What Now For ‘Occupy’ Protests?

What Now For ‘Occupy’ Protests?

Following Kol Nidre success, organizers of a Jewish presence may target communal institutions with ‘Occupy Judaism.’

Energized by the turnout at their event and the emotions it generated, organizers of a Yom Kippur service within yards of the Occupy Wall Street protest are planning future activities while calling their movement Occupy Judaism.

“We’re going global with this,” said Daniel Sieradski, the local Jewish activist who took a lead role in organizing the service. Occupy Judaism groups have already cropped up in other cities, including Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, where residents are trying to establish a similar Jewish presence at “Occupy” protests there. Yom Kippur services also took place last week at Occupy Boston, Occupy Philly and Occupy K Street, the Washington protest.

But whether the movement can sustain itself — and whether the rhetoric of some of the organizers will resonate with Jews or alienate them — is an open question.

In an interview with The Jewish Week, Sieradski said his movement “won’t allow mainstream Jewish institutions to tell us how to express our Judaism.” And he went even further, allowing for the possibility of sit-ins and demonstrations in front of synagogues and Jewish organizations.

Describing himself as an “anarchist” who believes in only one authority, “the Divine,” the 32-year-old activist seemed dismissive of even those synagogues with strong social action committees. “Do they have a living, breathing movement that’s out in the streets fighting for social justice?” he asked rhetorically. He also took note of how many Jewish institutions had been involved with Bernard Madoff, the former money manager who defrauded thousands of investors.

“Far too many Jewish institutions have solicited money from the very same people who’ve gotten us in this economic mess,” said Sieradski, who made clear that his views are his own and that the loose network of Jewish activists involved in Occupy Judaism haven’t focused on the matter.

One activist in Washington, however, cast the subject in similar but less abrasive terms.

Zach Teutsch, a 28-year-old educator for the AFL-CIO, acknowledged that “many Jews and Jewish organizations are doing helpful charity work around [social justice] issues.” But few, he added, are talking publicly about the concentration of wealth in this country, a development he considers “grave.” Teutsch said it’s his “hope and dream” that Jews and Jewish organizations “will focus on this problem, as well.”

Sieradski made his comments days after hundreds of people attended a Kol Nidre service in a large plaza within yards of Zuccotti Park, where the Occupy Wall Street protest is now in its fourth week. Estimates of the turnout ranged from 700 to 1,500, far exceeding the 150 or so people Sieradski thought would attend.

Gathering in the plaza shortly before dusk, participants arranged themselves in concentric circles around a small table with a blue tablecloth, a vase of flowers and a Torah on loan from an Orthodox synagogue. Many of those in the plaza wore prayer shawls and kippot.

Sieradski opened the event with a few remarks about why he had organized it and why he believed the service was so significant. Those comments were followed by the liturgy itself, led by Avi Fox-Rosen, a musician and singer, along with rabbinical students from the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew College near Boston.

The liturgy combined traditional elements of the Kol Nidre service with calls for social justice and references to the protest across the street. One such moment came with recital of the Aleynu prayer, in which participants were invited to shout out something they planned to do in the year ahead to make the world a better one. Among the commitments were pledges to work for “health care for all” and “to stand up against those in power,” reflecting some of the sentiments behind the Occupy Wall Street protest.

Participants included protesters from across the street, local Jewish residents who had come simply for the service itself, and non-Jewish onlookers. The idea of observing Yom Kippur outdoors, close to a busy street, and near a protest many participants supported seemed to leave many of them in awe. Some, like Andrew Tatarsky, told The Jewish Week that they rarely connected with Judaism as much as they did that night.

A clinical psychologist who heard about the service through a friend, Tatarsky said he was “very moved by the event.” Referring to the service’s leaders, he said he felt they “were trying to take the spirit of the Torah and saying, ‘Let’s talk. Let’s live it.’”

Another participant, 63-year-old Judith Rubenstein, said the service connected her to a time when religion meant more to her.

“When we were little, whether we were Jewish, Christian or whatever, what we were told is that religion was all about the ideals they’re expressing [in Zuccotti Park],” said Rubenstein, who calls herself “not so religious but so Jewish.” But all those ideals — “everyone should have enough possessions, the golden rule” — somehow got lost, she continued. “Yom Kippur is an opportunity to remind ourselves of those ideals.”

Standing nearby, Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Jewish Labor Committee and head of the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union, sounded a similar note.

“What Occupy Wall Street has done is to crystallize the issues Americans are facing,” especially “whether we’re going to be a country of haves and have-nots,” he said. “What’s a more appropriate time to address this question than a time when we step outside our daily lives and look within ourselves?”

But not everyone in the Jewish community share Appelbaum’s fondness for Occupy Wall Street. Conservative websites posted videos of two protesters engaging in anti-Semitic tirades, along with a handful of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist signs. A blogger for Commentary focused on the Yom Kippur service, calling it a “bizarre” and “incoherent” effort “to combine Judaism and today’s fashionable politics. The one new development this service’s organizers may have hit on is the utilization of the Jewish religious tradition in service to their radical politics,” he wrote.

Sieradski, meanwhile, was planning to erect a pop-up sukkah at Occupy Wall Street in observance of the holiday, which begins Wednesday night. He said the idea for the Yom Kippur service came from Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the Philadelphia-based rabbi who founded the Shalom Center, an organization promoting both political action and spirituality, and author of the Freedom Seder, a 1960s Haggadah referencing the struggle for civil rights.

Every denomination of Judaism contributed to the Yom Kippur service, Sieradski said, and Chabad helped him obtain the sukkah — “not because they identify with the protest, but because they want to help Jews practice their Judaism wherever they wish to do so.”

One observer, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said he believes the Yom Kippur service “is fantastic because it indicates that the people doing it experience a profound linkage between their identity and their vision of America as a whole. Anytime people can take Jewish ‘big,’” he said, can only be viewed as something positive, even if others don’t agree with their politics. “People often experience Judaism as small, or parochial, or disconnected from real life, and that’s a tragedy.”

But the rabbi, Clal’s president, said organizers of the service don’t “have a lock on the definition of social justice, the meaning of Yom Kippur or the trajectory of Jewish ethics.” Yom Kippur, he continued, “is very much about taking stock of our values, our views and our positions in new ways. It sounds like this crowd is very good about shaking things up for others, but not so good about shaking things up for themselves.”

Rabbi Hirschfield suggested that each side of spectrum should explore “the partial truth” in the other side. “When you’re busy vilifying other people, even if you’re right,” he said, “it seems to be an incomplete reading of the day.”

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