On the Thursday before Election Day, Rabbi Francine Roston took a break from phone banking for Hillary Clinton to drive, solo, from her home in northern Montana to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota — an 800-mile, 18-hour trip.
She went to join clergy from across the country who were protesting construction of the 1,200-mile Dakota Access Pipeline across Native American burial and prayer sites, threatening culturally significant artifacts as well as the Sioux Tribe’s drinking water. On Oct. 27, police and protestors had a standoff, ending with police using pepper spray, loud sirens and bean-bag bullets to break up the protest. Roughly 120 people were arrested. Soon after, a diverse coalition of clergy planned a day of action in which clergy would stand alongside the Sioux tribe.
“After the incidents, I really felt compelled to be there,” Rabbi Roston told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview just hours after she returned from the protest.
Shortly after, the protestors had a moment of light after weeks of darkness when the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would not resume pipeline construction until more analysis and discussion with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe took place.
On that day, Nov. 3, more than 500 clergy members from a diverse mix of religious backgrounds gathered at the site including just a handful of Jews: a rabbi and two rabbinical students from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College as well as a few members of Jewish Voice for Peace.
But Rabbi Roston thinks if the protests continue, the Jewish presence will grow, because standing up for minority rights and to protect the environment are so clearly Jewish issues.
“This is a human rights issue,” she said. “To say these people are being treated unfairly is such an understatement,” she continued. “The police are denying them their right to protest, the government is not fulfilling its duty to honor its contracts with the Sioux Nation, and every day, every hour of every day, the [oil pipeline] company is continuing to build this pipeline. … They are destroying sacred sites on sacred land,” she said, comparing the situation to one in which “someone tried to build a pipeline through Arlington National Cemetery.”
T’ruah executive director Rabbi Jill Jacobs said in a telephone interview that although only a few members of her organization were able to make it to the recent protest, about 30 rabbis expressed interest in taking further action. “As Jews the idea of someone violating a sacred burial ground — it’s just hard because we’ve had our own cemeteries desecrated so often,” she said.
Other Jewish groups have also taken stands against the pipeline including the Reform movement’s rabbinical arm and a coalition of some 200 rabbis from across the denominational spectrum who signed a recent statement.
When the coalition of priests, ministers, imams, nuns and other religious leaders made their way past the husks of burnt cars to where the stand-off took place, Rabbi Roston saw more than 20 armed police officers. “I thought, ‘Really, what did they think the clergy was going to do?’
“We formed a circle of 524 clergy, shoulder to shoulder as representatives from various religious groups performed symbolic rituals.” Rabbi Roston joined up with representatives from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Linda Holtzman, Miriam Levia Grossman and Ariana Katz, who chanted the Torah portion chronicling the third day of creation, which focuses on the creation of water, and then Rabbi Roston blew her shofar.
“I brought my shofar because it’s the sound of revelation and the sound of repentance,” she said, “and I thought a call to atonement was appropriate.”