Abortion rights and freedom of religion

Abortion rights and freedom of religion

Documentary ‘Under G-d’ looks at Jewish pro-choice advocacy after Dobbs

Paula Eiselt is in Brooklyn, shooting her first documentary film, “93Queen.”
Paula Eiselt is in Brooklyn, shooting her first documentary film, “93Queen.”

The laws governing abortion are among the most controversial in the country now.

When the Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization last year, overturning Roe v. Wade after 49 years, removing the constitutional right to abortion and throwing the issue back to the states, much of the country erupted. The pro-life world was thrilled, and planned its next steps; the pro-choice movement, enraged and in shock, rallied and began to fight back.

(As a sign of how divisive the issue is, take a look at the most basic language it uses. Pro-choice supporters call the pro-life movement anti-abortion; pro-life supporters, at their politest, call the pro-choice movement pro-abortion. At the less polite fringes of the movement, such terms as “baby killer” are bandied about as well.)

Four organizations — the MetroWest JCC in West Orange, the Essex County section of the National Council of Jewish Women, Jofa, and the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New Jersey — are co-sponsoring a screening of “Under G-d,” and a conversation with its director, Paula Eiselt, and Dr. Michal Raucher of Rutgers on November 30. (See below.)

Michal Raucher teaches Jewish studies at Rutgers.

When the decision was handed down, Ms. Eiselt, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Teaneck, didn’t have any plans to focus on it in her work. She’d just finished “Aftershock,” a film that examined the deaths of two young women who’d just given birth, and through those deaths the American healthcare system’s failure to confront the maternal health crises that has led to so many other deaths. Ms. Eiselt won a Peabody award for that film, and nominations for a Primetime Emmy and as a finalist for the 2024 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award. (Neither of those winners have been named yet.)

“When the Dobbs decision came down, it was a horrible time,” Ms. Eiselt said. “I was paralyzed with shock and grief.

“That same week, a colleague of mine, Rahdi Taylor, called to tell me about a rabbi in Florida who was suing his state, based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It was such a good story! But I was so busy. But she said, ‘If I can get the money, will you do it?’ I said okay. And she got the funding!

“It was from a whole bunch of different women and their production companies. It wasn’t all from one place.” It showed the depth of the anger, the despair, and the desire to do something.

“I did the first shoot in August 2022, right after Dobbs. Then I decided to submit it to Sundance, and we got in!

Women rally for freedom of choice in Indiana in this still from “Under G-d.”
(Courtesy Paula Eiselt)

“It was incredible. From the first shoot until the premiere was from August to January. It’s unheard of to work that fast. I was taking my grief and my shock and using my skill set to try to do something, to make something that could give people some hope and some inspiration.”

The film, “Under G-d,” focuses on Elly, a Jewish woman in Indiana. She’s married and has a young daughter. She and her husband wanted another child, but she kept miscarrying. Eventually she became pregnant, but then her doctors determined that the fetus’s chromosomal abnormalities meant that it could not survive outside her womb.

Elly and her husband mourned the baby they’d wanted so desperately and couldn’t have, but her path was clear. She wanted to abort the fetus rather than have it be born, suffer greatly, and then die almost immediately.

Because her abortion was just before Dobbs, she was able to have it, but she and her husband have given up on the idea of having a second child. If the fetus’s deficiencies were hereditary, if there were a chance that another fetus would have the same problems — but she no longer could have an abortion — then the risks would be too high.

Elly turned her despair at her state’s abortion ban into advocacy for freedom of choice (Courtesy Paula Eiselt)

Elly decided instead to put her energies into fighting her state’s new anti-choice laws.

“Under G-d” also focuses on other figures. They include Rabbi Barry Silver, who heads a Reform synagogue, Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor — and who, coincidentally, is also a civil rights lawyer and former Florida state legislator — and is challenging his state’s anti-abortion laws. It also includes an interview with Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, a halachist at Yeshiva University, as well as with Marci Hamilton, the lawyer who has fought for the separation of church and state and children’s rights, as well as the right to abortion, for many years. She now teaches law at the University of Pennsylvania and is the director of Child USA, an organization she created. (Professor Hamilton, who is not Jewish, also taught at YU’s Cardozo School of Law for many years.)

Another of the experts who is featured in “Under G-d” is Michal Raucher of Teaneck, an assistant professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers.

Dr. Raucher talked about the many Jewish arguments in favor of abortion rights. One is historical. “Jews have been involved in reproductive rights for more than a century,” she said; many of Planned Parenthood’s founding activists were Jewish, and the organization drew strength from the Jewish community. Second-wave feminism, which was a movement filled with Jewish women, advocated strongly for abortion rights, and Jews were “a very big, active part of the Boston Women’s Health Collaborative,” Dr. Raucher said. “And NCJW has been involved in this fight for a long time. There is a long history of grassroots activism among Jews.

“Another really powerful Jewish argument is that about 80% of Jews support access to abortion, and polls show that consistently.”

As “Under G-d” shows, an interfaith coalition works for abortion rights in Indiana. (Courtesy Paula Eiselt)

Then there is the question of Jewish law.

The idea that life begins at conception is a Catholic doctrine, which the fundamentalist world came to late in the last century.

In Jewish law, on the other hand, the most stringent opinion says that abortion is possible up until eight weeks, but most halachists says that the life of the mother is always more important than the life of the fetus; the mother and the baby are equally important only when the baby is partly born.

But of course, Dr. Raucher said, the majority of American Jews do not make their decisions based on halacha. “Under G-d” takes care to include figures from across the Jewish world — a Reform rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi.

Perhaps iroically, perhaps not, “Under G-d” shows a pillar in Indianapolis. (Courtesy Paula Eiselt)

But “the film is about legal challenges to the abortion ban and the legal challenges are made on the basis of free expression of religion.”

They’re based on RFRA. On the right to the free practice of religion. The case that the Jewish opponents of abortion bans are making is based on their right to practice their religion freely.

“It’s really flipping the script,” Ms. Eiselt said. “If you can use RFRA to oppress people, based on fundamentalist Christianity, then we can use it too. This is an infringement on our freedom to practice religion.

“When you look at abortion rights and abortion access through a religious lens, what you see is that there is a myth that if somebody is religious, they must be against abortion. If you are secular, you are in favor of it. But we know that the vast majority of American people are people of faith, and that they support safe legal abortion.

“At its core, this is an argument about the separation of church and state. If those lines blur, then our democracy erodes.

Rabbi Barry Silver, a lawyer, works for freedom of choice in Florida. (Courtesy Paula Eiselt)

“As a filmmaker, my work has focused on women’s rights and reproductive justice,” she continued. Not only has she made “Aftershock,” but her first film, “93Queen,” was about a chasidic woman who created an all-woman ambulance corps in Brooklyn. “It’s all connected,” Ms. Eiselt said. “The right to choose your healthcare, to give birth with dignity, to have access to abortion — it’s all connected.” Her films also are about “centering people who take matters into their own hands. Who want to make change. Who are everyday people who become heroes.”

She also feels strongly about showcasing the diversity in the Jewish world. “When it comes to abortion, there really is a consensus, because Jewish law puts the mother’s rights first,” she said. “Both her physical and her mental health. From the Orthodox to the Reform, there is a consensus, even if the nuances are different.

“The Reform movement spoke out first. The Orthodox rabbis had it in their minds when Dobbs passed that there were exceptions in the states that had bans, so that women’s lives wouldn’t be at risk. But we saw that none of that really mattered, unless you are on the brink of death – and waiting until you’re on the brink of death is against Jewish law.

“From the perspective of Jewish law and Jewish foundational values, they’re all aligned. A woman’s life comes first. And life does not begin at conception.”

“Under G-d” is streaming on POV-PBS.

Who: MetroWest Films, Jofa, NCJW Esssex, and the Jewish Women’s Foundation

What: Present “Under G-d”; the film will be followed by a conversation between Paula Eiselt and Dr. Michal Raucher

When: On Thursday, November 30, at 7 p.m.

Where: At the Leon and Toby Cooperman JCC in West Orange

How much: $6 per ticket

To register: Go tojccmw.us/undergd (or just go to jccmw.us and search for “Under G-d”)

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