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Jewesses with Attitude

Freethinkers and radicals #OccupyWallStreet: The activist tradition and Yom Kippur

The iconic anarchist Emma Goldman believed that religion was inherently repressive. An atheist Jew, she challenged the conservatism of the traditional Jewish community by holding events on Jewish holidays, like a Yom Kippur picnic for "freethinkers and radicals" in 1907. It is beautiful to see that in 2011, freethinking, radical Jews are following in Goldman’s footsteps by engaging in the Jewish tradition of activism and protest during the High Holy Days.

Over the past week, the #OccupyWallStreet movement picked up steam as solidarity protests broke out in major cities across the country and the press finally started to pay attention. Online activism ramped up too, especially with the heartbreaking Tumblr site “We Are the 99 Percent,” where individuals share stories of hardship, frustration, and the hopelessness of the so-called “American Dream.”

Daniel Sieradski, the director of Jew It Yourself, organized Kol Nidre services at #OccupyWallStreet in New York City. He told JTA, “We are hosting a Friday night Yom Kippur service to accommodate both Jewish demonstrators, and to bring out the Jewish community to protest the economic injustice that is happening in the U.S. and around the world.” On the Facebook event page, he writes:

As lower Manhattan erupts with thousands of protesters taking a stand against economic injustice, the words of the prophet Isaiah resonate more truthfully and appropriately than ever:

"Is such the fast that I have chosen? the day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the LORD shall be thy rearward."

Thus rather than spending the holiday safe and warm in our cozy synagogues thinking abstractly about human suffering, perhaps we should truly afflict ourselves and undertake the fast of Isaiah, by joining the demonstrators in Zuccotti Park, and holding our Yom Kippur services there amongst the oppressed, hungry, poor and naked.

Sieradski’s actions inspired four young Boston Jews to organize their own Kol Nidre service tonight at #OccupyBoston. Jocelyn Berger, one of the organizers, said, “Dan [Sieradski] is a genius. When I saw they were organizing Kol Nidre at #OccupyWallStreet, I was inspired. I went to bed picturing myself protesting in a talis and I woke up in the morning saying, 'Okay, we have to do this.’” She quickly connected with three others who had the same idea.

Organized spontaneously and entirely over Facebook in just 24 hours, Jocelyn Berger, Yael Shinar, Ryan Adams, and Aliza Levine (some of whom have never met) had organized Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur services at #OccupyBoston. Even though they don’t yet have a trained service leader or a Torah, it is happening. Jocylen Berger said, ““For me, social justice values are Jewish values; I’ve worked in the Jewish social justice community for a long time and I feel like my activism comes form a Jewish place. To be able to combine such an infamous religious ritual with a message of social justice makes it doubly powerful for me.” Aliza Levine said, “I felt really incensed and really urgent about what’s happening at #OccupyWallStreet and #OccupyBoston and urgent about being there ... I also feel urgent about observing Yom Kippur in a way that’s meaningful and reflects what’s going on in the world.”

Ryan Adams said: "For a number of reasons, Jews should not be on the side of the greedy people controlling the world. That’s not a good look for us. We’re not all Bernie Madoffs; we come from a tradition that critiques those people &mdash that says that if you steal from people and families you’re not a Jew. It boggles my mind that we weren’t out there supporting people at #OccupyWallStreet, like with food and shelter. I was so upset that my friends said 'do something about it,' so I did. It was great to hear about New York and learn that we aren’t doing this alone." Adams discusses his take in depth at his blog, Rockstar Rabbi.

Meanwhile, earlier this week in New York City Miriam Rosenberg Roček (recently interviewed on Jewesses with Attitude) appeared in Liberty Park Plaza as Steampunk Emma Goldman, explaining that she had traveled forward in time to support #OccupyWallStreet. She said:

“This is my first time back in NYC since I was exiled from the US in the 20th century for my anarchist beliefs. Like I said, I absolutely love what you’ve done with the place. I think what you are doing here is fantastic, I think the community you are building here is wonderful and I think that what you are working for is marvelous.”

Roček then read Goldman’s shockingly relevant essay from 1909, “The New Declaration of Independence” to the crowd.

So, Jewish freethinkers and radicals, how are you mixing activism with observance — or non-observance — this year?

Advertisement for "'Yom Kipur' Picnic" organized by Goldman and her colleagues
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Goldman's dislike of religion is evidenced by her participation in events such as this, scheduled on Jewish holy days.

How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Freethinkers and radicals #OccupyWallStreet: The activist tradition and Yom Kippur." 7 October 2011. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 28, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/freethinkers-and-radicals-activist-tradition-and-yom-kippur>.

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