The first time Anise Simon talked about her abortion with someone was at a mikveh in Los Angeles. The attendant asked her what she was hoping to get out of her ritual bath experience, and her story came bubbling out.
“I unloaded that I’d been in an abusive relationship and I was struggling with it, but I’d been in a place where I’d come to find joy in searching for answers,” she told me. She remembers the mikveh attendant recounting stories of strong women in Jewish history, including stories of dysfunctional families in religious mythology.
This uniquely Jewish experience was transformative for Simon, and not just because it was centuries-old healing ritual. As a Jew of Color, Simon recounted struggling with being seen and accepted as part of the Jewish community. “As a Jew of Color in America, it already feels like there aren’t a lot of stories told about you,” she says. Yet she’s far from alone. About 1 in 5 American Jews identify as a person of color. This statistic, from a 2005 survey, almost certainly underestimates this population today. And despite the existence robust data on who seeks abortions in America, we do not know how many Jews of Color are accessing abortion, and what their experiences are.
Simon, a North Carolina native, works tirelessly to make sure others don’t suffer the isolation and stigma she felt after her abortion. As the Southern Funds Coordinator at the National Network of Abortion Funds and an abortion storyteller through their We Testify Program, she uplifts diverse stories about abortion to make sure those who have had this experience don’t feel alone.
For Simon, that means talking about how she approaches abortion access activism through a Jewish lens. In her work with a Florida-based abortion Fund in 2016, for example, Simon strategized with them around a piece of legislation that would’ve required abortion providers to register with the state. “It’s hard not to think about the fact that I have ancestors who didn’t survive the Holocaust,” she says. “It’s hard to hear about [that legislation] and not get goosebumps. You can’t take off your Jewish glasses in that situation.”
Like Simon, We Testify storyteller and NARAL Pro-Choice Texas Board Member Candice Russell is motivated by the alienation she’s experienced as a Jew of Color who’s had an abortion, particularly now under a Trump Administration. “I don’t feel like I’m safe in any of my communities,” she says. Russell, who lives in Texas, first started talking about her abortion to the press after the state’s legislature passed HB2, the abortion restrictions overturned by the Supreme Court last year.
“Reporters were told I was a Latina who needed had to travel out of state for an abortion, and when they’d call, I’d talk about my Jewish identity, and they wouldn’t want to talk to me anymore,” she says. “What they had in mind was a stereotype, and when I didn’t fill it, my abortion wasn’t as compelling.”
To me, a mixed ethnicity Jewish Latina myself, this anecdote sounds hauntingly familiar. In conversation, once you knit together the different components of your identity in a way that it doesn’t conform to a preconceived notion your listener has, even the most non-judgmental person can turn away instead of opening up.
Despite this treatment from reporters, Russell found compassion from her Jewish community when talking about her abortion. When she shared her abortion story with a woman sitting next to her during Yom Kippur services, the congregant wrapped her arms around her in support. This experience buoyed Russell’s determination to disrupt the false idea that religious people are always anti-abortion. “We as Jews have a responsibility to fight against abortion stigma and show people that you can be a strong person of faith, and love people who have abortions,” she says.
Both women contextualize their abortions as parenting decisions deeply rooted in their identities as Jews and people of color. Simon shared, “As someone with generational trauma connected to colonialism, the Holocaust, and slavery, I want to do as much as I can to give my children, who will be very much wanted, a safe home that is violence free.”
As Jews of color create their own groups devoted to anti-racism work and leadership through organizations such as Jewish Multiracial Network, Jews in all Hues, and the Jews of color caucus of JFREJ, it’s imperative to amplify the voices of Jewish women of color who are speaking up about abortion and other kinds of reproductive justice (and injustice).
They are uniquely equipped to connect the dots between racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, three long-simmering forms of prejudice that have sadly gained new teeth in the current climate.