When “Social Justice” Is An Inward-Facing Act

Rabbi Jaclyn Fromer Cohen, JCJ Supporter

The first meaningful Jewish concept I remember learning was that of “mitzvah.” Like generations of Jewish children before me, I was taught that a mitzvah was a good deed – something you did to be a mensch. I remember so vividly a Shabbat service from my youth when a girl from the grade above me at our Jewish day school was brought onto the bimah and publicly praised for her act of generosity: while riding the Friday bus home, stopped at a stoplight, she handed her family’s challah through the window to a homeless person standing with a cardboard sign reading, “Help Please.” A true mitzvah! the rabbi proclaimed. We were in absolute awe.

While it was only a handful of years before I learned the true definition of mitzvah – not “good deed” but “commandment” – my awe never waned. Doing good for others was – and still is! – this huge, bright shining pillar of my Jewish identity. Indeed, the term “social justice” is as meaningful to my generation of Jewish leaders as intentional prayer or the study of Torah. Yet for the longest time I saw social justice as strictly outward-facing: helping those less fortunate, who I might never meet. Supporting causes in far-away countries in which I’d never live. Promoting initiatives to help those whose stories were so vastly different than my own. While all these are profound and important, it did not register until my tumultuous early months of parenthood that social justice could just as significantly be an inward-facing, deeply personal act.

Everything in my life shifted when we welcomed our son Avi in December 2015. And yes, our friends and family repeatedly told us our lives would change completely once we welcomed a child. But for me, those early weeks of motherhood went far beyond the pale of normal “baby blues,” and it took a diagnosis of severe postpartum depression to make what I was going through painfully, shockingly real. Yet – I was lucky. I had excellent health insurance, access to treatment, a hugely supportive husband, fiercely loyal squad and twelve weeks of fully paid leave during which I could recover. Sadly, not everyone facing a postpartum illness is so fortunate.

In the two years since our son was born, I’ve become a passionate advocate for women’s health, particularly maternal mental health. I’ve told our family’s story publicly and intentionally, published articles and used my voice to raise awareness in the Jewish community and beyond. The statistics are staggering – the CDC estimates that up to 1 in 5 women experience a postpartum mood disorder following the birth or adoption of a child, yet countless women (and men) go untreated, leading to enormous challenges further down the road. I’ve made it my mission to destigmatize, educate and advocate for women’s health and I am honored to partner with Jewish Center for Justice in this sacred work.

Join me on Sunday April 15 for “Hear Her, Heal Her: A Jewish Conversation on Women’s Health,” the opening event for Jewish Wisdom and Wellness Week sponsored by the Kalsman Institute at HUC-JIR and Cedars-Sinai. This panel of clergy and medical professionals will address how each of us can take a role within this growing conversation around women’s health: mental, physical and spiritual. I hope you’ll join as we collectively turn inward and ask how we can be part of a change for good.

Rabbi Jaclyn F. Cohen is a JCJ Supporter and will join the Temple Isaiah team this summer.