It doesn’t take longer than a minute or two to recognize a foundational truth about Gabrielle “Gaby” Beck. The 18-year-old, who graduated from Tenafly High School in June, is beginning her freshman year at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. She is super passionate and determined to tackle issues that are important to her.
What Ms. Beck believes is that a woman should have the right to choose what she does with her own body and that she should have access to abortion services and reproductive healthcare services. Full stop.
Ms. Beck is one of 10 young Jewish women who was awarded a scholarship this year by the Bergen County section) of the National Council of Jewish Women. (For a list of names, see the box.) Among other criteria, the awardees — all high school seniors set to go off to a four-year college — must have played a significant role in school or community activities. Ms. Beck surely did. As she describes herself, she was the first youth liaison for the Tenafly Board of Health, where she worked to incorporate youth perspectives in local policymaking. She also is the co-chair of the Association of Maternal and Child Health’s Youth Voice Amplified Committee, where she designed a town hall on covid-19 vaccinations for teens and public health professionals that provided accurate information to help teens make healthy choices.
Considering all that, there was no question that Ms. Beck fit the NCJW’s bill, as was apparent at the award ceremony that was held just before the section’s June board meeting.
As Bari-Lynne Schwartz of Little Falls, the Bergen County section’s honorary vice president, tells it, “There was a screen set up because after the award ceremony, we were planning on showing a video about a rally that had occurred a week before. On the screen was the title of the video: “Jewish Rally for Abortion Justice.” Most of the other awardees had left, but Gaby came up to the podium where I was standing and said, ‘I’m very interested in abortion rights and justice. How can I help?’”
Ms. Beck, who intends to double major in neuroscience and public policy in order to design healthcare systems that will provide health equity for all communities, especially the underserved, said that she wanted to do something that would advance the conversation. After some brief discussion, the decision was made to hold a town hall-type meeting that would include women of all ages, from Gen Zers — the demographic for people born between 1997 and 2012 — to baby boomers. Ms. Beck moderated the meeting, which was held on Zoom earlier this month and called “Across Generations: The Impact of the Roe Decision.”
The panel also included Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck, the recently retired New Jersey state senator who was that body’s majority leader; Helen Archontou, CEO of the YWCA Northern New Jersey in Hackensack; and Lillian Corcoran, executive director of the Women’s Rights Information Center in Englewood.
Ms. Beck opened the program by pointing out that the hard-fought rights of her grandmother’s generation, which were secured half a century ago and exercised by women since, had been taken away by the Supreme Court in a 6 to 3 decision when it ruled that regulations about abortion should be left to the individual states. That ruling had been expected since February, when a memo, written by Justice Samuel Alito — who happens to be from New Jersey — outlined his views in a draft memo that said, in effect, that Roe v. Wade was no longer considered settled law.
“The day I walked into school after the Supreme Court draft leak I noticed deafening silence in hallways and classrooms,” Ms. Beck said. She felt it was essential that there be a safe place where students could hear competing views and then gain a better understanding of the nuances of Roe v. Wade. “Many members of my school community were unaware of the repercussions of overturning Roe or just wanted to hear and listen to other people’s perspective. It was incredibly important to be candid and vulnerable while navigating through. At times the conversations were both heavy and difficult.” She made the point that people must listen to each other “so we can learn from each other.”
Ms. Weinberg talked about the shock of Roe v. Wade being overturned. “I feel like after 35 years in public life, I am sitting back and watching much of what we worked for dismantled,” she said. “That is very disheartening.”
People who are living in New Jersey have grown too comfortable, she added. Everyone thinks that women’s reproductive rights always will be guaranteed under the state’s laws.. But any law the state passes, no matter what freedoms it guarantees, can be superseded by legislation passed in Congress; under our constitution, federal law trumps state law. That’s why “we need to make sure that our Gen Zers are educated and become involved and stay involved. They need to understand what’s at risk for them.” But Ms. Weinberg said she took heart in Ms. Beck’s commitment to the fight..
Everyone has to understand the risk, and everyone does have to fight, Ms. Schwartz said; the overarching message of the panel discussion was that people must get out and vote.
Because the Supreme Court has left the question of abortion to the states, Tennessee, where Ms. Beck will matriculate, has mandated that abortion is illegal from fertilization on. If a majority of U.S. senators and members of Congress decide to enact similarly draconian laws across the country, New Jersey no longer will be able to preserve its residents’ access to abortion.
Ms. Weinberg worries that not enough people realize this. “Some young people in New Jersey don’t yet feel threatened, or as threatened as they should feel,” she said. She agrees with Ms. Schwartz that people who believe in a woman’s right to choose must get out and vote. “It’s important that our young people are educated and become involved and stay involved.”
Ms. Beck fully understands that risk. She made the decision to go to Vanderbilt in deep Red Tennessee before the Supreme Court Roe decision came down. She hasn’t changed her mind. She noted that although in general public opinion in Tennessee seems to be against access to abortion and a woman’s right to choose, Nashville is relatively liberal and the university’s students generally understand what’s going on in the world around them.
“I’ve always been active in school activities and I intend to be active at Vanderbilt as well,” Ms. Beck said. “The student government is currently creating a reproductive access task force to ensure that they can provide funds for someone who might have to travel across state lines for an abortion.
“I hope to work at some of the local high schools and talk about the importance of voting and being politically aware. I want to show kids that they can use the power of their own voices to act for the great good.”
Those voices must be loud, Ms. Weinberg said.
The women of NCJW know that. Their advocacy for women’s rights is ongoing. The conversation will continue in an in-person meeting at Temple Emeth in Teaneck on September 20. Louise Melling, the ACLU’s deputy legal director and the director of its Ruth Bader Ginsburg Center of Liberty, will talk about “Post-Dobbs: What’s Ahead.”
These young women won scholarships from the Bergen County section of the National Council of Jewish Women:
Brooke Ackerman, Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan
Ariana Altman, River Dell High School
Gabrielle Beck, Tenafly High School
Isabel Dubov, Tenafly High School
Gabriella Goldberg, Ramapo High School
Jessica Ilin, Bergen Academy
Hayley Leopold, River Dell High School
Leehe Peleg, Bergen County Academies
Erinn Rebhun, River Dell High School
Bailey Topfer, Tenafly High School