Community Voices on the Legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The Journal reached out to local Jewish community leaders to ask them how Ginsburg inspired or impacted them.
September 22, 2020
Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death on erev Rosh Hashanah hit the Jewish community hard. The Journal reached out to local Jewish community leaders to ask them how Ginsburg inspired or impacted them.

Yet You Persisted
Daughter of East Midwood Jewish Center, you dissented long before others were willing. Harvard Law School’s dean asked why you were taking the place of a man. Justice Frankfurter turned you down as an intern. Yet you persisted. Even as a professor, you were paid less than your male colleagues. Yet you persisted. You defended widowers denied pensions, fighting for gender equality before the law. Your elevation to the Supreme Court elevated us all. With the passage of time, you became the living symbol of the dignity of all people. You used the power of your pen and office to force the law to conform. You persisted. Through it all, you lived life well. You cultivated a loving marriage, raised kind and smart children, supported a diverse circle of friends. You lived the Torah’s demand to love your neighbor as yourself, that there must be one law for the citizen and the stranger, that the land must be allowed to rest, that we are commanded to pursue justice. We will honor you. We will walk your path. Your memory is a blessing.
— Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and vice president of American Jewish University

Justice and Equality
There have been 114 justices on the Supreme Court since 1789. But only one of them became a veritable rock star. How remarkable that it was the millennial generation that elevated this tiny octogenarian Jewish mother and bubbe into the iconic Notorious RBG. She may have been the second woman on the Supreme Court, but she was the first feminist. At her core, she was committed to elevating the powerless, to empowering the vulnerable, and to bringing justice and equality based on the simple concept of fairness; and she often cited her Jewish heritage as a source for her commitment to and pursuit of justice. Her rise in popularity coincided with her stinging dissents in which she displayed her courage and conscience as she spoke truth to power. It fills me with hope for the future that our younger generation recognized her for the hero that she was. May her memory be a blessing.
— Janice Kamenir-Reznik, co-founder, Jewish World Watch and Jews United for Democracy and Justice; chair, Beit T’Shuvah

Strength Embodied
She was a living symbol of resistance, a hero of human rights, the very embodiment of strength in a tiny frame. Despite well-publicized battles with cancer and her advanced age, she somehow seemed superhuman. And, so, when I learned of her death, it was hard to fully comprehend. How could RBG die? The truth is, the ideals that Justice Ginsburg fought for are bigger than any one life, no matter how extraordinary. We were truly privileged to share the world with her for a time. Now it is up to us to carry on her dissent against the status quo. Madam Justice, we are ready.

— Rabbi Adam Greenwald, vice president for Jewish Engagement, American Jewish University and director, Maas Center for Jewish Journeys and the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program

We Cannot Surrender to Fear
As the newly freed Israelites were escaping from Egypt, trapped on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, one person, Nachshon, had the courage to step into the water first. The waters did not part at first, but Nachshon kept going, risked drowning, and inspired the others. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a modern Nachshon. At her first appearance before the Supreme Court, she famously quoted Sarah Grimke: “All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” It was chilling to think about those words just a few short months after a knee on the neck of George Floyd again demonstrated the deadly weight of racism and state violence. Her absence leaves the Supreme Court poised to put a knee on the neck of Native American rights, voting rights, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, affirmative action, access to health care, clean air, clean water, the separation of church and state (which has been vital in protecting the rights of those from minority religions, like Jews) and much more. I won’t lie — when I think of all of that I feel afraid. But I’m certain of this: We can’t surrender to fear. We must all find within the Nachshon-like courage of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
— Eric Greene, writer, civil rights activist, board member of Jewish Multiracial Network 

The Thurgood Marshall of Disability Rights
The disability rights community lost a champion in RBG. The NAACP and others have noted that President Bill Clinton, when nominating Justice Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, referred to her as the Thurgood Marshall of women’s rights. Often hailed as the legal linchpin of independent living for people with disabilities, her powerful decision [in 1999’s Olmstead v. L.C.] mandated that people with disabilities should live in the least restrictive environment possible. The centerpiece of the opinion is Justice Ginsburg’s recognition of the value and humanity of people with disabilities, and the danger of shutting us away. Justice Ginsburg was known to emphasize the importance of the Jewish exhortation “U’vacharta b’chaim (Choose life).” Her jurisprudence gave that choice to thousands of Americans with disabilities.
— Matan Koch, director of RespectAbility California and Jewish Leadership

A Giant of Her Generation
Every night, my 3-month-old goes to sleep with a stuffed likeness of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in his crib. The proliferation of RBG swag may seem kitschy, but her status as a pop culture icon reflects a deeper yearning in our society: We are hungry for righteous role models. The non-superhuman among us find strength and refuge in the massive shadow cast by an 85-pound octogenarian. She was a seeker of justice with a steadfast moral compass and an unflinching fight balanced only by a patient integrity that enabled her to navigate a world that was decades behind her. She had faith that the world would catch up. I want that faith. And I want to teach that faith to my son.
— Rabbi Sarah Bassin,  associate rabbi, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills

Cancer Took Her Life But Never Defined Her
Our late founder, Rochelle Shoretz, clerked for Justice Ginsburg in 1998, and the women shared a strong bond of friendship and respect. Justice Ginsburg served on Sharsheret’s Honorary Advisory Board, and in her 2015 eulogy for Rochelle, she shared: “Rochelle redoubled her efforts to uplift others battling cancer. Rochelle will be missed by legions whose lives she touched. We have a store of memories of her bright spirit. May those memories encourage us to follow in her way — to love life, and whatever the obstacles, to exert our best efforts to advance worthy causes outside ourselves.” Ironically, these words best capture how Justice Ginsburg inspired Sharsheret’s community. Though cancer took her life, it never defined her. Her dedication to the pursuit of justice and devoted commitment to women and humanity inspire our work.
— Jenna Fields, California regional director, Sharsheret 

Optimism and Fearlessness
I found out that RBG had passed away just as we started our Rosh Hashanah family Zoom call. It felt almost like taking a punch to the stomach right at our moment of joy with the new year beginning. While of course her entire life had been dedicated to the pursuit of justice, I found her fearlessness over the past four years to be truly awe-inspiring. With everything against her — failing health, a conservative majority on the bench, ugly public discourse — she did not slow down, she did not lose her spirit. In this perilous moment in history, I find comfort in her words from about a year ago: “The progress I have seen in my lifetime makes me optimistic for the future.” My hope is that we can carry on with her optimism and fearlessness.
— Todd Shotz, executive director and founder, Hebrew Helpers; board co-chair, JQ International

A Rare Combination of Civility and Intellect
I wish our public servants would better emulate her rare combination of civility and impassioned intellect. Most famously, this feat of character appeared in her storied friendship with her colleague and ideological rival, fellow Justice Antonin Scalia. Observers often noted her ferocity, particularly on women’s and voters’ rights — all the more potent for the mildness of her presence and the moderation of her language. At the end of her life, she emerged as a contemporary hero, embodying an Americanized version of Shammai’s admonition (Avot 1:14-15): “Stick to your guns; walk the walk; and greet everyone with a friendly disposition.”
— Joshua Holo, dean of the Hebrew Untion College-Jewish Institute of Religion Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles and associate professor of Jewish history

A Resilient, Defiant Trailblazer
After I emerged from my yontif break from technology, I read some of the articles on RBG, including those by people who were professionally closest to her, and was struck by what a woman of few words she was socially. (I want to learn from her in this regard, for sure.) I was reminded how much of her strength as a woman was because of her resilience, her defiance and her trailblazing in a field of misogynistic men of the legal world who did not even believe she had a right to be a lawyer. She fought for the rights of women to be seen, to be treated fairly and to use their sensibility to change the world. RBG was a classy feminist of the most esteemable order. Thank you, RBG.
— Mayim Bialik, actress and neuroscientist

Witness to the Greatness of America’s Promise
Hearing about the passing of Justice Ginsburg felt like losing a hero, a Jewish biblical matriarch and a grandmother all at once. As soon as my daughters were old enough, my wife and I read them books on “Ruth” and took them to the exhibition about her life at the Skirball Center. “Ruth” instantly became their hero, too. Justice Ginsburg drew strength from her Jewish values and often spoke about her family story. My favorite quote of hers was: “What’s the difference between a bookkeeper in the garment district and a Supreme Court justice? One generation.” Her life bore witness to the greatness of America’s promise and her life’s work made sure that promise was extended to more and more Americans. And like a good grandmother, she even gave us all some good marital advice: “In every good marriage, it helps to be a little deaf.” Baruch Dayan Emet. Blessed be the true Judge.
— Sam Yebri, 30 Years After president and co-founder 

She Sought Justice for All
Ruth Bader Ginsburg proved through her own incredible life story that nothing stands in the way of those who are determined to succeed, even if they are from a disadvantaged background, or, as was the case during her formative adult years, a disadvantaged gender. In 1996, she wrote that she was “proud of being a Jew,” adding that “the demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition.” RBG has inspired generations. She had such a great relationship with her legal nemesis on the Supreme Court, the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Her greatest quality was that she was a true mensch.
— Rabbi Pini Dunner, Beverly Hills Synagogue

A Loss That Sparks a Great Awakening
Jewish tradition teaches that when a righteous person, dies, an opening is created for a moral and spiritual awakening among the community of mourners, and even in the natural world. We pray that Justice Ginsburg’s death, especially in this time of unimaginable loss, especially with the devastating implications it will likely have for our nation, will in fact spark that great awakening. We hold now many layers of grief — first and foremost for the death of an exceptionally brilliant, fierce and courageous Jewish woman, a jurist, a mother and grandmother, a role model to millions, whose steadfast commitment to justice, equality and basic fairness made this country and world a better place. And we hold anticipatory grief, as we project the ramifications of her death and the brazen political maneuverings that will likely ensue in her absence. We must remember: even as we say Mourner’s Kaddish for our beloved Justice Ginsburg, we must not yet say Mourner’s Kaddish for our nation — for this fight is not yet over. And Justice Ginsburg, of all people, would fervently decry the passive acceptance of predetermined outcomes. We grieve, and then we pick up the baton and carry on.
— Rabbi Sharon Brous, senior rabbi, IKAR

A Shofar Call to Confront Ageism
I am especially grateful for the ways Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a shofar — an instrument that calls out for change. She [also] challenged the way we think about growing older. A common stereotype of older adults is that they disengage from life, become physically frail and withdraw from many of those activities that had brought purpose to their lives. Not Justice Ginsburg. Think of her now famous “Ruth Bader Ginsburg Workout” that encouraged so many of us older adults. She kept working at a job she loved, demonstrating that older adults ought to be able to find meaning whether they continue to work, explore encore careers or discover volunteer opportunities through which they can make a difference. She was a role model for getting good at getting older and a shofar call to confront  ageism.
— Rabbi Laura Geller, rabbi emerita, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills; co-author, “Getting Good at Getting Older”

A Trailblazing Advocate
I am the first female executive director of the Jewish Free Loan Association in its 116-year history because of people like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who spent her life tirelessly fighting to ensure equality for all. Today, millions of women like me benefit from her trailblazing work for fair employment practices. We must learn from the strength of her convictions and continue to work toward creating equality for all, while modeling her dignity and credibility. RBG’s legacy can serve as a guide for everyone and inspire each one of us in our quest to make the world a little more just. May her memory be for a blessing.
— Rachel Grose, executive director, Jewish Free Loan Association

Restore for Us Our Judges of Old
Forty-three years ago on my bar mitzvah, I read the Torah portion Shoftim (Judges), whose opening verse reads, “You shall appoint judges and officials.” The third verse contains three of the Torah’s most famous words: “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof — Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” RBG spent a lifetime following the Torah’s vision of pursuing justice and creating a just society. Those famous words were framed on the wall of her Supreme Court chambers, and they were etched deeply in her heart. As I mourn her loss, I connect to these words even more, as I do to the words recited thrice daily: “Restore for us our judges of old.”
— Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, Sephardic Educational Center and Westwood Village Synagogue

She Paved the Way
With dignity, courage and moral vision, Ruth Bader Ginsburg brought to life the vision of the biblical prophet Micah to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God. She devoted her life, inspired by her Jewish values, to seeing well before others and in her own words that the “We” in our Constitution included all people. I am inspired to remember and act by her notion of “the dissenter’s hope,” asking questions, even when the answer is no, for “they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.” May we be ever blessed by her legacy.
— Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, associate dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University

Fighting for Dignity
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once taught that tears in the fabric of our community can be viewed as opportunities for repair. Whether she was championing and defining women’s equality in the workplace or bonding with her fellow justices across party lines, she modeled an authentic commitment to bettering our present and challenging us to be more connected. As she traversed her own uphill battle, she fought for the dignity and rights of others — a feat that took immense empathy, courage and sacrifice. And as the first female Jewish justice, she proudly grounded herself in the biblical mitzvah of “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” (displayed in her chambers). As a professional woman in America, I know I am blessed to have had her, and women like her, fighting for me before I was even born. Right now, we feel the tears in our community acutely. So, too, we need to seek out the opportunities for repair. In this way — and many more — may her memory be for a blessing.
— Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, B’nai David-Judea Congregation

RBG Changed Our World
Last year, when I was hosting a salon about democracy and social justice work, my friend Jenny (who is related to RBG) gave me an RBG action figure. Since then, it’s been sitting proudly on my mantel, as a background for every social justice event I do. It’s made me feel that a little tiny bit of RBG is with me, and that tiny bit represents hope, hard work and the truth that a smart Jewish woman can achieve things that many of us haven’t even dreamed of. My daughters can’t imagine a time when women were treated the way that RBG was in her early years. Demoted when pregnant? Really? RBG was a force that changed our world to a point where we can’t imagine that the “old way” ever existed. So, we fight, we work hard and we continue — as hard as it is — to have hope. Just like Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
—Lisa Greer, philanthropist and author

Equality, Humility and Fortitude
Three years ago, one of my daughters declared that she wanted to become a Supreme Court justice because of Justice Ginsburg. My other two daughters proudly wear their “I dissent” RBG shirts regularly. RBG embodied the Jewish notion of machloket, of healthy and passionate debate. Her friendship with Justice Scalia reminded us of the fierce, but respectful, relationships modeled by rabbis in the Talmud. She fought for the Jewish notion of b’tzelem Elohim, that all people, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, deserve equal and fair treatment. She taught us the value of anavah, of humility, and she showed us that one’s stature is not based on one’s height, but rather on one’s social and intellectual fortitude. RBG cared deeply about language, using her own words to remind us that just as God created the world through words, so too do our words have the power to change the world.
— Rabbi Joel Nickerson, Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Paving the Way
I try to teach my students that when we extend equal access to opportunity, everyone benefits. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s trailblazing work for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project in the 1970s changed the paradigm of how women were treated under law. But her most brilliant tactic was her ability to convince men that extending rights to women would improve their lot, as well. The American dream of equal justice and opportunity is still a work in progress. But by using our voices to dissent and our power as citizens to ensure our country delivers on the Constitution’s promise and the ideals of democracy for all people, we can build on RBG’s legacy.
— Leora Smith, humanities teacher, Milken Community Schools 

Heaven’s Decree Won
So many of us prayed for Justice Ginsburg’s health — in shul, at home, on social media. She was our great scholar, teacher and leader, so we stood outside praying for her well-being, while inside, her body suffered. And she stayed with us, working until the very last possible moment to do what was right. But like it always does, heaven’s decree won, and now our great elder has become a great ancestor. May we have the strength and compassion to let her go — because her persistent, insistent work now continues with us.
— Rabbi Kerry Chaplin, spiritual counselor, Beit T’Shuvah

Her Wisdom Becomes Our Obligation
In the Book of Deuteronomy, the famous line tzedek tzedek tirdof (justice must surely be pursued) is interpreted by the rabbis that one must be just in order to pursue justice. Justice Ginsburg lived out this mantra every day of her life, fighting for women’s rights and all people’s rights for equality and prosperity. Rav Avraham Isaac Kook once wrote, “[T]he death of tzaddikim inspires us to imitate their personal conduct.” That was Justice Ginsburg’s highest aspiration. For most of her life, she was uneasy with the mantle of “icon.” Rather, she wanted all of us, in our everyday lives, to live righteously. With her passing, this wisdom becomes an obligation — to, as Isaiah wrote, “Learn to do right, seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17). May her memory be a blessing.
— Rabbi Noah Farkas, Valley Beth Shalom 

An Eishet Chayil
She was a true Eishet Chayil — a courageous woman of integrity and values. She believed in all the positive potential that our great country has to offer and remained optimistic. That is what I will focus on at this time, not giving up hope of working together to help people build better lives for themselves and feel that they can make an important contribution to life in the U.S. She will be remembered for her wisdom and insights, trailblazing role as a woman and, certainly, her achievement in reaching the highest court in the land. She’ll also be remembered for her connection to the Jewish people and being rooted in Jewish values of caring, compassion and concern for others.
— Rabbi Michele Paskow, spiritual leader, Congregation B’nai Emet 

Motivated by Jewish Values
Justice Ginsburg believed her Jewish heritage demanded that she work for the equal treatment of all people. She courageously stood up to what she considered to be the wrongs of the world. As a justice, she not only voted her conscience, but shared in eloquent fashion why a minority opinion should matter. Justice Ginsburg’s friendship with Justice Scalia modeled the rabbinic dictum “Who is wise? The one who can learn from everyone.” In all these ways, she followed in the shoes of Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, who is quoted as saying, “To be better Americans, we must become better Jews.”
— Rabbi Stewart Vogel, Temple Aliyah; president, Rabbinical Assembly 

A Role Model for All People
When I arrived as a student at Loyola Law School in 1983, 50% of my classmates were women. When I was hired at my first law firm, where a woman was the managing partner, I was not the only Jewish woman hired that year and every new associate received the same pay. In my work, my marriage, my parenting — equality and shared responsibilities have been a given. For much of that, I have Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to thank for planting those seeds and modeling that life. Justice Ginsburg began and continued to fight to gain and maintain those rights to her dying day, literally. She is a role model for all people who believe in justice and equity, especially, but not exclusively, on issues of gender. That she became known recently as the Notorious RBG — this quiet, petite, elderly Jewish woman — is a testament to the power of her mind, her perseverance, her passion and her heart. It’s on us to pick up her mantle and fight like hell to preserve her legacy, for the good of our country and for the good of all people.
— Tzivia Schwartz Getzug, community activist

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