Prayer And Politics At NY Women’s March

Prayer And Politics At NY Women’s March

Pluralistic crowd takes to the streets in a Shabbat-friendly corollary to DC, NY events.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

The scene along Broadway last Saturday. Courtesy of Caroline Harris.
The scene along Broadway last Saturday. Courtesy of Caroline Harris.

There were several pink hats in the crowd gathered in the sanctuary of B’nai Jeshurun last Shabbat morning for a contemplative service in anticipation of the Women’s March. Rabbi Shuli Passow led the service, grounding the worshipers for the day ahead. She explained that usually on Shabbat, time is spent simply being, not doing, as on other days of the week, but that this Shabbat, there was a need for doing. Emphasizing themes of gratitude, holiness and strength, she urged people to sing, chant, and, if so inclined, to meditate or to pray in a more traditional style.

There was no formal end to the service, rather the prayers led directly into a rally, where Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the Manhattan-Brooklyn Democrat and a member of B’nai Jeshurun, got a standing ovation. Rabbi Sari Laufer of Rodeph Sholom read Marge Piercy’s “The Low Road,” which contrary to its title, is an affirming call to involvement. Rabbi Michael Strassfeld led the group in wordless niggunim, songs of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Negro spirituals.

About 1,100 people — from a range of denominations and congregations from the Upper West Side and beyond — filled the space, with another 400 lined up outside. Many of them came after attending prayerful send-offs at their own synagogues. The tone of the rally was upbeat, encouraging the possibilities for change through demonstration, resistance and actions small and large. There was little, if any, direct mention of the new American president.

Rabbi Joanna Samuels, executive director of the Manny Cantor Center, spoke of the week’s Torah portion, Shemot, explicating the text as a primer for social action.

“A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph,” she began, quoting the text. “Rarely in human history has a pasuk found a more fertile moment in which to be studied.”

“Enter the ladies,” she said, citing the courageous actions of the two midwives and Pharaoh’s daughter, who defied rules to save and care for Moses, fighting back against oppression and “in so doing, they set the stage for the overthrow of power, and the redemption of the Israelite people.”

She went on to call on this congregation to find ways to elevate human dignity, to protect life and take bold steps, to “get going on the redemption of this nation.”

Rabbi Shai Held, president and dean of Mechon Hadar, spoke of the stark absence in the Genesis text of any sort of differentiations among people (while other parts of the natural kingdom are divided into species and types), how we may have differences between us, but we are all the same, and need to treat one another with decency. And he spoke of Judaism’s revolutionary emphasis on caring not only for the widow and the orphan, but for the stranger, a word that can be translated as refugee.

Led by several organizers holding an Upper West Side Jewish contingent banner with the biblical text translated “Justice, Justice, We will pursue,” those assembled piled out into the street, heading south on Broadway sidewalks, joined by others and accompanied by the NYPD.

The idea of a Shabbat-friendly contingent to the Women’s March was launched at a Thanksgiving meal, when Upper West Side residents Stefan H. 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.

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 Thyself” and “My People Were Refugees Too.” Some marchers recalled rallying in protest of the Vietnam War or with NOW. For others, who had marched previously on behalf of Israel or Soviet Jews, this was their first march for America.

Harriet Goren, a graphic designer who helped make the UWS banner 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.

“It was exhilarating to be part of such a large group of peaceful marchers who came for various reasons, but share a similar concern about the need to express the value of human rights for all and the perception that the administration might need to hear a reminder,” said Susan Ann Ticker, director of community engagement at Congregation Rodeph Sholom.

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. Many participants thanked the NYPD officers as they passed.

Eliezer Lawrence, a second-year rabbinical student at Yehivat Chovevei Torah, who wears payos 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.”

The group — about 3,000 strong — headed south along Broadway, then Ninth Avenue and across town on 42nd Street to meet up with the main march along Fifth Avenue, and then north to Trump Tower. By then, the Jewish contingent blended into the crowd of 400,000, but there were still moments of Jewish chant and drumming, and rabbinical students singing.

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, and crossed 57th Street to Sixth Avenue, walking on the sidewalk. The plan was to meet the UWS Jewish group, but they got to 42nd Street first, so they 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.”

What about tomorrow? many asked. What to do next?

For Rabbi Joanna Samuels, the Monday morning after was spent taking part in a modern civic ritual. At the Manny Cantor Center, she helped to unveil a multilingual mural featuring the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence in several languages, designed by artist Otis Kriegel. They invited their diverse Lower East Side neighbors to sign the mural “to radiate a message of welcome and love.”

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