The first time I met Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Z’’l) (zikhronah livrakhah, of Blessed Memory), she was not yet a Supreme Court Justice.
The year was 1991, and I was a second year law student at Harvard Law School. I had just learned that I was a newly selected editor of the The Harvard Law Review, and entrance to this exclusive reception with Judge Ginsburg of the Court of Appeals of the DC Circuit was the first of many invitation-only Law Review networking events to follow. It was exciting but somewhat overwhelming stuff for me, a Wisconsin native who earned my spending money as a cocktail waitress while attending college at Stanford.
There I was at the reception in a meeting hall at Harvard Law School, under-dressed, waiting to have an opportunity to shake Judge Ginsburg’s hand. I wanted to thank her for her amazing work expanding the reach of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection under the law to protect women, mostly by filing lawsuits on behalf of men. I had many questions about this strategy of using men as plaintiffs. How did she choose her fact patterns? How did she gauge her timing? Does she still recommend these types of subversive yet effective strategies? So many questions!
Unfortunately, reaching Judge Ginsburg’s ear proved challenging. My fellow Law Review editors - an overwhelmingly male bunch - demonstrated an interest I never observed in them prior to that day: that of hearing a woman speak. These male editors treated the opportunity to monopolize Judge Ginsburg’s attention exactly as they treated everything else: a competitive sport, manners, morality, and common courtesy be damned.
I stood in a semi-circle around Judge Ginsburg with these competitive, newly-interested-in-hearing-a woman-speak men, waiting for my turn to talk. I waited, and waited, and waited. Every time I tried to ask a question, one of the men cut me off, interrupting me and speaking over me. It was embarrassing, insulting, and frustrating. I was ready to give up.
Finally, Judge Ginsburg stopped answering the men’s questions. She took a breath, looked at my name tag, and asked, “Rebecca, what are your thoughts?” And all of a sudden the 100 questions I had collected in my mind, lining up for consideration for when I finally had a chance to say something, vanished. I smiled. The Judge noticed me. She wanted to hear me. At that moment, I had no questions. I only had joy.
Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg saw the men try to silence me.
She gave me a voice.
This was the experience that came to my mind when in August, 1993, shortly after my law school graduation, I read that President Bill Clinton had elevated Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. I marveled at the thought of how many voices RBG could validate on the Highest Court of the land. I sat down, and I cried.
During her 27 years on the Supreme Court, RBG gave countless silenced people a voice. She gave a voice to all women and children, whom the law continues to overlook. She gave a voice to people of color facing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, and language. She gave a voice to the disabled community, to working families, to low wage workers, to victims of environmental injustice, and to the LGBTQIA+ community. She gave a voice to everyone everywhere who has been exploited by unfair laws, and who have been silenced by a broken, stacked capitalism, white supremacy, and the patriarchy that tried so hard to hold her back - but failed.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did her incredibly important work up until the day she died - the last day of the Jewish Year 5780. At one of the vigils that my husband Curtis and I attended tonight, Cantor Jaime Shpall at our beloved Congregation Beth Am remarked that Justice Ginsburg’s passing on the last day of the Jewish Year demonstrates how truly holy RBG was. I agree.
I also hope, deeply, that RBG’s passing on the last day of 5780 can serve as a bookend to a year that was truly, on all accounts, unprecedentedly disastrous. I hope that Justice Ginsburg's passing in 5780 can signal the start of a much better year, and much better times, for all of us - but in particular for the people that RBG served each and every day: the silenced.
Whether positive change comes tomorrow, or whether it takes a little longer, I know that we all can agree that the memory of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be a blessing to us all, always.
Todah Rabah, Shofetet Bader Ginsburg. Hayita Orah tamid tizerakh. And: L'Shanah Tovah Umetukah.