Center for American Progress

Building on History: An Interview on Social Justice and Religious Liberty with Nancy Kaufman

Building on History: An Interview on Social Justice and Religious Liberty with Nancy Kaufman

Sally Steenland talks with Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women.

Listen to the interview here (mp3)

This interview is part of a series profiling leaders of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, a project of CAP’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. The institute provides faith-based leaders working on reproductive justice with training and resources in order to strengthen and raise the visibility of their work. You can learn more about this project here.

Nancy Kaufman is the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, or NCJW, a grassroots organization of volunteers and advocates who turn progressive ideas into action. Inspired by Jewish values, NCJW strives for social justice by improving the quality of life for women, children, and families and by safeguarding individual rights and freedoms. Nancy has had a distinguished career as a public servant, advocate, and nonprofit leader. She’s worked for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, with the Governor’s Office of Social Policy in Massachusetts, and for Health and Human Services agencies. Nancy is a graduate of Brandeis University, and she received a master’s degree in community organization and social planning from the Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College, as well as a master’s degree in administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Sally Steenland: Welcome, Nancy! I want to ask about the National Council of Jewish Women, which is more than 100 years old. Bring us back to when the organization was started. What were some of the most important issues when NCJW was new, and how about today?

Nancy Kaufman: NCJW was founded in 1893 and was one of the first national Jewish organizations. It even predated the first Jewish federation. It was founded in Chicago, Illinois, when a woman by the name of Hannah G. Solomon, a wealthy, German-Jewish immigrant, was invited to the Academy of World Religions at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. She was invited as a volunteer, and when she got there, she was asked to pour the tea. She said that Jewish women could do more than pour tea.

She was a friend of Jane Addams and a supporter of the settlement-house movement. And she decided to take a page out of that book and began to organize Jewish women in order to make a difference in their own community and the broader community. She was a visionary and way ahead of her time. She saw the poverty and injustice that was going on all around her, the overcrowded conditions in housing and the terrible working conditions that new immigrants were exposed to, and she said, “We need to organize and do something about this.”

NCJW started out as a largely domestic policy and grassroots organization. She decided that what she started in Chicago needed to happen in every community across the country where there was a significant Jewish population. We as Jews are mandated by our faith and tradition to pursue justice, and, therefore, we must strive for social justice every day in all of our work. She decided to focus specifically on women and children and the challenges they faced. In those years it was the plight of the new immigrants, housing conditions, working conditions, health care, and poverty.

We have been on the cutting edge of every major social movement in this country, and by using organizing as a strategy from the get-go, we have said that we care about these particularly important things as Jews but also because, we care about universal social justice. And what began as poverty in communities across the country became other issues: suffrage, the women’s vote and the right to control their own bodies, racial injustice, you name it. You look back over the 120 years, we have been the voice of progressive Jewish women in the country.

SS: What an honor to head up such an incredible organization. You mentioned immigrants at the outset of NCJW, and 100 years later there is an immigration bill on the floor of the Senate. I know that NCJW has been working for immigration reform.

NK: Well, again, this issue was one of the initial reasons we were founded and so, “what goes around comes around.” Actually, recently in the Library of Congress was an exhibit, “Words Like Sapphires,” and I was very struck by this little pamphlet of Jewish women in 1923 that was a guide to immigrant women. It was at a time when women were coming, in the ’20s and the ’30s to Ellis Island. We’ve heard these stories and read about them. Women of NCJW would meet the women coming in on boats at the ports because they were worried about trafficking: They knew that there were going to be traffickers waiting to take them in. They basically saved the women and took them under their wings. They arranged for housing. They arranged for safety. That has been an issue to re-emerge and is sadly still an issue. So immigration and treating the new arrivals is core to who we are.

We know that women much of the time are the ones who suffer the most because it is their families who are disrupted. Fast-forward to today and we believe there needs to be comprehensive immigration reform. An issue we are most concerned about is around women and children and leading a series of efforts to make sure that this immigration bill is fair and just.

We’ve been focused most recently on the Grassley Amendment, which would delay access to the path to citizenship by not allowing registered provisional immigrants to register until the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security certified to Congress that it has maintained effective control over the entire southern border for six months. We’ve been saying that the amendment could significantly delay even initial registration for the 11 million undocumented individuals already in this country. The pathway to citizenship in Senate Bill 744 is already tough. It’s long and must be earned, but it also must be attainable, and we believe that the Grassley Amendment will further delay a process that already will take at least 13 years.

As people of faith, we are directed to welcome the stranger. Abraham said that very literally, and to impede the path to citizenship with stringent and unrelated triggers goes against these fundamental precepts. We feel that the drafters of the bill worked long and hard to reach bipartisan agreement on the enforcement triggers in the bill, and this amendment would deny that hard-fought bipartisan agreement.

We are also part of a coalition through the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, where I am on the leadership team, and we are trying to organize in Florida and Ohio around those senatorial districts. What’s wonderful about NCJW—and what’s wonderful about Hannah Solomon’s original vision—is that it’s local and national. We have a strong inside-the-beltway presence with our Washington office, and we have a strong grassroots presence in hundreds of communities across the country, with faith-policy advocates and volunteer-driven efforts of women who really don’t just talk the talk. They walk the walk. They go to their state capitals. They show up when we call them to Washington. They show up in recess with their elected representatives.

SS: That’s a double strength because sometimes organizations have very strong grassroots outreach efforts, but they do not always have policy expertise or a national presence. And there are groups that have policy expertise and national presence but no outreach in states, and increasingly, as things are happening in the states, it’s important to have that.

NK: So, we have a well-oiled, we think, operation, and it actually really works. We have our policy staff in Washington. One of our people in Washington works specifically with what we call our “state policy advocates” in as many states as we can possibly cover. We’re in 22 states; we’d like to be in all of them, obviously. A state policy advocate, that person works with all the NCJW sections in their state and organizes in coalition with other groups. The message comes down from Washington because they’re following where the squeaky wheel is, what we have to do, what we have to get to, what’s happening, and then goes to the state policy advocates, who organize women to show up at a congressman’s or a senator’s office or show up in their state capital, depending on what’s moving.

Then, here in New York, we also support the sections across the country that feed into that state policy advocacy but also are working at the local level to engage people in that NCJW work and have meetings and conferences and do education. All of our work is around four strategies: education, philanthropy, advocacy, and community service. I like to say if you’ve met one section, you’ve met one section. I’m a community organizer, and I really believe, as the great, late [Speaker of the House] Tip O’Neill used to say, “All politics is local.” It really is true. And you have to understand that if you want to be effective. I don’t care if it’s in Washington or Des Moines, you have to understand that’s how our government works, and thank God it does when we’re part of a democracy.

Here’s an example: Members of NCJW met in Palm Beach Gardens with Sen. Marco Rubio [R-FL] and his staff to speak specifically about the immigration bill. Then a group met in Rochester with Rep. Tom Reed’s [R-NY] staff during the recess week to discuss comprehensive immigration reform. A section had a town hall meeting with Congressman Adam Schiff [D-CA]. It was attended by 100 members of the community, and the audience had a chance to submit questions. That’s the kind of thing we’re doing all the time.

We urge our leaders and members to join the Alliance for Justice so they can be part of broader coalitions because we don’t believe that change is going to happen by us doing it alone. We really believe we have to be in coalition with other groups. We partner with other groups depending on the issue, and we try to be very focused. Right now our three main issues are comprehensive immigration reform, an end to gun violence, and reproductive choice. Those are our three priority issues, but that doesn’t mean we’re not paying attention to other things.

SS: Let me pick up on reproductive choice. A lot of bad stuff is happening in states, and often it’s religious opponents leading the charge. So here you are, a strong faith tradition supporting reproductive choice because of your faith. Can you talk about Judaism’s support of women’s moral autonomy and reproductive health and choice?

NK: Conservative religious leaders and their allies have been unfortunately successful at establishing a conventional wisdom among lawmakers that asserts that women’s health and religious liberty are separate issues. That just is not how we feel. They believe that religious liberties for organizations and institutions and women’s health are separate—and that’s where we are unique. People say to me, “What’s the difference between you and Planned Parenthood?” I say, “I’m a big supporter of Planned Parenthood, but they’re not about religious liberty. We’re about religious liberty and women’s health.”

They have folks who paint an inaccurate picture of what religious liberty means, who it protects, how regular people feel about it, and they don’t speak for the millions of people—we know from the polling—across the country, from different faiths, but particularly from the Jewish faith, who feel differently.

The decision to plan a family, a pregnancy, are personal health decisions that are fundamentally linked to religious liberty. I’m not telling anyone they should have an abortion. I’m not telling anyone they should use birth control. But nor should anyone tell me what I can do within my faith tradition, with me and my rabbi, with me and my husband. That’s just wrong. We believe that each of us must be free to make these decisions, according to our own religious beliefs, our own moral values, our own particular faith traditions. It’s as simple as that.

I’m going to Israel tomorrow, and I’m giving a talk there about Judaism and women’s equality. Unfortunately, they don’t have separation of church and state, but we do. Our founding fathers—and they were fathers—knew that we needed to preserve the right to religious freedom. We are a democratic, pluralistic society, and in a democratic and pluralistic society, we respect others’ religious and moral beliefs, and we believe the two are separate.

It’s very troubling, I think, in 2013 that we’re not respecting what we’ve always respected, those of us who believe in the Constitution, who think that every person should be given due respect for holding their own religious beliefs. Our elected officials must not privilege one view over another by enacting laws that restrict access to legal health care in order to deny a woman from making her own faith-informed decisions about her health. It’s very clear. The issue of access to care, women being able to access birth control, the services, refusal policies, the proposals that private employers deny their employees birth-control coverage or something such as the Hyde Amendment, which unjustly withholds insurance money for abortions from people, including federal workers—these policies restrict our access to reproductive care and our right to religious freedom.

SS: So how do we push back? If you and I were having this conversation, we would say, “That’s not fair. You don’t get to pick the laws that you obey.” But how do you make the argument in the public square to the everyday American who is not following this issue the way you and I might be?

NK: I would say that if we want a society where we’re free to practice our religions, we would have to, as Americans and as many people of faith, urge that access to care is a moral imperative. I really think the rhetoric has come from an ideology that some people, a minority, want to impose on the majority. The public perception is somehow that religion is opposed to reproductive rights, especially abortion. That’s not true in my religion. People say, “What about Orthodox Jews?”, but even in the Orthodox tradition it isn’t true. They do believe that the health of the mother is paramount and that this is a decision between a doctor and a woman. Religious opinions among Jews differ when it comes to abortion, but that’s why we believe that every woman has the right to make her own faith-informed decision.

There are many pro-choice religious denominations that agree with us. We head up The Religious Advocates Working Group in D.C., which is a table where pro-choice faith-based groups collaborate on action around reproductive health and rights issues. We have recently joined with Catholics for Choice and convened a coalition of organizations to protect our own individual constitutional rights. It’s a broad alliance of faith-based and secular groups that work together to ensure that we protect the rights of people of all faiths and no faith because, of course, people of no faith also have the right to reproductive choices. We oppose anyone who imposes one religious belief on another.

I think people view this as an issue of ideology: “I’m right, you’re wrong.” But this isn’t an issue of ideology. A decision may be perfectly right for them and their family. I’m not trying to convince anyone that they have to do what I would do, but they also have to respect me and what I would do. I think it’s a matter of conversation. That’s what the polling shows. That’s why, when the Susan G. Komen Foundation thing happened, there was a huge reaction. That’s what happened with the elections. People have gone too far. You can choose when you’re raped? That’s a choice? Whether you get pregnant or not when you’re raped? This is getting a little bit ridiculous, and I think people are seeing that. I am optimistic, though wondering why we are still fighting this battle, that we will win in the end because it is against the American way to do anything but separate religion and the state.

SS: Let’s end on an optimistic note: As you look ahead in the coming days and weeks and as you look at young people you’re working with, what’s your sense of the landscape and trends?

NK: If you had asked me that question six or eight months ago, I would say I was worried. What I’ve been worried about for a long time is my daughter’s generation, who has taken it for granted that birth control is a thing they can have and abortion is a thing that they can have. I think all of this stuff that has happened in the last year has been a bit of a wake-up call for the younger generation. It came out of the Affordable Care Act, the whole idea of contraceptive coverage. I think people are paying attention in a way they have not before. They are seeing that this issue of religious freedom relates to your own reproductive rights, and you can’t have one without the other.

I see it as good news and bad news. The good news is that people were watching their televisions over the last year and seeing some of these crazy things happening and they were saying, “What? Are you serious?” And men too! Not just women. We are very interested in having men as allies. They’re saying, “Wait a minute, that’s not the country I’m signing on to.” I don’t care if they’re Democrats or Republicans. I really think there’s been a pushback on this, and that has been a positive sign. I think you are going to see more and more of that and less and less willingness to put up with extreme behavior imposed by a small vocal group on the rest of us. I think people are saying, “No way. This is not going to happen.” I think that is a positive sign. I think we’ve kind of turned a corner. I think we’re going to see more and more thoughtful discussion in politics and policy, I hope, as we go forward.

SS: Just the other day there was another Todd Akin-like comment by a congressman about rape and getting pregnant. It used to be below the radar, but shining a light on that really does expose and marginalize it.

NK: Absolutely. I think that’s good, and that’s why we’ve existed for 120 years, and we will continue to do the work we do within our own communities, which represents a lot of people and a lot of women in the Jewish world.

SS: One hundred years more to you, and a safe trip to Israel tomorrow.

NK: Thank you, thank you.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative