Faith on the March

The April 25 March for Women ‘s Lives in Washington, D.C., the largest pro-choice march in history, drew Jewish women and men under the banners of Jewish women’s organizations and on their own. Marching with Lilith editors and writers were subscribers and supporters from across the country. Here, Natasha Rosenstock reports on a segment of the marchers many reports have missed: pro-choice young Orthodox women.

Alene Grossman and Miriam Piotinsky, who marched with their mothers in April, have much in common, including that their place in the Modern Orthodox community made them different from many other Jewish women present on the National Mall. Both are Sabbath observers, keep kosher and attend an Orthodox synagogue. One grew up in a Modern Orthodox environment, while the other grew up Conservative. One woman’s mother was raised in a Reform household, while the other grew up in a non-Jewish Chinese-American family. Yet both mothers had heard of the march, told their daughters they’d be coming to Washington, and hoped to march with them.

Stephanie Grossman, Alene’s mother, grew up before Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion and thought that this law marked the end of the fight. A financial consultant in Minneapolis, she says she now realizes Roe was only the beginning. “It’s like the right to free speech. Why is this one a choice the government is supposed to make for me?” Discrimination was always discussed in the older Grossman’s Chinese-American family. “This,” she says of the threat to women’s reproductive freedoms, “is discrimination against women. The grandmother Alene was named after marched on Washington with Martin Luther King, so political activism is a big part of our family.”

Religious faith merged with activism in a number of the speeches delivered from stages set up on the Mall and broadcast on huge screens. Remarks penned by Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, Beth Kalisch and Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, and delivered by Wasserman, boomed out to the huge crowd: “I am here—as a woman, as a rabbi, as a Jew, as a person of faith—to demand that our nation’s promise of religious liberty not be violated. Though many would have us believe otherwise, this march is about more than the right to have an abortion. It’s about the freedom to choose….”I am pro-God, I am pro-faith and I am pro-choice.”

Miriam Piotinsky, a 25-year-old high school teacher, grew up Modern Orthodox in Indianapolis and now lives in Washington. Piotinsky says that her mother, who marched with her, “is the only child of two Holocaust survivors. She grew up as a Reform Jew, and became observant when she was older. She has always been pro-choice, ever since she was aware of the issue. I don’t think that religion influenced her in any way about abortion rights.”

As for herself, “I have never considered Judaism in my pro-choice beliefs.” Piotinsky told LILITH. I came to terms a long time ago with the fact that my views often contradict my religion, but I choose to observe Judaism in a manner that is consistent with my beliefs,” she said.

Both Alene Grossman and Miriam Piotinsky attend Georgetown’s Kesher Israel synagogue. While a number of congregants attended the march, Kesher Israel’s Rabbi Barry Freundel did not. “I have always been troubled by the fact that Jews don’t stand up for halakha (Jewish law) on this issue, particularly because that’s what the polls say and what Americans want: abortion should be available for doctors or health professionals who say that it’s necessary for the women’s health. In that case, it shifts the decision to health professionals, because most abortions are done for reasons that are insufficient and they destroy that potential for a once in a lifetime human being.”

Alene Grossman takes a different view. “If the mother’s life or health is in danger you want to have that option, so you’re inherently pro-choice. You can be Orthodox and pro-choice, not necessarily pro-abortion. The two go hand in hand because if you don’t have a choice, you can’t exercise that halakhically required option.”