On Wednesday evening last week, the Jewish Federation of Cleveland took an unusual step: It issued an “action alert” urging supporters to call Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) and ask him to veto the bill passed by the legislature, which will effectively outlaw abortion in the state.
I was not personally involved in how this statement came about, and I cannot and will not speak for the federation. However, I have been a vice chair of its Community Relations Committee (CRC) since 2015, and am familiar with how topics of concern get considered when it comes to whether a statement might get issued. Based on that experience, I was not only surprised by this action alert, but extremely proud and glad to see and share it.
The issuing of this statement signified to me that those of us who are angry and scared for Ohio’s women, children, and families are not alone, and that our fears about abortion being outlawed are not irrational. In fact, those fears are shared by a large and influential community to which I belong. I know how carefully the federation deliberates over issues, and I feel confident that they saw this threat to abortion access in Ohio to be exactly as egregious as it is.
The released statement read, in part:
Join the Federation in opposing the enactment of the Fetal Heartbeat Bill in Ohio, which would ban almost all abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected (about six weeks following conception). Though historically, the Jewish Federation of Cleveland has not taken a stance on reproductive policy, in light of the extreme nature of the Fetal Heartbeat Bill, we are compelled to oppose the bill. This bill imposes excessive restrictions that would strictly limit a woman’s right to obtain an abortion, even under circumstances resulting from mental health, and improperly ignores religious concerns. It takes medical decisions out of the hands of doctors by criminalizing those medical practitioners who perform procedures outside the narrow prescriptions of the bill.
If signed into law by Governor Kasich, Ohio would have the most restrictive abortion bill in the nation. According to legal experts, the law likely will be ruled unconstitutional.
It is signed by the president, board chair, and chair of the CRC.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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The CRC is an outward-facing standing committee of the federation. It works to bridge relations and develop understanding between the Jewish community and the region’s diverse population in a county of upwards of a million people, more than 80,000 of whom are Jewish. The federation raises and then disperses essential funding for the operation of a multitude of programs and other nonprofits domestically and abroad that deal with education, social services, health care, housing, interfaith and intercultural projects, and more. In fact, its annual campaign, which raised more than $30 million last year, is just about to end.
The federation had never addressed reproductive rights, as it says in the statement, so I had no expectation that it would. Then, the Wednesday morning after the vote, I was feeling furious about the Ohio legislature’s passage of this six-week abortion ban. I knew that an overwhelming majority of American Jews support abortion, as previously detailed in a 2012 report, and, generally speaking, Jewish law states that the health of the pregnant person takes precedence. But it never occurred to me, as I was somewhat frantically checking in on how people were organizing to challenge this bill, that the federation would address it.
And then, that evening, I noticed the statement on Facebook.
In response, most people’s comments indicate that they are pleasantly shocked, but also comforted and encouraged. For those concerned the action alert was outside the federation’s scope, Jessica Cohen, CRC managing editor, wrote on the federation’s Facebook page and elsewhere:
Just a note from the Federation: this bill specifically does not include any religious exemption. The impetus to us issuing this statement was the lack of religious exemption in this bill. Two years ago, when this bill first surfaced in the Statehouse, we worked together with Agudath Israel of Ohio to understand how this restricts religious freedoms. As it was passed, the bill does not allow a Rabbi’s ruling to supercede the law in that rare case where necessary, and so restricts the religious freedoms of Orthodox and other practicing Jews. This made it a clear case of infringing on the religious rights of the Jewish community and the defense of those rights is part of the Federation’s mission. For this reason, the Jewish Federation of Cleveland decided to issue this statement.
How unique is this statement? Well, it has been my experience, during my tenure as vice chair, that some members thought we were bringing up too many matters for discussion as potentially being in need of a statement: the Iran deal, Syrian refugees, guns, the presidential elections, anti-Semitism of professors at local colleges, raising taxes for urban education, and more. Were we overextending our role and reach? But at a convening in the middle of this year, with members of other CRCs from around the country, the consensus was that we actually are living through a time when a great many incidents that might deserve speaking out are happening here and abroad.
Not every topic merits consideration about making a statement, and not every topic that gets considered ends up having one made. But having been part of such conversations and processes, I can say unequivocally that this statement urging us to ask Gov. John Kasich to veto the proposed abortion ban signifies and affirms my belief and that of many other Ohioans: This provision is an unprecedented attack on both religious rights and reproductive rights and health—and one that necessitates being challenged even in unconventional arenas.