A protest in front the S.F. office of ICE the day before Yom Kippur, organized by Binya Koatz (right) (Photo/Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb-Facebook)
A protest in front the S.F. office of ICE the day before Yom Kippur, organized by Binya Koatz (right) (Photo/Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb-Facebook)

‘The fast I desire’: marking Yom Kippur with political protest

Some Bay Area Jews observed Yom Kippur this year by combining political protest with holiday ritual.

The morning of Sept. 18, the day before the Day of Atonement, a group of around 20 Jews protested in front of the downtown San Francisco office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, holding a banner that proclaimed: “Yom Kippur is Hebrew for abolish ICE,” echoing ongoing calls on the left to #AbolishICE.

And on Yom Kippur itself, a mostly Bay Area-based group of Jewish spiritual leaders organized an action dubbed the Yom Kippur Walkout, a national call for individuals and congregations to leave services for 18 minutes around noon. “It is time for a national teshuvah [repentance] to restore America’s conscience!,” says the event’s website, ykwalkout.net.

“It will be up to each of us to develop our own individual focus, be it the issues of poverty, hunger, income inequality, immigration, reaffirming American democracy, freedom of the press, protecting the web of life and all Earth’s creatures, and more,” the website added.

It is unclear how many synagogues participated, but 21 congregations from around the country were represented on a signup sheet on the site, including Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont and Chadesh Yameinu Jewish Renewal in Santa Cruz, as well more far-flung communities such as Lab/Shul in New York City and Pardes Levavot in Boulder, Colorado.

East Bay-based activist Binya Koatz organized the ICE protest with contacts from left-wing groups such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace. “It was Isaiah’s idea,” Koatz said, referring to the biblical prophet.

In a passage traditionally read on Yom Kippur, Isaiah says: “Is this the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? … No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke” (Isaiah 58).

Said Koatz, “This is living prophecy, Isaiah’s concept of justice. It says basically, don’t just fast. Be in the streets. I want the oppressed set free, not just ritual. I wanted this Yom Kippur to be different.”

Protesters at the ICE headquarters recited a version of the iconic Yom Kippur prayer Ashamnu, which added to the traditional list of sins: “we deported, we split families,” referring to controversial Trump administration policies toward migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“In order to write ourselves in the Book of Life, we have to write ICE into the Book of Death,” Koatz said.

Abigail Grafton, a leader of the East Bay’s Aquarian Minyan, conceived of and co-organized the Yom Kippur Walkout. Different individuals and congregations had different approaches to the walkout, she said.

“Some places did something inside the congregation, they added some kind of meditation or something to the service,” Grafton said. “The invitation was to walk out for 18 minutes and stand in the street, interrupting business as usual to say that this is a moral emergency.”

Members of Aquarian Minyan walked out of services into the street to hear from several speakers, including Grafton. “I said that we should remember these days because [the 2016 presidential election] was the most important election in American history. We’re in danger of losing our country,” she said. “Then we marched around singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Then we went back in and had Yizkor.”

Planners of both actions are already thinking about next year.

“We’re going to keep going,” Grafton said. “I think the Minyan will start having more services outside, in the street, to bring our spirit out into the world during this dangerous time.”

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.