By Rabbi Jessica Shimberg, Ohio RCRC Faith Organizer
“You are the Rabbi, right?”
I was caught off-guard.
In a public space, called out by an unknown face, I quickly considered my response. I am a rabbi I thought, but “THE rabbi?”
“I am a rabbi” I answered, with a smile. “I’m Rabbi Jessica Shimberg. How are you familiar with my work?”
“You are the rabbi who spoke out against abortion restrictions at the Statehouse,” she said warmly. “And you led the closing circle at the Lights for Liberty rally at the Statehouse to protest the conditions for asylum seekers at the southern border. I loved that song that you taught us and the way you brought all of those people together in silence and song and prayer. You make me proud to be a Jew.”
My clergy friend and I who were visiting an arts festival at the time looked at one another and smiled broadly. Minutes earlier, we had a conversation with a volunteer who was collecting signatures to get an environmental justice issue on Ohio’s fall ballot. Both she and her colleague expressed surprise when we mentioned that we were clergy — a minister and a rabbi in secular garb on a hot summer day.
“I guess I don’t think of religious people as being progressive,” the volunteer said before walking away.
The longer I work as a rabbi in public spaces at the intersection of my political values and my moral and religious convictions, the more I realize the tremendous importance of people seeing that those of us who embody religious voices can ABSOLUTELY be (and ARE) people who have ideas, values, and behaviors that align with progressive politics. The erroneous American counter-narrative that “religious” equals “conservative” is currently being exploited in increasingly dangerous ways by the current U.S. president and his most strident and devious supporters. And it is particularly common in the work that I do in support of abortion access and bodily autonomy through the use of religious doctrine that informs (or misinforms) legislation used to restrict choice.
I came of reproductive age in a post-Roe America. When I was eight, Roe v. Wade ensured that I would not have to travel or resort to unsafe procedures in order to make decisions about my body should I become pregnant and not be able to or want to proceed with an abortion.
As a young woman and as one who came from a family with economic and educational privilege as well as a religious perspective that values questioning and discernment over strict certainty, I never worried about my reproductive rights or choices. But I was aware of the existence of a seemingly unbridgeable divide between people who were pro-choice and those who saw abortion as wrong or sinful. And though I felt compelled to engage in these frustrating and positional conversations, it was never more than a philosophical debate for me as a teen or young woman as it never impacted me personally.
Recently, I heard Rabbi Jill Jacobs (speaking on an unrelated topic) encouraging a room full of rabbis to utilize our sense of moral obligation and spiritual conviction to focus on what we want and then to go about constructing that reality in society. She drew attention to this strategy, noting that it has been successful for “right wing” politicians and their base in “un-losing” Roe v. Wade (a phrase that sent chills down my spine) since 1973. She called out those of us who consider ourselves politically progressive to more regularly exercise our moral and spiritual convictions.
I found this message particularly appealing, particularly in the face of today’s political climate of conservatism, absolutism, and fascism. Rabbi Jacobs spoke in a constructive, calm way (as she always does) directly to the fatigue I have been feeling over the past many months of living in a dys-Trump-ian version of American democracy. I don’t recognize my tired and occasionally defeatist self, but I see and hear and comfort her regularly in the faces and voices of my congregants, friends, and allies.
So, how do we raise our voices in times of great challenge?
Some shout. Some write. Some speak into microphones in House and Senate chambers. Some take to the streets and use bullhorns.
I have been working on getting comfortable with the reality that I often have a different approach than my allies. This difference in style requires that I ﬁgure out where and how my voice ﬁts into the progressive political arena and how it can augment and even improve the quality of our collective voice.
My voice doesn’t like shouting. My voice prefers singing and prayer. Singing and prayer are powerful tools that speak directly to the heart and body, as well as to the mind. When I sing and sway with a group of people, I connect with the power in my body, with my breath and bones, with my spirit and stories that inform and support my decisions and intellect. When I listen to the collective voice of a singing crowd, I am moved by the beauty of connection, by the ways in which we are each part of a collective whole which breeds a responsibility to see beyond our individual experiences to what the needs of another might be. When prayer connects me through a cadence of powerful words and silence, to a vision of a world I wish to inhabit, or to comfort that restores my hope, I am able to serve others with a refreshed sense of purpose and energy.
I worry that in progressive political circles, we have ceded these powerful tools of muscle memory and persuasion to the right-wing religious conservatives. In reproductive choice and justice spaces, when our right to control our bodies, our very lives is at stake, when we come together to raise our collective voices, I rarely hear song and prayer. Most often, I hear chants shouted, often to drown out the prayer and singing and hateful speech of those who wish to deny our choice and agency. I understand the impulse to shout. I am angry too.
I am angry and fearful that someone else’s ideas about when life begins threatens to abolish our rights to determine what happens within our bodies and families. I am angry and frustrated that far too long, so many voices — those of women, people of color, and those who are poor and others who are marginalized in society — have been silenced in this country and around the world. Sometimes, shouting is the only way to be heard.
But we must remember, there are also other ways to productively raise our voices to accomplish our goals and build the democracy in which we wish to live.
When there are alternative voices and a shared agenda, we must work together to accomplish our shared vision. We must LISTEN carefully to hear the beauty in variety: voice and silence, song and chant, prayer and protestation. Raising our voices in progressive public spaces means utilizing all of these tools for good.