A Touch of Tradition Amid ‘Occupy’ Protests



Protesters chanted, waved signs and marched around City Hall in downtown Philadelphia, a group of Jewish organizers staged an unusual approach to social activism: They davened the Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service.
Next to Emlen Etting's abstract "Phoenix Rising" sculpture, and beneath the watchful eyes of helmeted police officers patrolling the street above, some 100 worshipers gathered in a recessed concourse of Dilworth Plaza at City Hall to sing traditional liturgy.


The Yom Kippur gathering here echoed a similar one in Manhattan, where Occupy Wall Street protests launched a wave of social and economic demonstrations around the country. Though the goals appear somewhat amorphous, with protesters calling attention to a wide array of causes, many have focused on frustration and anger over what they see as corporate greed, disproportionate benefits for the wealthy and political paralysis.
The liturgical passages were possibly the only traditional part of the service, where responsive singing blended with the sounds of traffic and marchers.
In addition to a rotating cast of prayer leaders that mirrored the non-hierarchical, diffuse leadership of Occupy Philadelphia, participants also borrowed one of the movement's technical innovations: mic check. Mic check, or human microphone, developed as a response to New York's laws against amplified sound in which one person speaks and then the crowd repeats his or her words until everyone can hear them.
The Kol Nidre mic check replaced many responsive readings, creating an affinity between the service and the broader activist movement. It also solved the problem of more people attending than the organizers had expected, leading to a dearth of Machzorim, or High Holiday prayerbooks.
Some participants were not so interested in finding meaningful links between Yom Kippur and the Occupy movement.
"For me, it's just about the confluence of dates," acknowledged Zoe Coen, one of the organizers of the service who had publicized the event on Facebook, in emails and within the Occupy Philly space itself.
Coen, a visual artist, had previously drawn large lettered questions in pastel chalk on the city streets, asking questions like, "Why are you here? How will you participate?"
"People did join in," Coen said. "People started gathering on the wall above us and observed what we were doing. A homeless woman came by, stood by the side and watched. She told me how lovely it was and how nice the singing was."
At one point, a woman in a wheelchair was stranded on the concourse above the service. Attendees ran up the stairs to give her a Machzor and a handout.
For others, the timing with the holiday resonated strongly. Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, the director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, penned a variant of the traditional al chet prayer of repentance that added sins of waste, overconsumption, inequality, war and conflict to the traditionally listed sins.
Jesse Bacon, a writer and blogger for Jewish Voice for Peace who co-led the service, saw a variety of connections between Kol Nidre and Occupy Philadelphia.
"On the simplest level, Jews have been victimized by anti-Semitism because of economic inequality. For the sake of preservation, it's important to have a movement for economic justice and have Jews be enthusiastic participants," said Bacon, who attended with his 4-year-old daughter, Ronia. Moreover, Bacon said, "Yom Kippur is perfectly timed with the beginning of this movement to have this kind of introspection and think about the ways we've participated or profited in a system that led to this."
Chana Rothman, a local Philadelphia musician, echoed this sentiment. "How did this uneven distribution of wealth happen? We were all complicit. We could have said something.
"Corporations have grown without ethical checks and balances, and we stayed silent for too long. This lends itself to a confessional, to a really deep soul-searching." Rothman accompanied the egalitarian service by playing the guitar and flute.
A number of the participants said that what was most important was forging a connection between Judaism and activism.
"I wanted to make sure Jewish people got to be visible at the occupation during this holy day," Coen said. "I feel that it's important for Jews to out ourselves, especially activists, and to let people know that we're here and part of it."
Responses from the service were positive, as attendees posted their experiences on Facebook. "Kol Nidre at Occupy Philly was absolutely beautiful!" Josh Marcus wrote on a post collating Yom Kippur reactions from throughout the country. "We thought it was an amazing experience."
Once Yom Kippur was over, participants began to figure out how the movement will continue. On Sunday, Nava Szwergold, who helped organize the Kol Nidre event, started a Facebook group called Occupy Judaism Philadelphia and called it, "a place for progressive Jews."
Rabbi Julie Greenberg, leader of Congregation Leyv HaIr-Heart of the City, helped organize the building of a sukkah on Tuesday at City Hall.
The goal, she said, "is to educate people about the way Judaism serves the needs of the world. We want to put forth some of the universal themes in Judaism about welcoming everybody and sharing with others and the collaborative spirit of Sukkot."
A variety of people pitched in to help build the sukkah, including non-Jews.
Looking toward the future, Greenberg hopes it will become a "spirituality center," even beyond the holiday of Sukkot. "It's a place for people to have conversations and talk about what is of value in this world," said Greenberg,
Bacon, meanwhile, said he anticipated Jewish involvement in Occupy Philadelphia to stretch into the future.
"Barring a real crackdown, there will continue to be this long struggle, and we have the Jewish year to really sustain and give us different models of liberation," Bacon said. "I can already think of doing things for Chanukah and Pesach. It's important to keep tying activism into our Judaism, and tying Judaism into our activism."


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