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Abortion is protected under Jewish law, but not in ‘red state America’

Calvionne Rayford, 29, originally of Kansas City, Mo., throws a fist in the air while demonstrating against the Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade on Friday outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis.

ST. LOUIS — Rabbis Karen and Daniel Bogard, the husband and wife duo at Central Reform Congregation, believe the Jewish position on life has been clear for thousands of years.

“There is life and there is potential life. What is currently alive takes precedence over basically everything else. You can break Shabbat (the Jewish day of rest) if you need to save a life. It’s sacred,” Rabbi Karen Bogard said, pointing to the Jewish imperative to protect the health and well-being of the mother.

As Rabbi Daniel Bogard put it: “A fetus is not a person. We aren’t alive after we take our last breath, and we aren’t alive before we take our first one. The idea that a fetus is a person is a Christian idea.”

While many Christians maintain that life starts at conception, Jews see it as beginning at birth.

Rabbi Karen described the repeal of Roe v. Wade, which took away the constitutional right to abortion, as a “violation” of religious freedom — granted by section five of the Missouri state constitution and the first amendment of the U.S. constitution. 

Caroline Mala Corbin, Professor of Law at the University of Miami, told 1A that “the constitution protects all religious beliefs…as long as it’s sincere and it’s religious. So it doesn’t ultimately matter whether all of Judaism agrees or not, if there’s a group of people for whom abortion is religiously mandated.”

A Pew Research Center poll from 2014 found that 83% of Jews in the U.S. think abortion should be legal in “all/most cases,” while 2% said they “don’t know.”

While some in “the Orthodox movement, because they’ve become more aligned with the Republican Party (have) already tried to change that narrative,” the importance of reproductive care is “abundantly clear in Jewish text and literature,” Rabbi Karen said.

In a statement, the Orthodox Union, one of the largest Orthodox Jewish organizations in the U.S., even said:  “We cannot support absolute bans on abortion — at any time point in a pregnancy — that would not allow access to abortion in lifesaving situations.”

After the Supreme Court’s ruling on June 24, Missouri became the first state to use ‘trigger laws’ to ban abortion. When Central Reform met for Shabbat that same Friday, “everyone was just totally heartbroken,” Rabbi Karen Bogard remembered.

Rabbi Daniel Bogard grew up in the halls of Central Reform Congregation. And after stints in multiple cities, including Peoria, Illinois, he came back to his childhood synagogue in St. Louis. 

Daniel and Karen have worked as co-rabbis at Central Reform since 2018, and live in a home that’s been passed down by their family for four generations. But it hasn’t been an easy place to live and work in. There’s a pervading sense of fear and dehumanization in the state.

“I don’t say it lightly as a rabbi, but fascism is rising in red state America. We have a trans kid, and it’s just really clear in Missouri who they deem as a second-class citizen,” Rabbi Daniel said, citing statewide bills targeting transgender people.

Because of concerns for his child’s safety and death threats that he’s personally received, Rabbi Daniel said he wakes up in the middle of the night with panic attacks.

In 2016, St. Louis Public Radio reported that Central Reform Congregation was one of two local synagogues to receive a Department of Homeland Security grant. The grant was intended to protect the congregation from possible antisemitic attacks.

In 2021, a St. Louis man threatened to blow up the synagogue.

The Bogard’s are 50 – 50 on feeling forced to flee the state; they said the state’s treatment of trans people is what would compel them to leave their home. Though, they don’t want to.

Rabbi Daniel observed a silver lining in all of this. He said that religious liberty lawsuits could change the U.S. for the better.

“I’m confident that there will be a wave of religious liberty lawsuits across the country from Jews, who are living in a world where a small white Christian minority is imposing their religious will on the rest of us,” Rabbi Daniel said.

Harrison Malkin is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow him @HarrisonMalkin

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Harrison Malkin

Harrison Malkin

Harrison Malkin is a politics reporter at Illinois Public Media. He's focusing on elections across the state, particularly the 13th and 15th congressional districts and the gubernatorial race. Malkin studied Politics and Communications at Ithaca College, where he was a nightly newscaster and reporter for WICB. From 2020 to 2021, he was a reporting fellow at the Center on Media, Crime, and Justice at John Jay College. You can send a tip, recommendation, or note to hmalkin@illinois.edu.

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