Supreme Court justice shares Jewish perspective with Tehiyah students

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, she refused to sign the required documents because it read “in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The text changed soon after the Jewish justice joined the bench. Also thanks to her influence, the court no longer meets on Yom Kippur.

Forty-one students from Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito learned about this from the source during a trip to Washington, D.C., Oct. 23 to 27.

The eighth-graders traveled to the nation’s capital as the cherry on top of their American history class lessons. Each year eighth-graders make the trip, and for the past five, they’ve met at the Supreme Court with Ginsburg. The tradition was established after a student’s parent connected the justice with Tehiyah staff.

This year, four students made Ginsburg a tallit and presented it to her after she answered their questions. Embroidered in gold on the hand-painted blue silk were the words “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (in English, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” from Deuteronomy).

“Four of us embroidered or sewed the corners so we could put the tzitzit through,” said Marnina Wirtschafter, a 13-year-old from Berkeley. “We were really proud of it.”

Ironically, before the students presented her with the gift, Ginsburg told them that very phrase has been one of her guiding principles in her work on the Supreme Court.”

Students asked her numerous questions. One asked if she used the Torah as a guide for making decisions. She replied that she’s proud of her Jewish heritage, has a strong Jewish identity and values her education in Jewish history and texts. She also talked about how when she first graduated from law school, no one wanted to hire her because she was Jewish, a woman and a mother.

“I am not sure I’d want to be a justice, but talking to her made the law a lot more interesting,” said Rachel Budker, a 13-year-old from El Cerrito.

The students’ encounter with a Supreme Court justice is a rarity. Bruce Taylor, the students’ history teacher, said a 25-year veteran tour guide told them she’d never heard of a school getting to meet with a justice.

“Out of 300 million Americans, most of us will never have the chance to question a Supreme Court justice,” he said. “I think it’s a real privilege and honor … She’s a model for many of our kids. She’s Jewish, a woman and she’s overcome obstacles and gone on to do great things.”

In all, seven Jewish justices have served on the Supreme Court, starting with Louis Brandeis in 1916. Ginsburg is the only Jewish woman to have sat on the bench. She was born in 1933 to immigrant parents and grew up in New York. They were somewhat observant and attended Conservative synagogues in Queens and Brooklyn.

Ginsburg was frustrated at a young age by gender inequality. In an interview for the radio series “Only in America: A Celebration of the American Jewish Experience,” she said she couldn’t understand why her male cousins could have a bar mitzvah but she could not. She also experienced overt anti-Semitism and was often called names as a child. Once she was at a bed and breakfast in Pennsylvania and saw a sign that said, “No dogs or Jews allowed.”

Still, she has remained proud of her heritage throughout her tenure in the American legal and justice system.

“I am a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew,” Ginsburg wrote in an essay for the Jewish Woman’s Archive. “The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I hope that in all the years I have the good fortune to continue serving on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States I will have the strength and courage to remain steadfast in the service of that demand.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.