At the center of the bimah in my temple, above the stained-glass doors of the wooden ark holding the Torah scrolls, are the following words in Hebrew: Behold, God is in this place. Usually, projected on the walls on either side of the ark are words from our siddur, the Mishkan T’Filah. But on Wednesday evening January 25, 2023, three days after what would have been the 50th anniversary of protections under Roe v. Wade, the HBO documentary The Janes, which is shortlisted for an Oscar, was livestreaming instead.
In that sacred space, the main sanctuary of Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina, almost 100 of us, mostly women, sat transfixed by the story of how a small group of women — the Janes — built an underground network in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s to provide women with safe and affordable, albeit illegal, abortions in Chicago.
When a woman’s fundamental right to make deeply personal health care decisions free from political interference was taken away on June 24, 2022, by a conservative majority of Supreme Court justices – all brought up in the Catholic Church, Temple Beth El was prepared to act. Less than two weeks after the decision was handed down in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the temple’s board of directors unanimously approved a formal resolution, “Support for Reproductive Rights and Reproductive Justice,” affirming our Reform temple’s “unwavering support for the protection, preservation, and restoration of reproductive rights in accordance with Jewish tradition.”
Building on thousands of years of Jewish texts and values emphasizing human beings’ sacred obligation to preserve life and protect the physical health and well-being of the mother, Temple Beth El launched a reproductive rights campaign with three different working groups focused, respectively, on education, advocacy and direct service. The advocacy group gathered before the November election to send postcards to elected officials expressing support for preservation of abortion access in North Carolina. Members of the direct service working group trained to be clinic escorts. And the education working group organized the screening of The Janes followed by a panel discussion.
One of the panelists was Diane Stevens, a former Jane. In the safety of our sacred realm, she shared that at age 19, in pre-Roe California, she was only able to get an abortion after being examined by two psychiatrists and an internist. After the abortion, she was housed in the hospital’s psychiatric ward.
Another panelist, Shannon Bauerle, executive director of the non-profit Charlotte for Choice, which provides clinic escorts, used the term “the antis” (anti-abortion and anti-choice) instead of the term “pro-life” for the protestors who arrive at the clinics to intimidate or hurl vile accusations at patients and their clinic escorts.
But it was the third panelist, Calla Hales, whom I most identified with. Hales said she was “feeling super-Jewish” speaking in our sanctuary and belonging to a faith in which community plays such an important role. I told Hales afterwards, that I, too, was struck with that feeling of being super-Jewish as I sat among fellow congregants who probably shared my personal narrative and, with a sense of caring and compassion, were there to learn how to advocate for reproductive rights for their daughters, granddaughters and those from marginalized communities without access to abortion providers. There was the Torah, the eternal flame, the Janes and my temple’s female rabbi all up there together on the bimah. Women matter in my house of worship.
Hales calls herself a poster child for risk because she is a Jewish abortion provider in the south. Her stepdad was also an abortion provider, so she grew up in a household where the right to an abortion was a “family value.” Even as a young girl, she understood the desperation of his patients. A 2017 Cosmopolitan article describes how Hales was a victim of the extreme violence abortion providers often face: she was raped by a man who called her a murderer for working at an abortion clinic (he later participated in protests outside her Raleigh clinic).
Today, Hales is co-owner and executive director of A Preferred Women’s Health Center, a group of abortion clinics in the southeastern United States with locations in North Carolina and Georgia. Hales emphasized that in North Carolina, there is a 20-week ban on abortions except in cases of medical emergency, and approximately 90% to 95% of all abortions are performed in the first trimester. She stated that desperation has increased, but access has not, and she mentioned two bills in the pipeline in the North Carolina General Assembly that could ban abortion as early as 13 to 15 weeks.
Advocating for reproductive rights in our sanctuary, with both prayer and social activism, is true to the Jewish idea of tikkun olam — that we must act as partners with God to repair the brokenness of the world in which we live. This is nothing new to Temple Beth El. During its 80-year history, the congregation has promoted interfaith understanding; been the spiritual home of Harry Golden, whose satirical essay Vertical Negro Plan exposed the foolishness of segregation; marched in solidarity with Russian Jews seeking the right to emigrate; launched various “green” initiatives; advocated for the recognition of Reform rabbis in Israel and equal religious rights for women in Israel; established a six-week Shalom Park Freedom School summer literacy program to benefit economically disadvantaged minority students; and created a welcoming environment for all, regardless of sexual orientation.
To close the program, Temple Beth El’s associate rabbi, Lexi Erdheim, the panel’s moderator, led us in Rabbi Stephanie Crawley’s composition “Prayer for Our Power, Prayer for Our Choice.” The prayer asks God to “tell us when to pray and when to yell.” It asks us to fight “not for the body politic but the body that has been politicized.” It proudly asserts, “Let today be the day we learn our power.” And it concludes with the hope that the nation will merit our protection “as we assert the ability to choose/How to breathe/How to birth/How to be in a body/How to be.”
At the program’s conclusion, I made my way to the back of the sanctuary, stopping to thank a young woman wearing a brightly colored vest that read “Clinic Escort.” She said she had “never known this place existed,” speaking of the shul community. I shared with her that I was a proud member of Temple Beth El and welcomed her to join us in prayer. I informed her that several other Charlotte Jewish organizations, including Temple Israel, a Conservative synagogue; the Charlotte chapter of Hadassah; and Jewish Family Services also have taken public stands in favor of access to reproductive health services, bodily autonomy and religious freedom.
The young woman then shared with me that she was Catholic but had left the Church, adding, “If my mother knew I was a clinic escort she would stop speaking to me.” She had become an escort right after the Dobbs decision, volunteering for six hours at a time and carrying a large rainbow-colored umbrella to block the sun, the rain — and the screams of busloads of churchgoers who harass women making the choice to have an abortion. She thanked me for talking with her and then the two of us looked back into the room where a woman rabbi, with equality and full dignity, had just led a prayer about choice near the ark — the ark that says, Behold, God is in this place.
Why did Calla Hales and I feel super-Jewish that evening, sitting in the sanctuary watching The Janes and talking about women’s health care? Rabbi Erdheim told us it was because the sanctuary is a holy place. To which I would add “and a just and inclusive one.”