- Rachael Pass became pregnant in her second year of rabbinical school and chose to have an abortion.
- She described her experience as "deeply Jewish" and filled with religious study and ritual.
- After becoming a rabbi, she started sharing her story in sermons, calling her abortion a blessing.
As questions about healthcare and religious freedom spur protests around the country, Rabbi Rachael Pass says her abortion was a sacred choice — one she is faithfully fighting to help protect for others.
In 2017, as a rabbinical student in her second year, Rabbi Pass accidentally conceived on the second night of Rosh Hashanah. She took a pregnancy test to confirm her suspicions weeks later on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, a Jewish holiday that occurs at the beginning of every month in the Hebrew calendar, marked by the new moon.
"The very first thing that I thought to do after reading the positive pregnancy test was to say the blessing that you say after using the bathroom," Pass told Insider, describing a prayer of gratitude for good health, asher yatzar. "Like, everything about my decision was Jewish."
Pass said her religious study and rituals were central to her pregnancy, the decision to terminate, and finally her decision to have an abortion: She prayed. She consulted her own rabbi. She studied the religious texts of the Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud for any reference to abortion.
The Torah, also called Jewish Written Law, contains the five books of the Hebrew Bible and is known more commonly to non-Jews as the "Old Testament." The Mishnah is the first major work of Jewish literature and contains oral traditions and commentaries known as the "Oral Torah." The Talmud is the primary source of Jewish religious law and Jewish theology.
Faith and the First Amendment
Jewish law does not hold the belief shared by many abortion opponents that life begins at conception. A 2015 Pew Research survey found that 83 percent of American Jews believe abortion "should be legal in all/most cases" — more than any other religious group. Even in conservative readings of Jewish texts, the faith largely protects — and in some cases, requires — abortion. As such, many Jewish organizations have argued that extreme abortion bans are violations of their First Amendment rights to practice their religion freely.
"Bodily autonomy is extraordinarily important and is extraordinarily valued in all walks of Judaism," Pass said. "And so the fact that the Dobbs decision limits access to abortion, it really does affect Jews' First Amendment right to freedom of religion."
After much consideration, as she held four misoprostol pills in the corners of her mouth to induce her abortion, she hummed along to a liturgy streamed by Central Synagogue Services, a reform congregation in Manhattan.
After her abortion, Pass visited a cleansing Jewish ritual bath, usually visited by observant women seven days after their period, called the mikvah, and ate challah and honey — a symbol of sweeter times ahead.
"The challah and honey was sort of the last piece of that ritual. I mean, really, everything about it was Jewish and it was progressive Judaism in some sense," Pass said. "But also, the more I learned and studied, the more I discovered that it was like, my decision was in line with more conservative Judaism as well."
Though Pass said Jewish people may face a unique violation of their religious freedom by the overturning of Roe v. Wade, removing choices for reproductive care concerns all people.
"My concern for Jews is the same concern that I have for every person with a uterus living in America."
Without access to abortion, Pass said, her life would look totally different. She worries about people who have lost choices for reproductive care and those whose physical and mental health will suffer under new laws.
Others have had 'deeply Jewish abortions' as well
Despite being raised in a pro-choice household and feeling both sure of her decision and believing it was the right one for her, Pass said she experienced some feelings of secrecy and shame following her abortion that she traced, in part, to a sense of pressure and internalized "Christian hegemony" from growing up in Kentucky, which is 76% Christian.
It was when she began feeling like she was keeping her abortion a secret, rather than just a private matter, that she decided it was important to begin sharing her story and wrote an essay about abortion rights for a Jewish publication.
As Pass began to share her experience, in sermons and at community events, she said the feelings of shame were replaced by ones of purpose. She had originally been inspired to go to rabbinical school after her own rabbi counseled her in a time of need, and found she was able to pay that support forward while counseling people about abortion and faith as they make their own choices around pregnancy.
"My abortion was deeply Jewish and I'm certainly not the only one [who has had one]," Pass said. "I know plenty of other Jews who I talk to, both in my research and in my writing of my articles, and just by people I know, who have had deeply Jewish abortions as well."
Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, she has felt more compelled to organize, fundraise and share her perspective — that abortion can be a blessing and a choice born of great faith — with others.
"I think it's really important for people to hear a rabbinic voice who chose to have an abortion," Pass said. "Not because of a horrible medical reason, but because pregnancy wasn't right for me for a lot of other reasons."