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Boundaries Blur As Women’s March On Washington Nears

Boundaries Blur As Women’s March On Washington Nears

Cross-section of Jewish women to protest Trump policies; battle is Jewish, not just political issue, they say.

Hannah Dreyfus is a former staff writer at the New York Jewish Week.

Members of the National Council of Jewish Women at a recent reproductive rights rally in front of the Supreme Court. Courtesy of NCJW
Members of the National Council of Jewish Women at a recent reproductive rights rally in front of the Supreme Court. Courtesy of NCJW

Leah Sarna, 25, an Orthodox rabbinical student from Manhattan, is a strict Sabbath observer. But on Saturday, she’ll be marching through the streets of the nation’s capital with as many as 200,000 others to challenge the incoming administration of Donald J. Trump.

Sarna will be participating in the Women’s March on Washington, a project that began with a Facebook page just hours after Trump’s election and quickly developed into a large movement. Marchers are protesting a presidential campaign many women’s groups felt was replete with sexism, and are also looking ahead to pending Trump administration policies — including slashing federal funding for Planned Parenthood, repealing the Affordable Healthcare Act and appointing a Supreme Court justice opposed to abortion rights — that many fear will imperil women.

Though some Sabbath observers were dissuaded from attending the Saturday morning march, Sarna told The Jewish Week that she could not think of a more “Shabbat-appropriate activity.”

“Judaism has very strong ideas about sexual ethics and embracing the stranger,” said Sarna, referring to Trump’s previous statements about his admitted predatory behavior toward women, as well as his criticisms of minority groups, including immigrants and Muslims. “Trump’s actions have repeatedly defied these values. We have to stand up against that.”

Not only her identity as a woman, but also her identity as a Jewish woman will be on the forefront of her consciousness during the march. “These are not just women’s issues — they’re Jewish issues. The voice of the Torah itself commands us to treat one another with respect.”

Sarna is one of thousands of Jewish marchers from across denominations who are expected to converge on D.C. for the march. Marchers will be traveling by plane, train and bus, and many who keep Shabbat will be traveling on Friday and staying throughout the inauguration weekend. While some, like Sarna, are going on their own, organizations including T’ruah, the rabbinic human rights advocacy group, Jews United for Justice, a progressive Maryland-based group, and the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) are sending down significant contingencies. (NCJW is a co-sponsor of the march and the only faith-based organization on the policy committee.)

Many see the march as a way to try to stave off an impending war on women some fear Trump’s presidency will unleash. The battle, according to group leaders, is not just a political one, but a Jewish one.

“We are all coming together at this pivotal moment to demonstrate that we will fight any effort to roll back the clock on access to health care coverage, our reproductive rights, the safety and security of immigrant groups and the policies and programs serving women, children and families and preventing them from falling beneath the safety net,” wrote Nancy Kaufman, chief executive officer of NCJW, a national volunteer organization that has championed women’s rights and reproductive freedom for over a century.

The group is expecting “hundreds” of members from around the country to show, Kaufman said in an email exchange.

Rabbi Shira Stutman, senior rabbi of Sixth & I, a pluralistic synagogue within walking distance from the White House and Independence Avenue, where the march will take place, said that the volume of Jewish groups coming together for the march is “unique.” Though her synagogue has taken part in many rallies and protests because of its location, Rabbi Stutman described the upcoming march as “unusual.”

“This is unique,” she said, speaking to The Jewish Week by phone. For the past two months, the synagogue has been collaborating with several other Jewish organizations to provide meaningful Shabbat programming, services and meals to marchers. Over the course of the Women’s March weekend, the synagogue is anticipating over 1,000 visitors.

“We hope our synagogue can create an eye of the storm for visitors,” she said. Shabbat afternoon activities will include yoga and meditation and a justice-fueled learning track; the shul hopes to end Shabbat with a musical Havdalah.

For those “disappointed” by the election results, the cross-denominational Jewish unity surrounding the march is “a beautiful silver lining,” said Rabbi Stutman.

Gather the Jews, an organization that helps facilitate Jewish life in Washington for 20- and 30-somethings, is organizing housing accommodations for many of the Jewish young adults heading to the march. The influx of requests — particularly from those looking for Shabbat observant accommodations — is “unprecedented,” said Rachel Gildiner, the organization’s director.

“It’s safe to say that everything since November has been relatively unprecedented,” Gildiner told The Jewish Week. Though the organization was “never in the business of housing before,” it has been working around the clock to set up dozens of individuals with comfortable accommodations.

Iris Richman, a Conservative rabbi from Manhattan, started a Facebook group to coordinate logistics for Sabbath-observant women traveling to the march from New York. The group now has over 150 members.

“There’s an ‘occupy’ air to this,” said Richman, speaking to the Jewish Week on the phone, referring to the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests. “We are going to make our presence known. There are very clear Jewish mandates about protecting the vulnerable — we as women are among them.”

The Women’s March on New York City will take place simultaneously with the D.C. rally. The outpouring of cross-denominational interest in the New York City march — from Orthodox to Reform to Renewal — has been “tremendous,” said Shana Roskies, one of the organizers of the “Jewish feeder march,” a group of representatives from Upper West Side synagogues who will join the New York protesters as they march from the United Nations to Trump Tower. Roskies expects her group to be joined by up to 500 Jewish marchers from 14 different New York institutions and synagogues, including the Barnard/Columbia Hillel, the Manhattan JCC, and several synagogues in lower Manhattan. (The New York march is anticipating up to 20,000 marchers, reports say.)

“We march to protect the civil rights and dignity of all people,” said Roskies. Creating an “experience that is conducive to the Sabbath” was prime on the agenda. Several of the participating synagogues will hold early services before the morning march, and participants will converge at B’nai Jeshurun, a leading independent congregation on the Upper West Side, for speeches and rallies preceding the march. “We are marching as Jews, and thereby affirming the Jewish values that undergird this march,” she said, quoting the biblical injunction to the “love the stranger.”

“Like many Jews this Shabbat, I will be praying with my legs,” said Dana Levinson, the senior associate of leadership and strategic partnership at the Bronfman Center at NYU. At the march, she will be leading a group of Jewish students from NYU and other universities in Lower Manhattan. As she marches, the words and example of the civil rights activist and iconic Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel will be on her mind. “We, too, will walk for those who feel their prayers can’t be heard.”

Regarding the D.C. march, young women from across denominations talked about attending in order to find solidarity. Amelia Wolf, 25, a Brooklyn resident who describes herself as “traditionally egalitarian,” said she is going “to just be with other people who are upset.”

“Just being angry is worthy of us all being there together,” she said. “There’s something about knowing that the man who is going to be our president interacts with half of the population as objects that does not permit inaction.”

Sophia Weinstock, 21, a Columbia University senior and vocal Jew of color, said she is going as a person of color, a woman, and a Jew. The women’s march official policy platform places significant focus on promoting racial justice and putting an end to police brutality, racial profiling and targeting communities of color.

“I can’t choose one hat,” said Weinstock, daughter of an Ashkenazi father and African-American mother. “My background is just too rich and intertwined. For me, I’m marching for my sisters. I’m marching for promise of a better future for them. Being a Jew of color in the current environment is tough, and I’ve seen the negatively of a world of hate firsthand. So, if I were to choose a hat, my hat would be that of hope and justice.”

Dasha Sominski, 23, an LGBTQ advocate and a Russian Jewish immigrant, said that she feels her identity is being threatened on several levels by the incoming administration.

“This presidency really does assault all parts of me — my womanhood, Jewishness, immigrant status and queerness,” she wrote to The Jewish Week. She and her girlfriend will attend the march together. “I’m walking in solidarity to those threatened by this new world.”

Channa Gila Ovits, 28, a medical intern and an Orthodox mother, is leaving her toddler son behind for the weekend to attend the D.C. march. As an Orthodox Jew, she feels a tremendous weight of responsibility to protest the incoming administration because a significant faction of the Orthodox community voted for Trump.

“As a Jew, I cannot look myself in the mirror and stand by,” said Ovits. As a medical professional, she is particularly concerned about Trump’s promises regarding health care access and women’s reproductive choice. “Anyone who has been horrified by things Trump has said, done or promised bears the weight of responsibility not to sit and do nothing.”

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