May Her Memory Be a Revolution

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Last night, hundreds of people came together in Minneapolis to mourn the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. At that vigil, our Executive Director, Carin Mrotz delivered remarks, which we have printed below. We hope that these words stick with you as we mourn the loss of such a towering figure in our community and our country, and inspire all us to come together to seek justice as she did:

In 2015, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked by American Jewish World Service to write an insert for their Passover haggadah. She did, and she chose to focus not on Moses, the great liberator, or even on God. She focused on the women who drove the Jewish people’s most central story of liberation. On Yocheved, Moses’ mother who gave up her son to save his life, on the midwives Shifra and Puah who disobeyed the Pharaoh's orders and refused to kill Israelite baby boys. On Miriam, Moses’s sister, who kept an eye on him in the Pharaoh's court, and on Batya, the Pharaoh's daughter who defied her own father and took Moses from the Nile and raised him as her own. The handmaidens told Batya “Our mistress, it is the way of the world that when a king issues a decree, his children and the members of his household do observe it, and you wish to transgress your father’s decree?”

Justice Ginsburg wrote: “But transgress she did.”

In her haggadah insert, our nation’s second female Supreme Court Justice, wrote that “These women had a vision leading out of the darkness shrouding their world. They were women of action, prepared to defy authority to make their vision a reality bathed in the light of the day.”

That is who she was to us.

She wrote: “Retelling the heroic stories of Yocheved, Shifra, Puah, Miriam and Batya reminds our daughters that with vision and the courage to act, they can carry forward the tradition those intrepid women launched.”

And so we retell the heroic story of Ruth.

Justice Ginsburg grew up in a Jewish family in Brooklyn. During her Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 1993, she talked about her father, a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine, and her mother, barely a second-generation American. Her family had come to America to escape religious persecution and it was here that she was raised to be a woman, and a traditional Jew.

When her mother died the day before young Ruth’s high school graduation, and Ruth, as a woman was not allowed to be counted in the minyan - the public prayer, she felt that this was an affront to her mother, and she broke from the traditional observance she’d been raised with. Put off by sexism and patriarchy, she dissented, she found a different way to be a Jew, which many of us here will recognize as an extremely Jewish act.

She practiced her Judaism through a relentless pursuit of justice. She named this often.

She said “I am a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice, for peace and for enlightenment runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition." On the wall of her office in the Supreme Court hung a plaque bearing a quote from Deuteronomy: Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof - justice shall you pursue.

She pursued justice in the broader world, and she pursued justice for her own Jewish community. She successfully fought to end the Supreme Court’s practice of hearing cases on Yom Kippur, our holiest day, which we’ll observe next week. She successfully encouraged the court to eliminate “In the Year of Our Lord” from official language, arguing that for Jews, explicitly framing the calendar year as Christian was offensive.

In life, she often framed her identity as three strikes against her: She was a Jew, she was a woman, she was a mother. But these strikes shaped her perspective and drove her fight, and many of us who share these identities - and many of us who don’t - owe her a great debt. My own mother, from a very similar family, though not in Brooklyn but Queens, told me her story - that in the late 1960s when she was pregnant with my oldest brother, she was forced to leave her teaching position. That another Jewish mother in the next decade would draft the Pregnancy Discrimination Act which would make this illegal meant a lot to my mother. And to me. And to my daughter.

Justice Ginsburg died on erev Rosh Hashanah, just before the new year. She did not join us as we stepped into 5781. That’s significant - one of our community’s beliefs is that only very righteous people die at the very end of the year because they were needed until the very end. A Jewish colleague wrote on Friday night that “I am telling myself RBG felt able to transition on this Rosh Hashanah because of her faith in us.” We needed her for every moment of 5780, she believed in us to carry on her work into 5781.

A final thought. When a Jew dies, we say Zichorono Livracha. That means “May their memory be a blessing. It means when you think of the person who has passed on, when you remember them, may the memory bless you. It’s a forward-looking sentiment, it is optimistic and hopeful, we are willing the memories of our loved ones to inspire us, and to drive us to carry on their legacy of goodness and justice in the world. The legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg demands nothing less than that. That her memory should drive us to carry on her fight and to fight for justice for all people.

In her 2015 haggadah insert, Justice Ginsburg wrote that “while there is much light in today’s world, there remains in our universe disheartening darkness, inhumanity spawned by ignorance and hate.” She went on, instructing us that “with vision and action we can join hands with others of like mind, kindling lights along paths leading out of the terrifying darkness.”

And so, with lights kindled together here together, we say, for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Zichrona Livracha, may her memory be a blessing.”

At JCA we are committed to continuing Justice Ginsburg's legacy of fighting what's right. Join us by making a donation of $18 in honor of RBG to support our relentless pursuit for justice.

As Justice Ginsburg said, it takes all of us to illuminate a path of the darkness. We look forward to kindling those lights together.

Jonathan Gershberg

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