The Monday morning after Saturday’s women’s marches in Washington, D.C., here in New York and more than 670 other locations across the globe, Rabbi Joanna Samuels led a modern civic ritual at the Manny Cantor Center on the Lower East Side, where she serves as executive director.
“Today and every day,” she told a group of local residents, “We will work together to reclaim the narrative of America, a country of dignity, kindness and respect,” an apparent rejoinder to some of the divisive rhetoric expressed by President Donald Trump. She helped unveil a mural with the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence in five languages, designed by artist Otis Kriegel. Those gathered were invited to sign the mural “to radiate a message of welcome and love.”
In the hours since the women’s marches brought out more than a million people, with more than 400,000 in New York City, another rally has been called for via Twitter; the April 15 rally aims to pressure President Trump to release his tax returns, and a new grassroots group called “Our First Hundred Days” has been born. A pluralistic group of rabbis and activists, which took part in a Shabbat-friendly march along Broadway on the Upper West Side and then merged with the larger New York effort, has begun looking for ways to capitalize on the marches’ momentum and high energy.
“We’re going to create multiple pathways for our entire community to take to heart those words from Rabbi Tarfon — that we’ve been saying all our lives: ‘You are not responsible for completing the task of perfecting the world, nor are you free to desist from it,’” Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of JCC Manhattan, said.
“I think that many of us felt uncertain about how to do that, and what Saturday’s march did was remind us that we’ve built an extraordinary community, and it will put us in good stead right now,” she said. “This a moment in which we need the sum to be greater than the parts — that’s the real value of community.”
Rabbi Levitt served as master of ceremonies at a rally at B’nai Jeshurun just prior to the UWS march, with a standing-room-only crowd of 1,100 people — from a range of denominations and congregations from the Upper West Side and beyond — and another 400 lined up outside. The tone of the rally was upbeat, and there was little, if any, direct mention of the new American president.
Featured speakers included Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who represents portions Manhattan and Brooklyn, and Rabbi Sari Laufer of Congregation Rodeph Sholom. Nadler, who got a standing ovation, made a reference to upholding women’s rights to their “reproductive activities,” but he and the subsequent speakers emphasized human rights, social justice and empathy.
Rabbi Samuels offered a dvar Torah linking women’s activism to the week’s Torah portion of Shemot, in which Hebrew midwives reject Pharaoh’s order to kill all male newborns, and Rabbi Shai Held, president and dean of Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian educational institution, spoke of values of equality, and the Jewish obligation to help the widow, the orphan and the stranger, also translated as immigrant or refugee.
Two days later, when asked about next steps, Rabbi Held said, “We have to make it clear to elected officials what we want them to stand in the way of. When Trump appoints someone unfit, we have to make sure that our elected officials know how to represent us. But in the event of, let’s say, Trump trying to overturn DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] and deport the children of undocumented immigrants, I’m more than willing to go to jail in protest.”
“My motto throughout has been to call for love and for justice,” he said. “Acts of loving-kindness are really fundamental, both for each other, and for our country. A life of protest and social justice not coupled with loving-kindness can become brittle. I insist on a quality of gentleness and kindness and curiosity: We need to redouble our efforts to be the very things that Donald Trump isn’t.”
Rabbi Held also spoke of educational activism. At Mechon Hadar, they are educating “around the ways Torah can deepen our conversations and clarify our commitments.” This spring they will present a series of public programs dealing with the widow, orphan and stranger in America.
T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights is hosting a “Rabbinic Convening” to mobilize efforts in the wake of the elections. The conference, slated for Feb. 5-7 in Manhattan, features training for clergy in practical skills, spiritual practice, Jewish learning and brainstorming about protecting human rights and moving the conversation forward.
When asked about “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” Gloria Steinem’s reference to future actions in her speech at the Washington march, Rabbi Shuli Passow, director of community engagement at B’nai Jeshurun said that the congregation has been involved in social change and social justice work for decades. Their continued deepening of this work will be “deliberate and thoughtful, seeking the right partners, to have the greatest impact and the greatest number of people involved.” Rabbi Passow, who led a contemplative service before the rally, explained that her congregation is now holding a series of public conversations about social justice to gauge congregants’ interests and direct them into committee work. She cited a group of BJ lawyers now working pro bono for refugees, along with HIAS.
Mary Krieger, one of those who came up with the idea of an UWS Jewish contingent in the march, added, “What made our march so meaningful was that so many people from different parts of the community found ways of expressing their common concerns in a way that was authentic to their religious values.” Going forward, she and her group want to engage in an organic process in which all can participate.
“I think that the angst of watching what’s happening in our government was so deep for so many Americans, including so many Jews of the Upper West Side,” said Adriane Leveen, one of the UWS organizers, who is a senior lecturer at Hebrew Union College. “The invitation to do something physical was so gratifying. That’s not going to change anything anytime soon, but people have to get used to the idea that they have to show up, they have to march.”
But, she added, “I don’t see marching in itself sufficient — people have to be involved in a variety of ways.” Her own passion is environmentalism, and going forward, Leveen would like to see “the drastic changes in our climate, already at crisis levels” among the top Jewish concerns.
The idea of a Shabbat-friendly contingent to the Women’s March was launched at a Thanksgiving meal, when UWS residents Stefan Krieger, Mary Krieger, Shelly Ostro, Shana Novick and David Roskies wondered together how they might participate in a march on Shabbat. They contacted local synagogues and the JCC, created a pluralist committee, and their idea quickly unfolded into reality — with 3,000 people walking from upper Broadway to meet up with the main march on Fifth Avenue.
Last Saturday, marchers pushed baby carriages and wheelchairs, some dressed in Shabbat outfits with sneakers. Many carried homemade signs, one drawn in lipstick. Echoing Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one sign read, “We pray with our feet for all women,” and others included “Love Thy Neighbor as Thy Self” and “My People Were Refugees Too.”
Harriet Goren, a graphic designer who helped make the UWS banner with the phrase “Justice, Justice, We will pursue,” and held it at the very front, said that she met nothing but smiles and support, and that for the first time, her despair of these last weeks lifted. She couldn’t help crying.
One woman described her participation as a walking meditation, but for most it was a march engaged in conversation, song, kibitzing and satisfaction born of shared activism. This was a moving column of good cheer, generosity and respect.
Eliezer Lawrence, a second-year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, who wears payes and marched wearing a tallit, as is the custom of some in his yeshiva, was stopped by a charedi man on Broadway who challenged his participation.
“I was promoting positivity, and empowering people who need empowerment at this difficult juncture. I was proud to represent the Orthodox community and happy that I wasn’t alone,” he said. When another woman stopped to ask whether this was “good for the Jews,” he responded, “I’m concerned with what’s good for everyone.”
Diane Sandoval, a participant from congregation Darkhei Noam, researched and shared information to create a route for those who wanted to stay within the Manhattan eruv (the symbolic enclosure that enables observant Jews to carry on the Sabbath). Her group left the main UWS contingent at 57th Street, and later joined the main march up Fifth.
“We intermingled with others, and felt that we were all joining together to work for our rights,” Sandoval said. “I think the success of the day overwhelmed everybody. But how successful? I think it’s going to be successful if we make links with the other groups to push forward, fighting for all of our goals.”