Occupy Wall Street Jews to 'Occupy Judaism'

Jews in the Occupy Wall Street movement are finding Jewish inspiration for their protests, and setting their sights on rethinking Jewish institutions.

Occupy Wall Street 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton )
Occupy Wall Street 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton )
NEW YORK – As protest movements under the banner of Occupy Wall Street grow in cities across the United States, a parallel movement deemed “Occupy Judaism” has sprung up as well.
The protests are now scenes for vivid experimentation in Judaism as well as society. Like the succot built at several protest sites, Occupy Judaism is an indication that there are Jews among the “99 percent” of people protesting their sense of disenfranchisement and dissatisfaction with inequalities in American society.
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“There are a lot of Jews who have been really affected by the economy,” Rabbi Alana Suskin, a participant in Occupy DC, said. “There may be one synagogue in the country where no one has lost their jobs. Jews also have their poor. It’s the unspoken elephant in the room. Not everybody’s well off. Probably most Jews are part of the 99%.”
Allegations have been made by some, including New York Times columnist David Brooks, that the Occupy movements are anti- Semitic. Suskin said such concerns were effectively defused by the reaction she and other organizers had to their efforts to erect a succa for the holiday in the Occupy protests in the nation’s capital.
When her group approached organizers about building a succa in MacPherson Square in DC, Suskin said, the organizers “were thrilled, and we received offers of help and supplies.”
Occupy Wall Street and its regional cohorts, Suskin said, are an “American movement for justice, and as far as I can see the people around us recognize that Jews are Americans just as they are, and there isn’t, as far as I can tell, any evidence that the 1% term is any kind of coded message about Jews.”
In fact, organizers said, the protests afford American Jews an opportunity to rethink their relationship to their own religion. One of the organizers of Occupy Judaism, Daniel Sieradski, was involved in putting together the New York Kol Nidre service by the protest site which attracted between 700 and 1,000 participants last week. Siedradski called such services “civil disobedient davening (praying)."
“It started with one Tweet and got 1,000 people,” Sieradski said, adding that New York’s Kol Nidre Occupy service was traditional egalitarian, and included secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews alike.
Sieradski called the Occupy movements “one of the most exciting things to happen in American Judaism."
“We’re giving people an outlet through which to express their Jewish values that no other Jewish institution has been able to provide them with,” Sieradski said, adding that he hopes that the long-term momentum of the movement will lead Jews to “occupy our own Jewish institutions, rendering them responsive and accountable to the needs of the community."
“Most Jewish institutions are dominated by their wealthiest donors, whose views might not be in line with that of the wider Jewish community,” Sieradski said. “It’s our community and our tradition as much as it is anybody’s, and they need to make space for us.”
Ideally, Sieradski said, the Occupy Judaism movement will have the effect of “making our tradition a living, breathing justice movement."
“These may be traditional rituals,” Sieradski said of endeavors like the Kol Nidre services and succot being erected in protests nationwide, “but in the context of admonitions of the prophets and American Jewish history, they are an opportunity to create consistency between our beliefs, our heritage, our practice and our values.”
One of many Facebook pages set up to coordinate Succot celebrations at the Occupy protests is Los Angeles’ “Not Just A Succa: A JUST Succa at Occupy LA.” Citing the charge of the prophet Isaiah, the page reads, “There is no more important time than right now to be present, really present, in the streets of the United States to decry the injustice of those who are suffering under crushing debt, foreclosure, lack of health care; to decry the injustice that the 1% who brought the economy down are still in their offices ‘earning’ bonuses while the other 99% of us are trying to figure out how to make it to the end of the month.”
Occupy Judaism has started to emerge as a movement of those who are unhappy with not only the state of American society, but perhaps of Jewish life in America as well.
“We chose to erect and occupy our succa here at Zuccotti Park,” a statement from Occupy Judaism read regarding the New York succa at the protests. “There is no better place to celebrate the festival of Succot this year than right here at Occupy Wall Street. We stand in solidarity with all those who are challenging the inequitable distribution of resources in our country, who dare to dream of a more just and compassionate society.”