Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman’s voice was soft and restrained as she called a gathering of interfaith clergy at Desert Horizon Park in Scottsdale on Friday, October 7 at 9:30 a.m. The more she spoke, however, the louder and more assertive her voice became. .
“This is an event to bring attention to the draconian laws happening in Arizona,” she began.
“As we speak, there are women’s lives in danger and there are medical personnel who will not come to practice in the State of Arizona for fear of being imprisoned for two to five years,” said she declared angrily.
The morning prayer circle, which included six local rabbis representing Reform, Conservative and Orthodox perspectives, was to draw attention to the Civil War-era abortion ban, which was put into effect on September 23. This ban prohibits all abortions in the state except when the mother’s life is in danger, which is left to the physician’s “good faith clinical judgment” and has caused much confusion and consternation among physicians, hospitals and pregnant women.
Just hours after the religious leaders met, the Arizona Court of Appeals issued a stay temporarily banning the 1864 ban and leaving the 15-week abortion ban in place. The court said the old ban could not be enforced until an appeal to the court of a Pima County case had run its course.
Civia Tamarkin, president of the National Council of Jewish Women Arizona, was the only official speaker for the morning. She asked attendees to consider the emotional, psychological, physical, and economic damage that is the likely fallout from abortion restrictions across the country, and specifically in Arizona.
After the reprieve was announced, Tamarkin emphasized the power of prayer.
“No one takes lightly the power of collective prayer from diverse backgrounds who call for healing and justice.”
However, the 15-week ban puts lives at risk, she said, “particularly from incomplete miscarriages and pregnancy complications that doctors are too afraid to treat.”
Thus, Friday’s prayer circle will continue to have significance because it emphasized that legislation is not about “choice” but about global health care accessibility.
It aimed to bring interfaith clergy together “to pray for an end to pain, suffering and to call for healing for all who are affected — it’s a matter of humanity,” Tamarkin said.
Sharfman, chairman of the Greater Phoenix Council of Rabbis and rabbi of Congregation Kehillah in Cave Creek, agreed.
“These are matters of the heart, matters of the soul,” she said.
Sharfman invited the clergy to form a circle — “where we always turn, ultimately” — and asked those who wished to speak to do so.
Rabbi Debbie Stiel of Temple Solel in Paradise Valley has expressed fear for anyone, “for whatever reason”, who has to terminate a pregnancy. She said she is “shaking at what they are facing” and offered her support for them and their bodies.
Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin of Congregation Beth Israel (CBI) in Scottsdale referenced a prayer, the Unetanah Tokef, recited on Yom Kippur, which recognizes that “we do not know what lies ahead for each of us” .
She said it’s not up to the state of Arizona to decide what pregnant women do with their bodies.
“I pray that anyone who has anything to do with making these kinds of decisions leaves the power in the hands of the people who have to make these choices for themselves.”
Rabbi Nitzan Stein Kokin of Beth El Congregation in Phoenix expressed concern for young people “who have just discovered love in their lives and are now encountering an existential fear of what that might entail.”
She prayed that they would have strength, that their parents would be good role models, and that those in charge would “find fair and humane legislation on these matters.”
Rabbi Cookie Olshein of Temple Emanuel in Tempe reminded everyone that as of Friday, there are 32 days until the general election when decisions will be made that will impact the community.
She prayed for the clergy to have the strength to inspire civic responsibility, to educate people about the impact of the law and, above all, “to know that it is our duty to speak on behalf of those who have no voice”.
The Reverend Kate Lehman, pastor of St. Theresa of Ávila Ecumenical Catholic Community in Phoenix, shared a very personal story about the birth of her son in 1972, before Roe. She shared a room with a woman whose baby had been dead for two months but remained in her body. At that time, the law stipulated that she had to wait for her body to expel the lifeless fetus.
“My heart ached so much for her,” she said. “What we do to our fellow human beings is incomprehensible. I pray that whoever thinks they are the most knowledgeable realizes that there are a million stories out there.
Pastor Susan Valiquette of First Church UCC (United Church of Christ) in Phoenix said all clergy come from traditions that honor women. She prayed for an end to the misogyny that drives public policies, for equal rights and solidarity.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash, also joined the prayer circle but chose not to speak.
He told Jewish News after the event that he only wanted “to be a silent, supportive ally in the presence.”
After the last person spoke, all present were invited to read a non-denominational prayer asking for courage, strength and perseverance in the pursuit of justice.
A few non-clergy also came to watch the event.
Tracy Contant, a loyal OB-GYN and CBI, was there to thank the clergy for their attendance.
“I want to be part of something bigger than me when I stand up for women every day,” she said.
She was accompanied by fellow CBI stalwart Jennifer Kirshner, who came because “more voices are needed in this battle,” she said.
“The religious right has kidnapped this pro-life movement and I’m thrilled to see the religious community coming together – it’s truly beautiful.”
After the event, Stein Kokin told Jewish News she hoped to see balanced legislation and pointed out that Jewish law is nuanced on the issue of abortion.
“It’s a case-by-case thing,” she said. “It’s important that we don’t just have old laws – we’re in the 21st century and the legislature needs to speak to our reality.”
She decided to talk about young people because, as a mother of two young girls, “young people are particularly close to my heart”.
The rabbi said she had witnessed the “enormous fear” of teenagers who don’t know what the future holds – something “we took for granted”.
Sharfman called Arizona’s bans a “violation of our religious rights” that interferes with “religious freedom, something we cannot tolerate.”
According to a poll, American Jews support abortion rights more than any other religious group. Non-Orthodox Jews have been at the forefront of advocacy against the current wave of abortion legislation. Some Orthodox groups said they applauded the Dobbs v. Jackson decision while continuing to believe abortion should be allowed in some cases. Scholars of Jewish law widely agree that it requires abortion when the pregnant person’s health is at risk, although there is disagreement on what constitutes such a risk.
Imam Omar Tawil, associate imam and chaplain of the Islamic Community Center of Tempe and Arizona State University, planned to attend but was called in for a death in his community.
Also in attendance were Paul Rockower, executive director of the Greater Phoenix Jewish Community Relations Council and Eddie Chavez Calderon, campaign director for Arizona Jews for Justice. jn
This article incorporated material from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.