Jewish Women Remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Tiny Brooklyn Jurist Who Inspired Them

The late justice's uncommon story began with a familiar New York upbringing.

Admirers of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg paid tribute to her memory Sunday outside her former home on East 9th Street in Midwood, Brooklyn, Sept. 21, 2020. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

Dr. Rita Clark, an octogenarian and resident of Midwood, Brooklyn for over five decades, was asked the same question as Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she interviewed at medical schools in the 1950s: “How do you justify taking the place of a man?”

As one of nine female students at Harvard Law School in 1956 among about 500 men, Ginsburg — who died Friday at age 87 — was famously chastised by the law school’s dean for taking an admission slot that could have gone to a man.

“Aside from her being an inspiration and a brilliant mind, that’s how I identify with Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” said Dr. Clark, a psychiatrist who sent her two daughters to preschool at the same synagogue where Ginsberg attended Hebrew school as a child.

Clark was among the hundreds of New York-area Jews who took Ginsburg’s death on the eve of Rosh Hashanah as akin to a personal loss. The late justice, who loomed larger than life for many Brooklyn natives and young, particularly female professionals, was an “inspiration” to Clark, who said she was “shocked and upset” to learn of her passing two days ago. “She was doing everything she could to stay alive.”

Growing up in Gravesend, Brooklyn as the Jewish daughter of a milkman and a self-made insurance broker, neither of whom had more than an elementary school graduation, Clark grew up with a singular focus on education similar to Ginsburg’s: “the main thing was that we had to go to college and maybe become a teacher,” said Clark. At the time, the idea of a woman becoming a doctor or lawyer was “preposterous,” she said.

As the New York Jewish community and the nation struggle with the repercussions of Ginsburg’s death — as both a cultural icon and a revered progressive voice on a conservative-majority Supreme Court — her identities as a Brooklynite, Jewish woman, pragmatic feminist and dedicated mother and wife came to the fore.

“As a Jewish female lawyer, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had an enormous impact on my career,” said Mirah Curzer, a New York-based attorney and the immediate past co-chair of the New York City Bar Association’s Sex and Law Committee, a position held by Ginsburg from 1978-79. “Professionally, I am incredibly honored to carry on her legacy. We need to keep moving her work forward.”

Curzer, 32, said she believes the “most important and least talked about” part of Ginsburg’s legacy was her work to advance gender equality at home and in the workplace.

“Early on, Ginsburg realized creating true gender equality under the law meant enabling men to take on half of the domestic labor,” said Curzer, who says she credits much of her own career success to her “husband’s support of my career.” (Her husband, Rabbi Joshua Stanton, serves as the rabbi at East End Temple in Manhattan.) “He’s made sacrifices for my career,” Curzer said.

Curzer also noted the “incremental changes” Ginsburg worked towards over the course of decades. “As the immediate shock wears off, we can appreciate the depth and scope of her accomplishments and the path she laid out for those who want to move gender equity forward.”

‘I Dissent’

Ginsburg’s legacy is cross generational. Nine-year-old Noa Lwowski, a fourth grade student at Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy (SAR) in the Bronx, said she spent much of Saturday crying when she found out that Justice Ginsburg, who she considers a personal role model and hero, had died. On Monday, she wore her RBG shirt to school, she said. (She also has an RBG mask, mug and graphic novel.)

Noa Lwowski, a fourth grade student at SAR, saw Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a role model. (Courtesy)

“She showed me how one person can change the world,” said Lwowski, who spent much of Sunday’s outdoor Rosh Hashanah service studying her graphic novel honoring the late Supreme Court Justice. “She didn’t only fight for women’s rights. She fought for men’s rights too.”

(Ginsburg argued the 1975 landmark gender discrimination case, Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, in which she helped a male widower earn access to his wife’s social security benefits.)

Lwowski also said Ginsburg’s now-iconic use of the phrase “I dissent” taught her about a “growth-mindset.” She first learned about Ginsburg from the children’s book “I Dissent,” which details some of Ginsburg’s landmark cases. “She taught me it’s about not giving up,” said Lwowski.

Rahel Bayar, Lowoski’s mother, is herself an attorney in the field of sexual misconduct and a former sex crimes and child abuse prosecutor from the Bronx District Attorney’s Office. “As a lawyer with a focus on justice in my own career, it has been very cool to see this innate interest piqued by a Supreme Court justice,” said Bayar.

Rachel Weiss, a New York-based attorney practicing matrimonial and family law, said she has been “crying on and off for days” since Ginsburg’s death.

Rachel Weiss and her husband dressed up as former Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia for Purim in 2016. (Courtesy.)

“She was part and parcel of the reason I went to law school,” said Weiss, who also grew up in Brooklyn. “She was a role model for me of what a Jewish woman can accomplish while also having a family.”

Weiss, who is “just under 5-feet-tall,” said she sometimes jokes that she can be the “next RBG” — I’m a Jewish lawyer, from Brooklyn and we were both about the same height,” she said. (Ginsburg stood 5’1′”.)

Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University who specializes in the history of New York, said that Ginsburg — as the daughter of first- and second-generation  Americans, a graduate of P.S. 238 and James Madison High School (class of 1950), and a former member of the East Midwood Jewish Center — typified the early life of a lower middle class Jewish New Yorker in the post-war period.

(Clergy at the synagogue, a historic Conservative congregation, did not respond to requests for comment before this article was published, although The New York Times reported that on Saturday the rabbi read an essay written by Ginsburg for the shul bulletin when she was 13.)

“At the time, many Jewish families were moving out of the Lower East Side and Harlem and into Brooklyn,” said Gurock. “Ruth Bader would have been a typical student at her local public high school. Fifty to 60 percent of her fellow students were likely Jewish at the time.”

Ginsburg’s path diverged from many of her peers when she attended an Ivy League university, Cornell, on a scholarship, said Gurock.  “The most likely destination for Jewish kids was Brooklyn College,” who noted that the immediate generation of women prior to Ginsburg “weren’t college bound.”

“Cornell had a reputation of not being very amenable to Jewish students,” said Gurock. “Her decision to go there was unlike many of her Jewish peers. To some extent, she began trailblazing as an undergraduate.”

She graduated from Cornell in 1954 with a bachelor of arts degree in government; she also met her husband Martin “Marty” Ginsburg while both were students there.

Melanie Goldberg, a clerk at the New York State Appellate Division, First Department and a young mother, grew up around the block from Ginsburg’s childhood home.

“I’ve never been prouder to say I grew up in Midwood than when I learned to add ‘right near where RBG did,’” she said. “To me, she broke all the norms of her generation.” As a Modern Orthodox Jew and a female public interest lawyer, Golberg said Justice Ginsburg “inspired me to also break the norms.”

“Her success showed me that being a leader is about funneling your passions for justice, not shying away from confrontation,” she said, noting Justice Ginsburg’s famous friendship with fellow justice and ideological opposite Antonin Scalia. “She taught me that your happiness is connected to your choices, and your choices matter. So make them meaningful.”

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