic

You don’t need a national stage to stand up for reproductive freedom in your community. You only need a minyan.

We arrive with our signs by 6:15 in the morning, with trucks rumbling down Route 29 behind us, to watch the sunrise as we begin our worship service. Our Shabbat prayers begin before patients, clinic escorts and anti-abortion activists arrive.

One Saturday morning a month for the last year, up to 100 of us have gathered to observe Shabbat outside the Falls Church Healthcare Center in Northern Virginia, a reproductive health clinic that performs abortions. Our minyan — the name for a quorum of people required for Jewish worship — is drawn from five synagogues across the Washington, D.C., area, led by their rabbis and cantors.

Two years have passed since Americans lost a federally protected right to abortion access. As the U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to rule any day now on the future of emergency abortion care in Idaho and Moyle, et al. v. United States — a case which will determine whether abortion care is excluded from a federal law that protects patients needing emergency medical treatment — we know that representing our Jewish values, which places the health of the pregnant person as paramount, is more necessary than ever before in the public square. 

We feel it is our responsibility as Jews to not only honor the sacred agency of this clinic’s patients and the holy work of the staff, but also to bring attention to the fact that Judaism permits abortion, and in fact requires it if the life of the mother is at stake. Anti-abortion activists often argue that abortion goes against biblical values. It is our job to fiercely prove them wrong. 

The two of us are father and daughter — a rabbi at Temple Micah in Washington for over 40 years and a director of the National Council for Jewish Women’s Jews for Abortion Access campaign, respectively — and we work with our colleagues to organize these public Shabbat services to live out our Jewish values in the public square. 

Our work is guided by Jewish wisdom and our personal commitment to the local community, where we’ve lived for nearly 40 years. The Falls Church Healthcare Center is located in the same building where one of us took driver’s education classes as a teenager, while the other waited outside to pick us up.

Our minyan gathers each month in Virginia, a state that has found itself on the front lines of the battle for abortion access. Outside of Maryland and Washington, D.C., the states that border Virginia have imposed onerous bans on reproductive access, making Virginia one of the most accessible southern states. Nationally, the number of people who crossed state lines to obtain abortion care has more than doubled in the last three years, and Virginia has become the destination for many Southerners who seek abortion care. In fact, following the implementation of Florida’s six-week abortion ban in May 2024, wait times at abortion clinics in Virginia skyrocketed 30 percent.

For years we have watched anti-abortion extremists gather outside this particular clinic in an attempt to intimidate the patients who merely want to enter a doctor’s office with the same privacy and dignity that any of us expect when receiving any other form of health care. After Roe fell, we were driven by our Jewish values to show up for those same patients coming to the clinic to get care. 

The same way the extremists gather there and use their rosary beads as a weapon to shame, we needed to show the world that our ancient faith and ritual has something profound and eternally relevant to say about freedom and justice for all. We pray there because we believe it is a sacred place, and we refuse to cede that sidewalk outside the clinic to the religious extremists’ desperate attempts to paint abortion care as sinful and shameful.

One might wonder how observing Shabbat in front of one reproductive health clinic helps advance the effort for abortion access and reproductive freedom. Our Shabbat worship service is a means of taking direct action to address one of the most offensive elements of abortion discourse in this country: the oppressive stranglehold of the religious right on questions of theology and abortion. 

The majority of people of faith are supportive of access to abortion and see abortion as essential health care. By literally reclaiming the sidewalk from anti-abortion extremists who use their prayer as a weapon, we reclaim the narrative about abortion and religion. Building on the precedent in Exodus 21:22-25, Talmudic sources explicitly state that abortion is not only permitted but required should the pregnancy endanger the life or health of the pregnant individual.

Some rabbinic sages went even further, affirming an expansive idea of a healthy life that understood that there are many reasons that a person might get an abortion; that mental health needs are akin to physical health needs, that emotional pain is akin to physical pain, that a person’s own experience matters. And there is more: The ancient rabbis abolished the institution of slavery that the Torah allows. Our Judaism follows suit by giving full and equal rights to all individuals. The pregnant person is the owner of their body — no government dare interfere.

But we do not gather and pray only to make a social statement. We are there for the people working and receiving care inside the building. At a time when abortion bans are causing clinics to close and doctors to leave the state, we stand with the health care providers. We show our support for the patients that this clinic serves every day.

Abortion access is essential health care. In some cases it is life-saving health care. There is no ethical or ritual obligation in Judaism that takes precedence over that of saving a human life. Our Judaism demands that we show up for those who do this life-affirming work, and for the patients whose well-being is being prioritized above all else.

As we observe Shabbat in the face of anti-abortion protesters, we must remember that movements are not just made up of grand gestures. They are made up of small moments where local communities come together to fight for one another. And that is what we will continue to do until every person — in Virginia, Idaho and across the country — has the ability to make their own decisions about their own bodies.

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