By Eleanor Levie
How do we honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a role model like no other? Her values and empathetic feminism resonated deeply within my psyche. In fact, I can’t think of a single Jewish woman who didn’t take pride in her and feel a strong connection to her.
Yes, we hailed her with that rapper-inspired nickname — the Notorious R.B.G. Our coffee mugs and tote bags sported her wittiest quotes. Many of us women — and a few men, too — found occasion to masquerade with a slick-backed low ponytail, geek-chic glasses, lace collar and black robe. As a longtime volunteer for the National Council of Jewish Women, I dressed like Justice Ginsburg on more than one occasion to bring home, with a little good humor, the lesson that courts matter.
I remember seeing Ginsburg in person in March 2001 at NCJW’s Washington Institute, when she accepted our Faith and Humanity Award. She was only recently in remission from colon cancer, frail, her voice low on volume and register. But she spoke with utter conviction and clarity about commitment to social justice as a responsibility, especially for Jewish women.
Ginsburg’s background is a quintessential Jewish story. A child of an immigrant father, she would one day quip, “What is the difference between a bookkeeper in New York’s garment district and a Supreme Court justice?” and answer, “One generation.” The product of public schools, she knew she had to work harder than anyone else to get ahead and would still face sexism and anti-Semitism. Raised in an observant Jewish home, she went to Hebrew school, and played the role of a rabbi at summer camp. Coming of age during the aftermath of the Holocaust, she was keenly aware of our collective obligation to fight for the oppressed.
Even in turning away from traditional Judaism, she invoked a sense of justice. At 17 she sat shiva for her mother, and noted that neither her presence nor “a house full of women” allowed for a prayer service, because they lacked the 10 men required for a minyan. Indeed, discrimination on the basis of sex was her most frequent target.
She fought discrimination on the basis of other categorizations as well. She was a champion for the LGTBQ community, for immigrants, for workers, for disenfranchised minorities and for the most vulnerable among us. She defended freedom of religion and reproductive justice, the right to health care and the right to vote. Her powerful words over the years, especially in those moments when she spoke so eloquently in dissent, helped push our laws and our nation toward equality, freedom and opportunity.
Ginsburg was 60 years old when she was confirmed to the Supreme Court, after serving on the D.C. Court of Appeals and after a long career as professor at Rutgers and Columbia, and before that, as a powerhouse litigator for the ACLU. These days, newly appointed federal judges are, on average, in their 40s, with far less experience under their belts. Whether seated on the district courts, the appellate courts or the Supreme Court, these are lifetime positions, and we can expect that these younger judges will be making decisions from the bench for decades.
Now, we cannot simply mourn. What we can do is tell our senators, who advise and consent on federal judicial nominations, that any nominee to fill RBG’s vacancy should be properly vetted, and thoroughly reviewed. The nomination process must be dignified and respectful. We have the right to a justice with strong moral character, integrity and independence. A justice who recognizes the hardships of everyday Americans.
We ourselves get to vote on the other two branches of our government. To honor Ginsburg’s legacy, we must recognize our right and our responsibility to thoughtfully review the candidates, and cast our ballots for those who share our values.
We owe it to the memory of Justice Ginsburg.
Eleanor Levie is a volunteer advocate for the National Council of Jewish Women and chair of NCJW-PA’s BenchMark: NCJW’s Campaign for Federal Judicial Nominations.