Reproductive Rites


There is a modern legend that in the early days of women’s ordination as rabbis, a rabbinical school professor stood up and said: “Judaism has a bracha for every single human experience we undergo.” The women in the room—knowing the incredulity of that statement—laughed. Because while it’s true that while Judaism has blessings for after using the bathroom or for hearing thunder, we don’t have that kind of ritual content for the myriad of experiences specific to women.

Now, decades later, I cannot help but remain frustrated at the lack of imagination in mainstream Jewish ritual: What would the Jewish world look like if we taught middle school girls that their first periods were a lifecycle event to mark with liturgy? If we had language to say to a woman who miscarried like we do in a shiva house? Or a designated psalm to say after a mammogram?

Last year, as NCJW’s inaugural Rabbinic Fellow, I collaborated with other professional Jewish feminists to develop original liturgy for our newly released ritual guide for abortion and miscarriage. As we drafted blessings and debated which poems to include, we were standing on the shoulders of women like Rabbi Debra Orenstein, who edited 1994’s Lifecycles, a collection of Jewish women’s reflections on lifecycle moments ignored by traditional Judaism.

She told me that she thinks of it as “the first book where Jewish life starts at childbirth, not circumcision.”

One of Rabbi Orenstein’s peers, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, published Tears of Sadness, Seeds of Hope, a spiritual guide for women experiencing various fertility challenges or pregnancy endings. So by choreographing rituals and drafting liturgy, we were participating in the longstanding Jewish tradition of developing religious ritual content to meet human needs, as well as a recent feminist tradition. Whether it be the Kabbalists innovating the Tu b’Shvat Seder or Kabbalat Shabbat, Talmudic rabbis developing legal rituals to sell chametz during Passover, or modern women’s Rosh Chodesh circles, Jews have always used the rich history of Jewish texts and traditions to create what they needed in the moment.

My colleagues and I knew that by virtue of working at an organization like NCJW we were tasked with providing Jewish care and resources for folks who otherwise would not have access, and we took that call to action seriously. Our primary goal was to provide something for everyone—we knew that there are as many ways to feel about having an abortion as there are people who have them.

Perhaps most importantly, the guide was created by someone who needed it: Kristin Booth’s own abortion experience was the catalyst for her initial draft of the guide. Months after leaving comments for each other in the margins of an unwieldy Google Doc, Kristin shared with me that she couldn’t believe something like this guide didn’t already exist.

This, to me, is the most beautiful part of the guide; it was created from a place of empathy and understanding, of love and respect. In a post-Dobbs world, where abortion is more stigmatized than ever with deadly results, it is crucial for us to show up and support one another. When I suffered an early miscarriage last summer, I never once felt like I was alone. I had scores of women who had been through hell themselves to support me: my mother flew to Georgia from New Jersey, a friend overseas sent me a care package, and my colleagues and supervisor at NCJW made sure I had access to the care I needed and wanted.

And I knew that a set of rituals sat in my Google Drive, waiting for my revisiting, this time as a participant.

It is my hope that these kavannot, ritual ideas, poems, and blessings can provide other people with the comfort, support, and resilience they gave me. As we recently marked what would have been the fifty-first year since Roe’s passing, it is imperative that we use Jewish tradition to bolster us as we go along our life, whether we are undergoing abortion or pregnancy loss ourselves or providing support to someone else.