Doctoral Candidate Explores History of ’70s-Era Abortions in Jewish Elkins Park

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Is Judaism pro-choice or pro-life?

The answer is rather nuanced, and personal.

As opposed to many vocal Catholic or Christian organizations, Jewish law states that life begins at birth, not conception. Still, feticide is generally prohibited, with a punishment set in writing in the Torah.

A 2015 Pew Research Center study reported that 83 percent of American Jews — more than any other religious group listed — believe abortion should be “legal in all/most cases.” Fifteen percent deemed it illegal, while 2 percent were unsure.

But before Roe v. Wade declared abortions legal in 1973, what did Jewish women do?

Julia Gross

Julia Gross, a Ph.D. student at Otto-von-Guericke-Universität Magdeburg in Germany, is devoting her research to answering that question.

The German native received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees there in European cultural history, focusing on war history of the 19th and 20th centuries as well as history portrayed in the media.

But Jewish history was always another interest.

Gross’ family kept quiet about most of her Jewish heritage, but she wanted to explore more.

Her mother’s family came to America, while her father’s family spread out among other countries. Her grandfather’s family tried to get to America in 1938, but they never heard from them again.

In the hopes of ever reuniting, Gross said their family always had a way to recognize each other when moving to another country: They denoted their last name, Meyer, with two dots above the “Y.”

Even at 91, her grandmother told her before her move to Elkins Park, “Oh, maybe you can find somebody over there.”

Gross moved to Elkins Park a year ago — she has family she wanted to be close to in Blue Bell — where she’s spent time reading about the history of the area.

In the 1970s, the area was about 80 percent Jewish, she noted, and she wondered how Jewish women dealt with abortions before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down bans on the procedures in 1973.

“That was the point where I was thinking 40 years ago, abortions were legalized, and it’s still such a hot topic,” she said. Based on her research, “wars are usually the biggest measurements of historical changes in society that people think about, and I got more and more interested in what is in between these war times. How do people deal with things when there’s no war, in peaceful times?”

The idea of family came to mind, especially during the 2016 U.S. presidential election when she heard the issue of abortion rights brought into the limelight again.

“Halakha allowed abortion and had a far more liberal approach on this topic than American law did in the ’70s,” she continued. “I initially wanted to capture how women imagined their family life and having children and their role as a mother.”

Women face a lot of pressure to have a family while also balancing a career, Gross said, among other social roles, and she was curious if and how the issue of abortion fell into those roles.

So far, she’s interviewed two women — two sisters in their 80s, one of whom had an abortion before it was legal and one after — though she needs about 20 women who identify as Jewish on a broad spectrum to attain a conductive case study.

“The connection between Jewish law and American law has not been made yet,” she said. “Jewish women, if they consider themselves different on different levels of [Judaism], they’ve lived in two worlds basically, between American law and Jewish law, and they’re not always in tune with each other.”

Since she’s interviewed those two women, who she found by reaching out to local synagogues, rabbis and on social media, the struggle to find more interviewees made Gross realize even more how sensitive it is to capture these personal experiences.

“It’s so important to know where you come from and what happened,” she added. “Even though it’s 40 years ago, it seems to be very hard for a woman to come out with that [story]. … Even though it’s legal, people don’t feel the freedom that the law really gives you in a society in a moral or ethical manner.”

The issue of abortion is often followed by religious morality — both positively and negatively — which is even something Planned Parenthood has long partnered with. The organization has had a clergy advisory board, currently including two rabbis, since 1943.

“Human values are Jewish values,” Dayle Steinberg, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, told the Jewish Exponent in October 2016 during the organization’s 100-year anniversary. “Jewish values include respect for women and respect for families, and if we care about that then we certainly are aligning ourselves with Planned Parenthood’s work to ensure that women’s reproductive rights are respected, and children are brought into the world wanted and loved.”

There’s plenty of research on abortion from a statistical approach, Gross noted, but few personal collections of stories that explain the experience, especially of Jewish women. As such, she believes it is an important corner of history that must be explored further.

“Having a baby changes your life. It comes with so much responsibility, and that is not just a temporary thing,” she said. “It’s one of the most important decisions one has to make.”

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