Interviews

Rabbi Lori Koffman: The Jewish Case for Reproductive Rights

Join us for this fascinating and timely conversation on reproductive rights with Rabbi Lori Koffman, former Board Vice President at the National Council of Jewish Women.

To learn more about Rabbi Lori Koffman and the Rabbis for Repro campaign at the National Council of Jewish Women, check out the website and toolkit here.

Ben Fleisher: Thank you so much for sitting down to speak with us. Could you take us through your biography to start?

Lori Koffman: The theme that ties together my different careers is the importance and love of learning. I had a nineteen year career in investment banking and private equity. One of the things that I loved doing while in private equity (which was investing in companies and helping companies to grow) was looking at different companies and different industries, then thinking strategically about the questions and the answers to problems. 

I grew up in Vancouver, Canada as a very affiliated Jew but not a very religiously observant Jew. I didn’t grow up in a house that kept kosher or kept Shabbat. But, we belonged to a synagogue and had a very strong Jewish identity. 

When I was in my investment banking life, I was a non-affiliated Jew. We didn’t belong to a synagogue, we went to my in-laws for High Holidays, I had no religious practice whatsoever. My eldest daughter, who was three at the time, needed a nursery school and someone suggested a Jewish day school in New York. I decided to send her there. She ended up staying there through eighth grade. That started me on this journey. By the time she was six, she knew more Jewishly than I did. I am way too type-A for that to be okay. 

I started taking adult education classes [about Judaism] so that I could stay ahead of my daughter. Then I realized that my life had been very self-involved. I was working a lot and had a family, but I wanted to do more. So I started volunteering at the synagogue that the day school was a part of. I discovered Judaism in a very deep way. Part of my rabbinate has been to try to help other people who might have had bad Hebrew school, had bad experiences Jewishly, to realize that there are a lot of positive aspects to it. 

After nineteen years in investment banking, I went to school full time to become a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Since I was ordained ten years ago, my rabbinic career has been informed by my private equity career – thinking about strategy and models for Jewish engagement that might be a little different from the traditional models that people think about. A lot of people struggle with synagogues, God, worship, prayer, and for me Judaism is about how we live our lives and ethics and values. My rabbinate has been defined by doing that in different and creative ways. That has carried over into the social justice work that I do. Especially as we start talking about reproductive health/rights and justice, education is so important. Many Jews don’t know the Jewish positions on these issues. I am very passionate about educating and teaching  and looking at the landscape strategically about how we can best make change and have impact. 

Maddie Ulanow: Thank you so much for that background. You brought up a lot that we hope to cover. First, I’m curious why you think Judaism is important to activism and the role that Judaism plays in social justice activism?

LK: I don’t think that Judaism is the only gate into social justice, but it can be an important one. Judaism is very much about protecting the vulnerable in our society. That is what social justice is – it is about ensuring the dignity of every single human being. 

For people that find the ideas of prayer or God as problematic, the Jewish social justice tradition is a way that they can feel connected to Judaism and connected to a community of people working together to improve the world. It is a way for people to live their Jewish identity in a way that differs from how they grew up.

It is also nice to have a community to do this work in. Sometimes this work is really hard. It is exhausting. One of the things that Judaism is really good about is focusing on the importance of community. I think that it is nice that Judaism brings people together, to do this work together, so that we can support one another. 

MU: Yeah, that really resonates. Can you tell us about the campaign you’re working on now, Rabbis for Repro?

LK: The Rabbis for Repro campaign came out of NCJW (the National Council for Jewish Women), and the reproductive health rights and justice arena is one of the core pieces that we work on. It aims to encourage more rabbis and other Jewish educators to actually educate and speak out on this issue. 

So many Jews don’t know the Jewish perspective on reproductive health rights and justice. It is very different from a fundamentalist Christian perspective. It is important for Jews to understand the Jewish perspective and how all of the restrictions that keep piling on are actually a way of eroding our religious liberty. These restrictions deny us the ability to access abortion when we need it based on our Jewish values because Christian values are shutting things down. 

BF: That is a great point. What do you think the Jewish perspective on reproductive rights is? What you do with Jewish views that don’t fit as comfortably into our contemporary values framework? 

LK: I am really careful when I have these conversations to include the diversity of views. On this topic, I would say that it is a spectrum, but there are some unifying themes. 

There are some things that all of the authorities agree on: Jewish life begins at birth, not at conception. It is based on a story in Exodus: two men are fighting, there is a pregnant woman who is a bystander, the men accidently hit her and she miscarries. The men are fined for the miscarriage. It is not considered a ‘life for a life’, which is what the penalty for murder was. From that the rabbis say that abortion is not considered murder.

Which means that unlike in the Christian faith traditions, in the Jewish tradition the fetus is not considered a life or a person with any independent rights. In fact in the first forty days, the traditional rabbinic sources say the fetus is  ‘just water,’ and that later in the pregnancy it is considered to be a part of the parent, like a limb would be, again emphasizing that it is not an independent entity. 

The other unifying theme in the abortion discussion in Judaism is that the life of the parent who is carrying the fetus always comes first, and must be protected under all circumstances. Jewish law not only permits, but requires a woman to terminate her pregnancy if there is any reasonable concern for her life or her health. There are actual cases in the Jewish tradition, in the Mishna, which is written in the year 200 C.E. and in the Talmud a few hundred years later, specifically saying that if the fetus is going to endanger the parent’s life, even in a later term period, the parent’s life always comes first. 

Where there is a divide between the more traditional approaches and the more liberal approaches  is along the spectrum of: when is abortion really necessary and when is it not? For example many of the Jewish authorities, especially the more liberal ones, expand the definition of the parents’ ‘health’ to include their psychological well being, or to save them from shame, or any other circumstance that would cause them pain even if it wasn’t specifically life-threatening. All agree though that the decision to have an abortion is not one that should be taken lightly. 

BF: You brought the diversity of traditions that exit. I’m curious about how that diversity of opinions manifests in practice today. What has the reception to this campaign been in different parts of the Jewish community?

LK: In New York state, there was a Reproductive Health Act passed last year that removed all barriers to abortion in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. . Some of the more traditional rabbinic authorities reacted negatively to it. Their initial reaction was to say that this this law is too permissive. But when you drilled down past the rhetoric they used, they agreed that people do need access to abortion. The key really is access- if a person under Jewish law needs an abortion, they need to be able to access an abortion. With all of the shut downs of abortion clinics at the state level with so many  new laws being enacted, abortions are harder and harder to access. That tramples the rights of Jewish people, a lot of whom will ask their rabbis for permission to get an abortion. Many of those rabbis will say yes, but if they don’t have access to it then it is a moot point. 

I think an interesting example is Israel. Israel is a country in which the rabbinate governs all family law, which includes marriage and childbirth. If you want an abortion in Israel through the state funded health care system, you have to apply to a committee explaining your reason, and it must fall into one of 4 permitted categories. There is a panel that reviews it. Something like 98% of abortions that go through this process in Israel are approved and then paid for by the state. In some ways, in a country where the Orthodox rabbis are mandating the law, it is easier to get an abortion in Israel than in this country. I think that that really speaks to the Jewish view on abortion. 

There are many in Israel who object to this committee system and the rabbinate having a say in that way over their personal lives. And so if you don’t want to go through that process, you can still have an abortion but the state won’t pay for it. It is not illegal. You can’t go to jail [there], where some people in this country have actually been imprisoned for trying to access an abortion. 

MU: Thanks for the deep dive into the Jewish community. I know that there are also a number of different opinions on abortion in other religious traditions. I am curious about how that question of religious liberty plays out when you’re talking to other faith leaders?

LK: It really depends on which faith leader and where they come from. I am not saying that we [Jews] have the definitive answer on when life begins and what it is. We have our perspective. I want people to let us be able to access what we need to live our religious values and I am happy to let others live their religious values. But their religious values should not be imposed on us and that is what is happening state by state by state. Their voices are loud, they have a lot of influence, and, despite Roe v. Wade being the law of the land, restrictions are coming on a state by state basis. 

BF: Since you bring up the legal framework in which we’re operating, I’d like to go a little further in that direction. What policies in your mind are the ideal and is there a Jewish perspective that influences what those policies should be? 

LK: We work both at the state level- that is where a lot of stuff is happening – and also at the federal level to try to try to beat back the restrictions, to try to make sure that people have the access that they need. The Hyde Amendment has been around for forty years, it gets approved every year that the budget gets approved, which denies abortion funding in the health care system to any federal employee. Abortion access is both about having clinics to be able to go to and about who pays for it. We view abortion as health care- it is a necessary part of health care. If you can’t afford it, that is just another restriction. The Hyde Amendment prohibits all federal employees under the federal health care system from accessing abortion under their health care plan. We’re trying to repeal the Hyde Amendment. We’re trying to get the Each Woman Act and the Woman’s Health Protection Act enacted so that there are some federal legislative protections. And we work at the state level to fight against restrictions such a ‘heartbeat bills’ and ‘TRAP laws’ and waiting periods and forced ultrasounds etc. etc. etc. all of which serve to make abortions harder and harder to access. 

BF: I want to follow up on that. It sounds like your big strategy right now is that educating more people will lead to change. Is that a fair understanding of your theory of change? Can you talk us through what that looks like at the ‘on the ground’ level?

LK: NCJW came out with an online toolkit (https://www.ncjw.org/act/action-resources/jewish-values-and-abortion-toolkit/) as a resource for people to have all of the following in one place:  what the current restrictions and bans look like, the Jewish messaging, the rhetoric that the other side is using, how to have conversations with the other side etc. I think that winning the public square is really important. Politicians should be responding to their constituents and so we need to be more informed and more vocal with them. 

The other thing we have to do is to de-stigmatize the word ‘abortion.’ We have to keep saying the word: abortion, abortion, abortion, abortion. It is not a dirty word. It is a very important part of one’s reproductive health care, it is a reality. One in four women have had an abortion. It is the reality in people’s lives. We have to normalize it. 

The other education piece is encouraging people to share their abortion stories. Then abortion isn’t a hidden secret, and other people realize that it is ok for them to talk about their stories and its ok for them to access abortions. It is all of this- it is education, speaking, de-stigmatizing. It is constantly fighting. 

MU: [That is really helpful and comprehensive. I feel like we’ve covered a lot of ground. is there anything that you feel like we didn’t ask you or that we should have asked?]

LK: What we often lose sight of in all this talk about positions and restrictions and policies is that at the end of the day what this is really about  people.  It goes back to one of the fundamental precepts in Judaism, that we are all created in the image of God,  betzelem elohim, and we should all be able to  live in dignity. The decision to have an abortion is a hard and heart-breaking decision. It is not something that people take lightly. It means that the person feels unable to have the child because of a health problem or is unable at that point in their life to have a child because it will impact their ability to live their life fully, with dignity. And it is our job to ensure that everyone has that right and they can access that right in a way that does not compromise their economic security. . 

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