What started as an act of solidarity and peaceful protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline ended in nine arrests of Jewish community members.
The Dakota Access Pipeline stretches across four states and would unearth billions of barrels of undiscovered crude oil, but the fact that it crosses Native American burial and sacred sites has caused outrage across the country.
The pipeline would also impact the water source of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
More than 60 members of the Jewish community showed up on the corner of 17th and Market streets Nov. 2 to make their opposition to the pipeline project known.
Jessica Rosenberg, a student at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC), has followed the news at Standing Rock for months and has participated in local actions.
“As things escalated over the past few weeks, seeing militarized police with our tax dollars pepper-spray nonviolent, peaceful protesters, resisters, protectors on their land — we can’t be silent. We can’t not act,” she said.
As Standing Rock has asked for prayers from all faith groups, Rosenberg said this was a perfect time to make their voices heard as it was the beginning of a new month, Cheshvan, which she said is an incredibly powerful time to act and pray together.
The protest group — comprised of young and old, men and women — chanted and echoed prayers and songs of water, honoring indigenous sovereignty.
They began with peaceful prayers for water by covering the sidewalk with blue paper and sheets — singing “by the waters of Babylon,” “because water is life,” and so on — in front of a branch of Wells Fargo, which finances the pipeline, among other enterprises.
“Center City is filled with banks and financial institutions that fund this pipeline,” Rosenberg said, citing other places such as Citibank, Rite Aid, TD Bank, Citigroup and Sunoco. “We knew that if we came here there would be many options of how to take action today.”
After about an hour, the group locked arms and marched down Market Street — blocking rush-hour traffic — to TD Ameritrade, where almost a dozen people stormed the bank’s doors.
That group — Jewish rabbis, students and community leaders — held a sit-in in the bank’s lobby for about 20 minutes before arrests were made. The crowd sang hymns, harmonizing “you do not walk alone” as the nine group members were directed into police vans.
“People here are ready to risk arrest if that’s what’s necessary, but we’re here to deliver the message to TD Bank and make a public visible statement,” Rosenberg said, adding that there are plenty of other local banks that are not funding fossil fuel extraction, so people should consider taking their banking elsewhere.
The action was initiated by leaders of Jewish Voice for Peace, a national grassroots organization that promotes peace for Palestinians and Israelis.
Rabbi Alissa Wise, Jewish Voice for Peace deputy director, was arrested, as well as Rabbi Michael Ramberg; Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari; rabbinical students Rebecca Hornstein, Diane Tracht and Rebecca Richman; Jewish Voice for Peace Philadelphia leaders Milo Gianovello and Nicole Sugarman; and Leewana Thomas.
They were charged with a civil violation for refusal to disperse but were released the same evening.
Miriam Levia Grossman, an RRC student and student rabbi from Brooklyn, attended the protest briefly but left halfway through to catch a flight to Standing Rock, where she stayed for four days.
Grossman interned for the Tribal Historic Preservation Office at Standing Rock eight years ago for about six months, so she has a personal connection to the people and the land.
“At this very moment, Standing Rock Reservation and the water protectors, which are the native folks and allies who are working to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, are in a really dire moment,” she explained.
Some sacred sites are already destroyed, but she believes this could be a turning point in American history.
“This is really an attack on Native sovereignty and on Native rights,” she continued. “In addition to that, but secondarily, this is very much about environmental racism and the fight to protect our planet. I’m here because I’m answering the call from Native leadership and the water protectors and personally from friends who I love on Standing Rock to stand in solidarity with their struggle and to be led by them.”
RRC Rabbi Linda Holtzman and fellow rabbinical student Ariana Katz also flew to North Dakota. More than 460 clergy from more than 15 different faith groups traveled to the site to participate in the National Clergy Day of Action Nov. 2 and 3, providing support and prayers.
“This is a moment to look between faiths — what does healing look like and what does solidarity look like?” Grossman said, adding that they will honor and respond to the call to say Native lives matter. “There is no Jewish future without a future of our planet.”
But fighting for these rights goes deeper for Grossman.
Her grandmother was a survivor of a pogrom, and she would often ask her as a child “if she wanted to go back to her village. She would answer that the graves were destroyed there, as a symbol of how profoundly their history was erased,” she recalled. “So when I see friends fighting to protect the graves of their families and of their ancestors and loved ones, I believe that if it was wrong for my grandmother and for my own family, then in my own time I have to stand in solidarity to stop it from happening today.
“I saw my grandmother and the traumas that she survived that happened when the place she loved was attacked and erased,” she added. “I want to fight alongside my friends at Standing Rock to stop that from happening today.”
Rabbi Ariella Rosen from Adath Israel also attended the protest.
“As a Jewish community, we have a responsibility to show up, especially when it comes to a situation with a people and their relationship to their land because that’s been a part of our story for thousands of years,” she said.
The pipeline is taking away empowerment and sovereignty that was legally granted, she added, so the Jewish community should show empathy and support for Standing Rock.
Rosen hopes this protest and countless others will make an impact and get the word out, similar to the Facebook check-ins a couple of weeks ago in which Facebook users virtually tagged themselves in Standing Rock to flood the system and make it more difficult for government officials to locate actual protesters.
“This is an issue that the Jewish community is a no-brainer for getting behind,” she said. “There’s just so many overlapping values here.
“This is too important. It’s easy to show up on a 70-degree day in Philadelphia. It’s a lot harder to be sleeping out in freezing temperatures in North Dakota right now,” she continued. “So this is an easy thing, and I hope we don’t forget that there are a lot of people doing something a lot harder right now.”
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