As the word spread like wildfire that a band of intrepid progressive Jews were organizing evening Yom Kippur services at Occupy Wall Street, there was some skeptical push back. “Politics doesn’t belong in religion.” “Will it be a scene?” “Sounds cool but services might be bad.” Even, yes, “I don’t want to get arrested.” But for those who stomached the risk all the same, Friday night in the plaza beneath ambient lighting through the offices of Brown Brothers Harriman appeared simple, even quaint. It was in people’s hearts that wonder and transcendence were found.
Organizer Daniel Sieradski, flanked by service leaders Avi Fox-Rosen, Sarah Wolf and Getzel Davis, huddled at the center of a crowded seated circle counting 500, 700, by some counts even a thousand people. At the same moment, friends in Boston, DC and Chicago’s solidarity camps were gathering simultaneously with unexpected hundreds more. Hollering announcements though the Occupy Wall Street main camp, I found dozens more last minute participants, “What? Really? Where!” What was intended to be a small and symbolic gathering of perhaps 10 men and 10 women, called barely a week ago, had become a phenomenon.
Let us not mince words — the buzz of city life, soaring skyscrapers on every side, and noise from marches of the main camp made already diffuse acoustics even more difficult. The overwhelming number of familiar faces, the ubiquitous press and the growing cluster of police were distracting too. But no one gave a damn. The service leaders swiftly adopted the call and repeat “people’s mic” of the Occupy Wall Street general assembly itself, and plunged ahead.
Perhaps it was precisely because of the monstrous odds against our prayer that worship snowballed greater concentration. Every ear strained to hear the service. Every word shouted by Dan, Avi, Sarah and Getzel was repeated again, sometimes echoing twice, three times. For many of us, this was the first time we studied the words so intently. It took everyone’s participation to amplify Getzel’s drasha. There is something incredibly unforgettable, intangible about a space filled to capacity with people who desire prayer so deeply. Indeed, something ineffable.
“We have sinned,” we repeated during the adapted Al Chet, “By yielding to confusion and falling into complacency. By indulging in fear. By not standing up for ourselves.” These words deserved to be shouted. The Kol Nidre prayers, the Shema, the “kadosh kadosh kadosh!” of the Amidah — it felt important to shout them. I needed to shout, to yell a true geshtalt that would offend a serene and customary shul. People in more distant rows needed to hear, people in cities far away needed to hear, heaven needed to hear. Together, we all hollered for spiritual clemency against the noise of material life, honking and bustling like New York City streets. I needed to be heard in heaven above the din.
There is no accident that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has been quoted in every testimonial about these events on Jewschool and in its promotion. No other scholar begged so eloquently for Judaism to be reclaimed from staleness and returned to awe, wonder, amazement. Without challenging the status quo of our hearts, he argued, prayer was useless. It may be argued that he has been turned into cliche, but I feel his preeminence on the lips of young Jews’ hearts means that the malaise he warned against has nearly eaten Judaism entirely:
“This is a time to cry out. One is ashamed to be human. One is embarrassed to be called religious in the face of religion’s failure to keep alive the image of God in the face of man. We have imprisoned God in our temples and slogans, and now the word of God is dying on our lips.”
We gathered at Wall Street because prayers without politics are flaccid. We came to make atonement for failing as religious people to keep alive the image of God in everyday working people. Our synagogues are built with multi-million dollar capital campaigns that insulate us from the struggles of the less fortunate. We have spent millions on “Jewish identity” while the disempowered wither. Those of us who attended on Friday accepted the risk because our souls were starved for meaning — we had become bored, complacent, lazy. Judaism is a religion of acts, wherein acts are not just symbols of inner kavanah, but the very rigging of Heaven. We came to atone not just for our society’s financial misdeeds, but for sinning through unchallenging prayer.
We had traveled back in time, before mega-shuls and cantorial schools, back when Judaism was a few fervent believers yelling to a nameless new god in a desert. God is our King, we are told — but in today’s era, we have dethroned kings. And we seek to dethrone today’s undemocratic robber barons. The metaphors of heavenly royal courts fail to resonate. Instead, at Occupy Yom Kippur, we found a better metaphor: We built a mishkan out of thin air and surrounded it with our general assembly. And God sat not on a throne but with us on the concrete in a square in lower Manhattan lit by stars and street lamps, calling and repeating a Divine discussion, straining to hear every Word.
See the absolutely beautiful photos on Huffington Post and fan Occupy Judaism for a collection of blog posts and articles, plus ongoing updates about Jewish events and action related to the Occupy Wall Street protests. Video courtesy Aimee Weiss.