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‘Occupy’ New Third Rail For Jewish Mainstream

‘Occupy’ New Third Rail For Jewish Mainstream

Center, left groups wrestling with how to approach the growing movement.

The organized Jewish community’s largest annual gathering — the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly — took place this week at the Sheraton Denver, less than a mile from the park where Occupy Denver protesters have gathered.

But the distance between the Jewish establishment and this fall’s grass-roots protests against banks, growing economic inequalities and unemployment, was, arguably, infinitely greater.

Two months into the protests, despite a fledgling, bottom-up Occupy Judaism movement taking hold within Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots around the country, mainstream Jewish organizations, even left-wing ones like the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the National Council of Jewish Women, have remained largely silent and noncommittal about the Occupy movement.

The GA’s packed roster of lectures, discussions and meetings not only contained nothing addressing Occupy Wall Street, but nary a session on even the broader social justice, political or economic issues raised by the protests.

And beyond specific discussions about Occupy Judaism and potential anti-Semitism in the protests, the broader topic of the movement and its concerns has not — at least yet — surfaced much on rabbinic listservs or in sermons.

The irony is that, according to Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Seminary, the “issue of extreme wealth inequality is something Judaism has been concerned with from biblical times,” with various laws, such as regular forgiveness of debts and a commandment to “return every 50 years to the land you began with” meant to prevent long-term accumulation of wealth.

Most public Jewish discussions so far about Occupy have been limited to the question of whether or not the movement is anti-Semitic. (The general consensus, since the Anti-Defamation League weighed in a few weeks ago, is that it is not.)

Nonetheless, progressive rabbis and leaders are beginning to weigh in cautiously, with many saying they share many of the social movement’s concerns but are unsure as to whether its focus and tactics are productive to bringing about political or social changes.

“Usually if you’re in an organization and want to make a decision about whether to support a project or event, you look at what other organizations are involved and what your relationship is with those organizations,” said Mik Moore, a consultant to nonprofits and former chief strategy officer of Jewish Funds for Justice, one of the few Jewish groups that has issued a formal statement on Occupy Wall Street. (That statement notes that “we are thrilled to see the issues we talk about every day — the need for good jobs, affordable housing and fair lending practices — appear on sign after sign” and that the Occupy protests are “a hopeful sign that, regardless of whether one agrees with any one particular issue or demand, Americans are expressing their right to be heard … when Americans engage in the public sphere to create a better future, this presents us with an opportunity to make history by expanding opportunity for all.”)

The Occupy movement’s non-hierarchical leadership and lack of formal structures, Moore said, “makes not just Jewish organizations, but lots of organizations nervous that they could be attaching themselves to something they have no control over, and that it could go in a direction they’re not comfortable with.”

To be sure, many individual Jews are participating in the Occupy Wall Street protests and its offshoots around the country, and a number have involved themselves in “Occupy Judaism” events — including Yom Kippur services, a sukkah and celebrations of Simchat Torah. The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, while not taking a position on Occupy Wall Street itself, supplied organizers with copies of “Lev Shalem,” its new High Holiday prayer book for the service.

“From our point of view, wherever there are Jews looking to address contemporary issues and bring more justice into the world, we want to be there to help,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

“This is an interesting example of where larger networked organizations can be part of innovative and grass-roots things taking place,” she said, adding that, while the prayer book had been developed for use in a synagogue setting, she was excited to see how the Occupy holiday services had “brought in a lot of Jews” who might not have gone to a traditional service.

The question of Occupy Wall Street’s anti-Semitism or lack thereof has been fueled in part by a controversial commercial aired by the Israel Emergency Committee, one the ADL criticized as being overblown.

Last week, 15 prominent Jewish politicians and organization leaders, including former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and directors of the left-wing Israel lobbying group J Street and Rabbis for Human Rights, issued a statement saying they “support both Israel and the ideas behind Occupy Wall Street and also strongly oppose right-wing attempts to smear the movement with false charges of anti-Semitism.”

Some Jewish activists privately speculate that donors and lay leaders — many of them so-called “1 percenters,” with fortunes earned on Wall Street — are intimidating Jewish communal professionals who might otherwise support Occupy Wall Street. However, The Jewish Week was unable to find anyone, on or off the record, who could identify a donor or lay leader explicitly speaking out against Occupy Wall Street or threatening to pull funding from anyone supporting the movement.

Adding to the nervousness, a rumor briefly circulated in late October claiming that UJA-Federation of New York had distributed a memo forbidding employees from participating. Federation officials (and several employees interviewed off the record) said the rumor was baseless and that UJA has taken no position on Occupy Wall Street.

“We have not put out anything saying employees cannot attend Occupy Wall Street,” said Levi Fishman, a federation spokesman. “If anybody from UJA is attending or involved, they’re doing it as private individuals, not representing UJA.”

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, director of North American Programs at Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, told The Jewish Week that most Jewish leaders are still trying to determine their opinion about the Occupy movement.

“Does endorsing Occupy Wall Street mean that we endorse the overall goals of economic justice or that we endorse every single person who has a sign? I am not sure people know what to make of them yet.”

A number of Jewish leaders who sympathize with the concerns driving Occupy Wall Street are nonetheless uncomfortable with much of the rhetoric emerging, particularly what some see as a tendency to demonize wealthy individuals.

“I think Wall Street is often unfairly maligned; and I think the key changes I’d like to see are more complex than the public focus of the protests,” said Nigel Savage, who worked in finance before becoming the founder and director of the Jewish environmental group Hazon, in an e-mail interview. “But I nevertheless broadly support Occupy Wall Street, and went down and spent some time in the sukkah there, because in the broadest sense I think that it's pushing public conversation towards what I think of as a sort of teshuvah — aiming to get America to return to its best.”

Rabbi Liebling, who served as executive vice president of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation and Jewish Funds for Justice before joining the RRC faculty, said that the reticence about the Occupy movement stems in part from Jews’ complicated history with money, whether they are being accused of being bloodthirsty capitalists or rabble-rousing socialists.

“Jews historically don’t like to speak out about” economic inequalities “because no matter what you say could spark some anti-Semitism somewhere.”

And taking a position on the Occupy movement is risky, said the consultant Mik Moore, because “most groups don’t want to be on record saying it’s great if in a month it devolves.”

The commercials accusing Occupy protests of anti-Semitism “can be effective as a warning shot,” he said, noting that while they “may be inaccurate as a characterization of what’s going on in the movement, they show a willingness to go after people for supporting it.”

Despite the reluctance to become officially involved, many Jewish leaders — when asked about the Occupy movement — said they are heartened to see people speaking up about the issues.

“I actually celebrate Occupy Wall Street, because the question has been in my mind, ‘When is America going to wake up and see what’s going on here?’” said Rabbi Sid Schwarz, founder of Panim, a Jewish leadership/advocacy training program for teens and author of the 2006 book “Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World.”

While the movement so far is “inchoate” and lacking in specific policy demands, he is hopeful that its energy will be channeled into something more productive.

“If all this stays in the street, it’s not going anywhere,” he said, adding, it “will take more organizing know-how and savvy to make it something constructive.”

But Rabbi Daniel Smokler, director of Hillel’s Senior Jewish Educators Program and a former union organizer, said the Occupy movement is “an essential voice in the conversation right now in the U.S.,” and that he is “very much unconcerned by the analysis that they have no clear mission.”

“The purpose of it is not to issue Power Point presentations or policy papers,” he said. “It’s to generate a sense of urgency to address the big questions about the future of our society.”

“I think it’s a really great thing,” he added. “I think it’s ridiculous that we presume business needs to go on unchecked, that government is always inefficient and bad, that taxes can never be increased.”

But not all left-wing rabbis agree. Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, who has been outspoken in support of many progressive causes, including implementing a “Living Wage” law, wrote a blog post recently entitled “Occupy Wall Street? No Thanks.”

“Wall Street is not what’s wrong with America,” he argued, adding that “consumerism, run-away self-aggrandizement, an eviscerated core ethic of national service, and a radically digitized, virtual world where we can be who we want, when we want, how we want” are as much to blame.

Meanwhile, the far-left Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that supports Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) efforts against Israel, drew parallels between the Occupy Wall Street movement and its own mission this week, by disrupting a Birthright Israel Alumni Community Wall Street Series speaker and issuing a statement called “Occupy the Occupiers.” The statement calls for “young Jews and allies” to “join in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and with our Palestinian siblings living under their own from of occupation. Let us stand up to the 1 percent in our own community – the powerful institutions that support Israel’s corporate-backed military control of the Palestinian people and act as the gatekeepers for our community.”

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