Tamar Manasseh

The People Issue

The protector

Tamar Manasseh, an ordained rabbi, is the founder and president of anti-violence organization MASK (Mothers and Men Against Senseless Killings). Manasseh launched her latest initiative, We Are Jane, in response to the burgeoning reproductive rights crisis. Formed in the spirit of the Jane Collective, the grassroots Chicago organization that operated from 1969 until the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in 1973, the nonprofit is dedicated to providing information about safe abortion and connecting communities to resources and care. Find out more at wearejane.org.

Interview by Jamie Ludwig

Photos by Olivia Obineme

There’s a Jewish saying, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh,” or “All Israel for each other all the time.”

That is my core principle.

I grew up in Englewood, but I attended a Jewish day school in Hyde Park. It was like being in two different worlds every day. So Jews have this principle, but we don’t really use it unless we feel threatened. Then we tend to circle the wagons—just look at what’s happening with what Kanye said. At any other time, Jews are constantly bickering, but when there’s a threat we come together to support one another. Black people need that sense of commitment to others in our community, but that’s not necessarily something we’ve been taught. But that’s my guiding principle, and so I apply it to Black life.

A lot of people don’t understand why I do the things that I do, but we’re part of a community, so I have to care. I’m going to look out for you, I’m going to help you if you need me, I’m going to stand up for you if you need someone to stand up for you, I’m going to speak for you when you can’t speak for yourself. I’m going to do those things because that’s a thing that all Jews learn: We support each other. 

That’s reflected in my work. I don’t necessarily call myself an activist, because when you say you’re an activist a lot of people don’t get involved; they’re waiting for the activists to step up. I tell people all the time, “Look, I’m just a mom. I’m going to get involved because it’s all about ‘How do I save my kids?’” It’s important to know that anyone can be an activist and everyone should be an activist. There should be something that angers you to the point where you have to find a way to fix it. 

“We talk a lot about Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King being these great friends, however, they definitely didn’t live next door to each other. In Chicago, if you think about South Shore and the west side, there was a lot of white flight, and there were Jews that left and went to the North Shore and the suburbs because they didn’t want to live next door to Black people. And so there is still a certain amount of bias that we have to work on.

So, I don’t like to talk about what we did together 50 years ago. We had to do something. If Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel are the only clergy buddy team you can find, you’ve got to dig deeper. We’ve got to do better. But I talk all the time about Jews and Black people having the same monsters under their beds and how we need each other. White supremacy has been our problem since we got here, and now you have guys like those in Charlottesville with the tiki torches saying “Jews will not replace us.” All of these people hate both of us and are dangerous to both of us. So right now, more than ever, we need a coalition. We need real connection, because how else do we stand against that? There’s not enough Black people to stand against that alone, there’s not enough Jews, but we’re pretty formidable when we stand together. 

We were filming a movie [2020’s feature-length documentary about Manasseh, They Ain’t Ready for Me]. The cameraman and the producer, who are white and Jewish, my mother, and I were driving in rural, backwoods North Carolina. And the producer says, “I’m freaking out, we have to get back to civilization. . . . People who look like me shouldn’t be caught out here at night.” It dawned on me that, “Wait a minute, that’s something Black people normally say: I can’t be caught out here.” When I look at [my friend], it’s like, “You’re white—or you’re closer to being white than I am.” So for [him] to speak my fear. . . . We’re not the same, but we’re more alike than I knew before that moment.

I got involved [in MASK] because my friends were losing their children. There were so many young people being murdered it was like I was hearing about it three times a day. My daughter had a friend who was murdered. What if she’d been standing next to him? She could’ve been shot too. 

Literally everything for me—with MASK and with the Jane thing—goes back to Reverend Niemöller’s quote that you hear over and over again on Yom HaShoah [Holocaust Rememberance Day]: “They came for the socialists and I didn’t speak up, then they came for the trade unionists and I didn’t speak up, then they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak up, then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak up for me.” I’d see the violence on the west side. I didn’t live on the west side, so I didn’t care. But when you see it in front of your own home, it’s like, “Wait a minute, this is getting too close. It’s coming for me.” Before that happens, I have to do something to get in front of it. I feel like if I understand the problem, I can fix it. 

We’re all scared, but I’m always more afraid of what happens if I don’t get involved than what happens if I do.

Tamar Manasseh

I was thinking about different ways to go about that when a mom was murdered in a drive-by while she was breaking up a fight. It was early evening in the summer. It was still daylight. And the news reported that she was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” That really bothered me. If parents can’t parent because they’re afraid of being murdered, what happens? The entire community breaks down. That was the last straw. I knew enough about the streets to know that there would be a cycle of retaliation for somebody’s mother being killed. So, three days later, we went out there with barbecue grills and pink T-shirts. My theory was, “I don’t believe anybody wants to kill anyone with a group of mothers sitting on a corner watching them.” And they didn’t. It worked. We disrupted [the violence]. 

It’s the same thing with We Are Jane. In this country, every right that Black people have has come from the stroke of a pen. If you can start taking things away, you can take anything away. It doesn’t stop with same-sex marriage. It doesn’t stop with affirmative action. It doesn’t stop with interracial marriage. If you have a Supreme Court that has absolute power, there’s no reason for them to stop. If they’re saying they want a Christian nationalist America, how many of our rights have to be rescinded in order for them to get to that? A lot of them. 

That puts us all in danger. People can say, “I don’t support abortion. That’s not my thing.” OK, that’s cool. I get that. But it’s not just about your opinion—it’s so much bigger than that. Do you support 18-year-olds going to jail for murder? Do you support women dying? Are you for families being torn apart? Are you for girls having to drop out of college? Are you for rape victims being traumatized because they have to carry a baby of a rapist? Are you for women being suicidal? Because when you said, “I don’t support a woman’s right to choose,” that’s what you’re saying. There’s this whole litany of things that you’re saying you believe in that I don’t think you want to admit to—or maybe you don’t believe them, but you haven’t thought this through. 

Tamar Manasseh is an ordained rabbi and the founder of the anti-violence organization MASK and the pro-choice collective We Are Jane. Credit: Olivia Obineme for Chicago Reader

Black women and girls have abortions at a higher rates than other groups. And there are so many things that Black families are dealing with right now. You’re worried about how you’re going to pay your bills, and about inflation and the price of everything going up while your wages stay the same. And in Chicago, you’re worried about your safety and how you’re going to make it from day to day. 

So you’ve sent your kid away to college and you think they’re safe, but you’re not thinking about, “What happens if my daughter gets pregnant?” But they have to know what to do in case of an unplanned pregnancy. They can’t go to student health or Planned Parenthood when they’re away at school anymore. And they can’t let anybody know, because what if it gets to the authorities? [Think of] the mother and daughter in Nebraska, who were served with a warrant because they were talking about an abortion in their Facebook DMs. You could potentially have an 18-year-old honors’ student in their first year of college who got pregnant and came home to have an abortion. You think everything is good, but someone found out about it and ratted you out. And now your kid is fighting a murder case. Can you afford to pay a lawyer to fight a murder case?

It’s not just Black parents: it’s all parents who send their kids away to school in states where abortion is banned. And it’s not just college students. It can happen to anybody. It’s about womens’ health, period. When I was 16 I had to take birth control just to regulate my period. In some places I could’ve bled to death because I couldn’t get medication to fix the issue. It’s regular health care. You don’t have a problem when I have a root canal, but you have a problem with this?

Right now, we’re working on our We Really Care packages, which contain a pregnancy test, condoms, and a Plan B pill. We’re going to send them to girls who request them in states where they don’t have access to these things. Depending on the outcome of the test, we have enough partners now where, if you do need to have a procedure, we can put you in contact with the people who can get you transportation, who can get the procedure taken care of, who can take care of all of the different resources that you need. We have contacts in other states, and we have a really strong connection with students at different colleges and universities. So, it’s a grapevine thing, and it’s very underground. We’re not out advertising, but the word has spread.

Credit: Olivia Obineme for Chicago Reader

People in Chicago need to know that whatever this thing is, it’s coming for you. If you stand by and watch them take my rights away, they’re going to take yours away next. We’re all in this together. I feel like this is a dry run for whatever is coming next, and what happens depends on what kind of backlash and outrage that comes from this. When Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, there were women’s marches all over the country. There were pussy hats everywhere. But not now. Are we really saying we were more angry about Donald Trump becoming president than we are about having our bodily autonomy taken away? That can’t be.

You can’t remove yourself from this. There are women who still need hormones even after they’re out of their childbearing years. There are girls who need birth control pills to regulate their periods. There are all these different reasons that we need access to these medications. If we can’t get them because you say, “Hey, that could potentially cause an abortion,” are you trying to kill me? Some people feel like they don’t necessarily have a dog in the fight because they’re too old, or they don’t have any kids, or they never had an abortion, or any of those things. But this is a denial of basic women’s health, and I don’t think people get it.

How bad does it have to get before we do something? And who does it have to happen to for us to do something? We’re all scared, but I’m always more afraid of what happens if I don’t get involved than what happens if I do. That terrifies me.

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