Demonstrating Jewishly

Jewish activists in the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Judaism movements aim to 'reoccupy values.'

Simchat Torah in Zuccotti Park 521 (photo credit: Courtesy/Liz Nord)
Simchat Torah in Zuccotti Park 521
(photo credit: Courtesy/Liz Nord)
BY ORDER OF NEW YORK Mayor Michael Bloomberg, city police raided the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) demonstration November 15, storming Zuccotti Park, evicting the protesters, and clearing the area.
To Daniel Sieradski, founder of the Occupy Judaism movement, the ad hoc group of Jewish OWS activists who had organized Jewish events, including Kol Nidrei services, at the site, the desolation of the area that had held the tents and the energy reminded him of nothing less than the exile of the Jewish people from their land.
Passionately, he wrote in the November 16 online edition of the New York-based “The Forward”: “Occupy Wall Street is in exile. Her benches, once bountiful, lay barren. Her sidewalks – a wasteland. Where there were tents bustling with life, there is breeze. As the Book of Lamentations wonders, ʽHow does the city sit solitary that was full of people?ʼ”
Using the portal of Jewish history and liturgy, Sieradski posed the question “how does the city sit solitary” and presented the solution: “As Jews we know: Exile is not nearly the end.”
Although Zuccotti Park was the “ground zero” for both OWS and Occupy Judaism, Jewish participation in the movement has not been restricted to the park. Congregation Ramath Orah in Morningside Heights hosted a contentious public conversation at the synagogue in early November featuring Sieradski and Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, an educator involved with the tent protest movement in Israel.
Congregation B’nai Jeshurun has inaugurated a series of public programs directly inspired by the protest. “Occupy Wall Street is putting on the table one of the most important conversations that this country should have about values, our relationship with money, the dream of America and where we want to go,” congregation rabbi Marcelo Bronstein tells The Report. “We don’t believe in blaming Wall Street, or in class warfare. We believe in the fact that this is a tremendously important conversation. We want to reoccupy values.”
A heavy spirit hung over the former encampment at a Rosh Hodesh celebration in late November. Following the service, most of the participants dispersed, since there was nothing else to be done – no petitions to sign, no drum circles to join, no ragtag protesters to feed. A lone demonstrator held up a poster, worn and weathered.
Moshe Sayer was one of those who lingered at the site. An Israeli-born Reconstructionist Jew, living on the Upper West Side and now retired from a career in high-tech, Sayer had been a steady volunteer at Zuccotti Park, especially working in the People’s Kitchen. Within its five weeks of activity, the People’s Kitchen, Sayer tells The Report with evident pride, had become the most active and largest soup kitchen in Manhattan.
Sayer says the number of guards and policemen now gives him a “police state feeling.”
Rabbi Jill Hammer, director of spiritual education at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale, New York, says she was so shaken by the “harsh treatment of people and extreme way that the breaking up was done” that she could not sleep at night.
“I was really aware of being scared of being around police at the Rosh Hodesh event,” she tells The Report. “Seeing videos of people being pepper-sprayed was traumatic… in a Jewish way. It reminded me of militarized, state-sponsored violence.”
Continuing Sieradski’s analogy, the “post-exilic phase of Occupy Wall Street” has begun. And this transition has ushered in a very Jewish endeavor – the creation of a body of commentary on the meaning, success and legacy of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Judaism for the Jewish community.
“THERE’S NO DOUBT IN my mind that there’s a direct line between the Jewish prophetic voice and modern protests of all sorts, whether one agrees with it or not,” says Scott Shay, chairman of the board of Signature Bank, author of “Getting our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry” (2006) and an observer of the Jewish community.
“There’s a Jewish impulse to speak truth to power,” Shay explains to The Report.
“Jeremiah made his most passionate prophecies about the hollowing out of the Jewish ruling class when he was in a dungeon; Elijah, who spoke to the rulers in the north, the king and his wife, is part of this impulse. There’s also a direct line of Jews being involved in protest movements [and]… in the Labor movements. Having a strong Jewish presence is not surprising.”
Jews, he says, tend to be activists because they are sensitive to feeling marginalized or members of persecuted social classes. “We’ve been in all of them,” he adds.
Shay sees no contradiction between his role as a bank chairman and his sympathy for the protest movement that vilifies banks and bankers. “My parents were definitely working-circle kind of folks. Mom was a member of the Teamsters Union and my dad was part of a carpenter’s union,” he reveals, adding that initially it was a teamster’s scholarship that paid his college tuition.
Referring to the OWS slogan that the protest represents the 99 percent majority of Americans, Sieradski has declared that Jews in America “are the one percent.” Although he was more cautious in his initial statements, Sieradski has since become more forceful and critical, implying that Jewish organizations are unwilling to support OWS because their support comes from this financial elite.
But Shay asserts, “Jews are used to moving between the 99 and one percent and back again... I grew up in the lower middle class.”
Like Shay, Rabbi Morris Allen, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Jacob in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, who created Magen Tzedek, an ethical certification for kosher food, says the protests are “inherently Jewish. OWS movements arise in society when concern for profits overwhelms the concern for human dignity. We are living in a time when the ethical prescriptions by which we are to live are often ignored – in secular society and in the religious community,” he says.
According to historian Jonathan Sarna, two lessons emerge from the protest. The first lesson, he tells The Report in an e-mail exchange, is that a movement needs to have a clear, crisp and easily articulated message. The second lesson is that a movement needs to be aware of the collateral damage that it causes, referring to charges that the protest disrupted local business to the point that the Milk Street Café, a new kosher restaurant that employed 100 people, nearly closed.
Yet despite these reservations, Sarna, who is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the new National Museum of American Jewish History, concludes that “OWS reflects deep frustration with the state of the economy, the country and the world from which young Jews are not immune. Such frustration… suggests that governments ignore such expressions of frustration and dissatisfaction at their great peril.”
However, the Jewish establishment has made little attempt to come to grips with the implications of the OWS and OJ movements. Requests for statements or interviews about the movements were politely declined by many organizations, including the UJAFederation of New York, The American Jewish World Service, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Orthodox Union.
The head of an urban communal organization speaks with The Report, but only on condition of anonymity. Describing himself as “a child of the sixties,” he says that the protests against the Vietnam War are an example of the ideal demonstrations and the OWS protests fell far short. Unlike Sarna, he believes that OWS does not pose a challenge to the organized Jewish community.
“OWS is a phenomenon but it is not a movement,” he says. For those who attended Jewish summer camps, it was “a cool kind of thing… that might remind you of those outdoors, moving, meaningful programs.” Terming OWS a “telegenic” event, this leader says he doubts the protest had any impact on the leaders of other Jewish organizations, either. Holding demonstrations in “a small tiny park” is not the way to create a meaningful movement capable of social change, he argues.
Rabbi Greg Wall of the Sixth Street Synagogue says that one of the shortcomings of the protest was the inability to articulate a core message that would have gained greater support. “I would have preferred to see a message emerge out of OWS that we will not stand idly by while the government encourages greed and continues to pass laws that make it possible to abuse the system according to the spirit of the law, that penalizes honesty and ethical behavior from businesses, and allows the bad apples to stink up the entire barrel,” he says.
In conversations with The Report, numerous Jewish leaders and activists express their disappointment at the lack of support from mainstream Jewish organizations and leaders. Says Hammer, “In terms of the organized Jewish community, I’ve heard a deafening silence… I don’t think that the mainstream Jewish community is looking to majorly shift the economic structure of the country.”
Sayer is especially critical of the lack of solidarity with OWS-related causes such as the rising tuition prices at the City University of New York (CUNY) schools. “The fact that the Jews were the biggest beneficiaries of the CUNY system gives them the responsibility to speak out,” he explains. “It seems to me that the Jewish community – even though it speaks about kindness and generosity – is conservative in action, afraid to say anything that may change the status quo. I am very disappointed in American Jewry with this movement. It seems that no one is trying to show up, speak up or say something in support.”
According to Sayer , OWS is still alive; the action has just moved elsewhere. There are daily meetings in downtown buildings and General Assembly gatherings every other night. A 24-hour art activity took place in early December. Demonstrations are ongoing; one such protest took place when US President Barack Obama was in town a few days earlier.
Occupy Judaism’s electronic mailing list and discussions are livelier than ever. Its next big initiative is Occupy Beit Midrash, a program where people can get together to study Jewish texts about ethics and justice, says Sieradski. And activists are busy preparing an “Occupy Hanukka” event to continue the momentum.
Uri L’Tzedek, a relatively young organization that works to promote social justice infused by Torah values, has endorsed the efforts of Occupy Judaism. Echoing Bronstein, Rabbi Ari Weiss, Uri L’Tzedek’s director of Orthodox Social Justice, sees the protests as reflective of the contemporary harsh economic reality.
“The fact that OWS has caught on reflects the economic hardship many in this country, including within the Jewish community, are feeling. There have been some promising things emerging from the movement and some disturbing ones. We hope that the conversation around justice, greed and equality continues to flourish and grow within and outside of the Orthodox community,” he tells The Report.
Hammer notes that one of the measures of how successful Occupy Wall Street was is that synagogues in Manhattan “took a hit” in Yom Kippur attendance because so many Jews flocked down to be part of services across the street from Zuccotti Park. She says she “draws strength from the conversion of drab city plazas into sacred spaces due to the rituals and prayers performed there.”
Just as Jewish ritual was appropriated as a means of protest, so too, Jewish teachings and social practice might ultimately be appropriated as correctives to the current social and economic problems, she argues.
Shay, of Signature Bank, agrees. “More than 2,000 years before economists had the notion of a redistributive tax system, Jews had already implemented one,” he says. “The Mishna codified the Torah idea of leaving pe’ah (corners of the field) for the poor – about 2 percent, ma’aser rishon to the Levites and ma’aser sheni to the poor and Jerusalemites essentially. In addition, there were the ‘taxes’ of leket, peret and shikheha. Finally and on top of all this there was the community fund. All in all, the redistributive component tax rate was some 30 percent.... The redistributive taxes were effectively enforced via ostracism [for those who failed to contribute].”
Sayer concludes optimistically. “This movement has changed the public discussion. Justice, equality and corruption are matters we are all talking about suddenly.”