‘Occupy’ Figurehead On ‘Inside,’ ‘Outside’

‘Occupy’ Figurehead On ‘Inside,’ ‘Outside’

Sieradski’s criticism of Jewish mainstream too narrow, say some.

The one name attached more than any other to Occupy Judaism, the Jewish presence at Occupy Wall Street and related protests around the country, is that of Daniel Sieradski, a 32-year-old Jewish activist and expert in digital media.

It was Sieradski who organized a Shabbat potluck dinner near Zuccotti Park, the site of Occupy Wall Street, at the very end of September. It was Sieradski who pulled things together for a Yom Kippur service that drew as many as 1,500 people; who ordered a pop-up sukkah for the protest and who made plans this week for a Simchat Torah celebration.

And it was Sieradski who coined the term Occupy Judaism and who now hopes to persuade organizers of the larger protest to create a Jewish People’s Working Group, just like the People of Color Working Group and the women’s working group.

But standing outside the sukkah last week, the self-described anarchist downplayed any suggestion that his role in the new movement is larger than anyone else’s. Instead, he said, Occupy Judaism draws from the work of many activists, just as Occupy Wall Street does, and has no hierarchy or leadership. And he laughed when a reporter from The Jewish Week asked to follow him around for a day.

“So you’re going to follow me on the Internet for a day?” he asked, smiling.

Sieradski explained that most of his time is spent not at the protest, but sitting at home or work in front of a computer, where he monitors online discussions and blogs, creates forums for Jewish activists and responds to views or suggestions he believes are wrong. As for his role in Occupy Judaism, he said, he’s “really not in charge. I just happen to be the one with the Twitter and Facebook accounts.”

If he’s not in charge, though, Sieradski is certainly a busy person these days, and his views — though not reflective of all Occupy Judaism activists — are surely reflective of more than a few.

One such belief, seen by many in the Jewish community as radical or even destructive, concerns Jewish institutions, whether their role today is positive or negative, and if progressive Jews should involve themselves in those organizations or write them off entirely.

In Sieradski’s eyes, large mainstream organizations — and even smaller agencies devoted to social justice — receive much of their funding from some of the same wealthy citizens who nearly sank the nation’s economy or whose companies are hurting others.

“If you’re hurting people — and if the Jewish community takes the money gained from hurting people and applies it to mitzvot — then it’s not appropriate,” said Sieradski, adding that the soliciting of those funds “hurts our cause.”

More broadly, Sieradski said, thousands of young Jews “don’t feel we’re appreciated, respected or represented by Jewish institutions. … It’s always the wealthiest and most powerful who get to determine communal policy.” Rather than participate in those organizations, he continued, young Jews should develop their own ideas and promote what he calls “participatory democracy” within the Jewish community.

Sieradski’s outlook on the matter is a provocative one, but how widely shared it might be is another matter. During The Jewish Week’s interview with Sieradski, he suggested a reporter speak to Paul Heckler, an activist who stood inside the sukkah with him. Heckler, an employee with a Jewish nonprofit, said Jewish communal institutions “have traditionally been in the vanguard of social justice struggles” but have shifted over the years, especially as Americans in general have shifted.

“I think there’s room to bring these big communal institutions back to our side,” said Heckler, who identifies his views as “a bit more mainstream” than Sieradski’s.

Similar views came from the executive director of a small Jewish agency that supports progressive causes while receiving funding from Jewish federations around the country. The agency official said he’d tell Sieradski that taking money from federations gives a voice to his organization and others who believe in social justice. “Otherwise,” he added, “you’re on the outside, banging on the glass.”

The one thing he’s learned in his many years with progressive Jewish organizations “is not to limit yourself,” the executive said. “Sometimes you find allies where you might not expect it.”

In a debate with Sieradski two years ago, John Ruskay, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, said that, although the community “looks like a fortress to many, the door is entirely open” to anyone who wants to get involved. He also said that only a central body like a federation can mobilize the community to help thousands of impoverished Jews or the Jewish elderly. In fact, UJA-Federation has funded a number of projects, such as the provocative Heeb magazine, that many in the mainstream would deem iconoclastic.

Contacted Tuesday, a spokeswoman for UJA-Federation said the organization’s work “is supported by over 60,000 donors — some large, some small, all important.”

Sieradski himself has received a grant from ROI Young Jewish Innovators, funded by the Charles and Lynne Schusterman Foundation, as well as money from a small Jewish agency, Natan, which advises young Wall Streets on funding innovative projects within the Jewish community, to start “Jew It Yourself,” a venture that uses online tools and offline initiatives to promote independent, or do-it-yourself, learning, practice and community building.

He acknowledged that it may have been hypocritical of him to apply for the grant, but said there’s a difference between his action and the fundraising activities of major institutions. Organizations with full development departments that do a huge amount of research on every donor “can’t claim ignorance,” he argued.

Meanwhile, at Occupy Wall Street, Sieradski is also concerned with other issues, including cases in which an individual or organization expresses anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist views. They include one man who shows up at the protest almost daily with signs denouncing “Jewish bankers” or claiming that “Zionists control Wall Street.”

The man and his signs have drawn ire from others in Zuccotti Park, including protesters who’ve created their own signs calling him an “a–hole” or unrepresentative of others at the demonstration. But he and others on the fringe have sparked enough concern to prompt a press release from the Anti-Defamation League and TV ads from the Emergency Committee for Israel, a right-wing Israel advocacy group. (See sidebar on next page.)

“Everyone’s been trying to get rid of him,” Sieradski said, “but the police say he has a right to stay there,” like everyone else in the park.

Sieradski has also done verbal battle with the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, one of the hundreds of organizations, large and small, that have endorsed Occupy Wall Street. Those associated with the organization have tried to hijack the demonstration, said Sieradski, who groups them with other “radical anti-Zionists who try to make everything that’s happening into an anti-Israel protest.”

When he encounters IJAN’s members, Sieradski said, he simply tells them that Occupy Wall Street is a protest about economic justice, not about Israel and Zionism, and that it’s hardly the appropriate place for their activities. “I don’t think anyone here is interested in making radical anti-Zionism part of the platform,” said Sieradski, referring to the protest’s organizers.

An intense, but witty, person who, with his solid frame and balding pate resembles a Jewish Buddha, Sieradski, featured in 2008 in The Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” section, has spent much of his adult life working for Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and, currently, Repair the World, which emphasizes service to those in need. He’s been planning to leave his current job — in part, to devote more time to “Jew It Yourself” and, in part, because he was getting “burned out” from Jewish communal work.

But Sieradski keeps getting pulled back to Jewish causes, including Occupy Judaism. Some of that passion and drive comes from his mother, Jeanette Friedman, the product of a fervently Orthodox household in Brooklyn who became a feminist and an antiwar activist. It also comes from his background as the grandson of four Holocaust survivors and as a child who, in high school, faced anti-Semitic taunts and bullying.

His background made him “sensitive to the way people are being bullied and oppressed by others,” said Sieradski, who decorated the sukkah at Occupy Wall Street with several pictures, including one of Emma Goldman, the Russian-born political activist of the late 1800s and early 1900s. It also opened his eyes to the dangers of governments that abuse human rights, he said.

Sieradski connects those beliefs to Jewish values and ethics, saying that the most important act in the world “is to recognize the spark of the Divine in your fellow human being and to honor that by respecting his dignity.”

Many conservative blogs are now attacking Occupy Judaism for distorting Jewish values, Sieradski said. “My response to that is if Judaism isn’t a movement for social justice — if it’s not concerned primarily with loving others as you love yourself and upholding their dignity — then there’s no point in being Jewish.”

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