Occupy Wall Street movement brings Jewish ethos to demonstrations

The Occupy Wall Street economic movement that has spread rapidly from New York to cities across the country, including San Francisco and Oakland, has taken on a Jewish flavor for some protesters — from holding outdoor Yom Kippur services to welcoming donated Shabbat challahs.

In New York and other locations, hundreds gathered for open-air Kol Nidre services on Oct. 7. “For many of us, social justice is where we find our Judaism,” said Regina Weiss, communications director for the New York–based Jewish Funds for Justice. “For many there is no more important way to stand up and express Judaism on the holiest night of the year than to stand with people who are hurting and to stand up for greater equality in the country.”

Protesters are undeterred by weather Oct. 10 at the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco. photo/emma silvers

In downtown Oakland, activists erected a sukkah on Oct. 12 in Frank Ogawa Plaza to show solidarity with the movement on the eve of the Sukkot holiday. The sukkah was co-sponsored by an East Bay group, Jewish Youth for Community Action, and Kehilla Community Synagogue of Piedmont.

Other groups around the country also built sukkahs, including Occupy Judaism, an online campaign that is trying to establish a Jewish presence at the protests nationwide.

The New York sukkah was donated by PopUp Sukkah, a company co-owned by Chabadnik Yoni Reskin, who said the protests represented an opportunity to have Jews fulfill the mitzvahs of Sukkot. “It’s not a political angle,” he said. “I truly believe that on Sukkot everyone should be able to celebrate the holiday. When I found that this opportunity was available, I wanted to be able to help perform the mitzvah.”

In San Francisco, Jewish protesters reflected a more regional, laid-back flavor.

In the city’s Financial District on Oct. 10, local legend “Diamond Dave” Whitaker, a staple of the beat poetry scene and a protest organizer, said he and other Jews on hand likely would be open to organized Jewish activities.

“If someone wanted to come down here with challah and whatnot, I think we’d be happy to do Shabbat,” he said, adding that his politics were in part shaped by time spent living in Israel on a kibbutz as a young man.

But another Jewish protester who showed up on the rainy Monday after Yom Kippur took a more global view of his participation.

“I came out today because I want to take part in what feels like an awakening of working people in this country, standing up against these really glaring economic inequalities that stare us in the face every day,” said the San Francisco resident, who wished to be identified as Phil H.

Hundreds gather in New York for Kol Nidre service to support the Occupy Wall Street movement. photo/david a.m. wilensky

Days after an Oct. 6 police raid, protesters appeared undeterred as they rebuilt their camp, donned ponchos and huddled under tarps in front of the Federal Reserve Bank at 101 Market St. Bicycle-fueled generators powered laptops as people passed around donated bags of snacks.

“It’s messy,” said Phil H., a student at San Francisco City College, “but it’s a rediscovery in participatory democracy. I don’t know that that’s something that can or should be divided along religious lines. I think everyone has something to contribute.”

In New York, the person credited with the idea of holding the Kol Nidre services to support the demonstrators, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, said protesting is a key part of Judaism.

“The reason there is a Jewish place in these protests is that there is a protest place in Judaism,” said Waskow, director of the Shalom Center. “From the Exodus, from Isaiah, from Jeremiah and all the way down to rabbinic Judaism, there is a sense that Judaism is constantly struggling against top-down power of the Pharaoh.

“Judaism calls for freedom, democracy and feeding the hungry,” he added.

Some Jews in the New York protest said they’re trying to combat a minority strain of anti-Zionism and anti-Semit-ism running through the movement.

“There was a guy with a sign ‘Zionists control the financial world,’ ” said Kobi Skolnick, an ex-Chabadnik who attended a yeshiva in the West Bank. “They have freedom of speech, but so do I. What we did is we wrote on a big, 10 times bigger, sign: ‘This sign sucks, and it is not representative here.’ ”

Activist Daniel Sieradski, the organizer of Occupy Judaism, said there are anti-Zionist ideologues involved in the Occupy Wall Street protests who believe that Israel is central to U.S. economic issues.

They “think that the issue of the Israeli occupation is inseparable from the economic situation. They think that Israel is an outpost of American imperialism, including economic imperialism,” he said. “There is a tendency on the left to make Jews who identify with Israel uncomfortable. I hope we can overcome that. There are plenty of people against the Israel occupation, but that’s not what this is about.”

The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly donated 120 High Holy Day prayerbooks for the Yom Kippur service in New York.

“Wherever there is an opportunity to bring Torah and learning to Jews, wherever they are, we want to be there,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the organization’s executive vice president.

Sieradski, who also organized the service, read from a labor leader’s midrash at the event: “Kol Nidre reminds us that though we make commitments under duress, ultimately we are accountable only to the higher values of justice and righteousness.”

The  sounds of prayer drowned out the drumbeat at the lower Manhattan plaza protesters have occupied since Sept. 17.

Congregants arranged themselves in concentric circles around the bimah and a Torah scroll on loan from an Orthodox synagogue, chanting and singing so that the words of the service could carry back to the edges of the crowd. It was hard to tell whether the Kol Nidre call and response was borrowed from an old labor tactic or Jewish summer camp. Halal food carts ringed the congregation.

Demonstrator Rachel Feldman, 26, noted that the Kol Nidre service drew many of her friends who would never go to traditional synagogues.

“This is what shul should feel like,” said Feldman, surrounded by a congregation wearing a mix of sneakers, ties, tallits, yarmulkes, jeans and T-shirts. “Overwhelmed by community.” 

J. staff writer Emma Silvers contributed to this report.