Jews at OWS: Huge Surprise!
A local here in DC asked me to write a bit about how there came to be Jewish practice at Occupy Wall St, Occupy K St and elsewhere. I wrote a bit and thought it might be interesting to other folks. So, here ’tis:
Since the industrial revolution, and perhaps even before, Jews have figured prominently in the intellectual and practical movements that created capitalism as well as those that opposed it. Jews have always been disproportionately represented on both sides of the inequality debate. In the 1980s Milton Friedman wrote a famous essay on what he viewed as a paradox–if Jews have benefited a great deal from capitalism why do they tend to oppose it. Jews working against inequality and capitalism is not new, it has existed as long as capitalism has (thanks to Brent Chaim Spodek for pointing me towards this essay).
The question of Jews and Occupy Wall St/Occupy K St/etc was never one of whether we would be involved, but when and how. As the high holidays approached, many were split between wanting to focus on the spiritual discipline that comes with this season in the Jewish calendar and the activist fervor that was building. The idea sprung up that we wouldn’t have to chose! We could host services in solidarity with the emerging movement.
This is not just any year. We are in a state of moral crisis as a country. The richest among us continue to live lives of great wealth (perhaps even opulence), while our nation, the richest on earth, sees families go to bed hungry. Many felt that praying in a new and different way was more appropriate on that night and many nights since. Rather than in a big beautiful synagogue, sometimes it’s better to pray in the street.
In NYC a thousand people showed up on Kol Nidre night to a space adjacent to Zuccotti Park. In DC, a call went out to a few people at 7am the morning before Kol Nidre. By 9am a facebook event page was up. Later that day, 200 people streamed to McPherson Square to hear Kol Nidre in a new way–deeply engaged with collective struggles, not just the individual focus that tends to surround the practice.
The feedback from the services was deeply moving. One participant said that he had never missed Yom Kippur services but at the same time he didn’t want to walk out on his non-Jewish friends and fellow activists. He was so grateful that we gave him a way so that he didn’t have to chose between his commitment to a fairer world and his commitment to his Jewish practice. An elderly woman said that this was the most powerful Jewish experience she had ever had.
It was clear that there was an appetite for more. A team of folks who had been involved in the Kol Nidre worked together to build a Sukkah. There were teach-ins all week, and Friday evening services that attracted about 70 people.
Beyond DC, sukkot were built in NYC, Philly, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, Toronto and London. Simchat torah was celebrated in several cities with hundreds of attendees.
It’s not clear what the next steps are in Jewish practice in support of Occupy K St. What is clear is that the folks organizing the encampment are very supportive of Jewish solidarity events, appreciative that they are happening, and using them as a model to encourage similar events from other faiths. We have led the way and hopefully more religious groups will follow in this path.