“Lord, give me the strength to bend the arc of the universe towards justice.”
More than 20 women and a handful of men sang that and other verses together at a Jewish gathering before one of Philadelphia’s two iterations of this year’s Women’s March on Jan. 19.
At “Before the March: A Jewish Gathering to Fortify Your Heart & Stomach,” the group met at an apartment near the Art Museum, where they mingled and sang songs, including one that drew on Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous words.
Of the two marches in Philadelphia, the Jewish gathering’s attendees went to the one held on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Philly Women Rally, the local group that organized the march the last two years. The other march, held at Love Park, was organized by Women’s March Pennsylvania, a chapter of the national Women’s March Inc., an organization that has come under fire for anti-Semitism and mismanagement.
In its third year, controversy has embroiled Women’s March Inc. and its leaders. One in particular, Tamika Mallory, has refused to condemn the words of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who has called Jews termites among other comments, after appearing at one of his events.
As a result, many women in the Jewish community who support the march’s mission had mixed thoughts on attending this year.
In the end, the women at the Art Museum gathering had decided to show their support, at least for the Philly Women Rally march. Women at the gathering expressed that the answer to dealing with anti-Semitism is not to sit out of the conversation.
“I’m there. It matters to me,” said Molly Wernick, assistant director of community engagement at Camp Galil, who organized the gathering. “I want to organize with sisters and allies and people from varying identities other than my own, as well as support my own community. I’m not going to wait for permission, for someone to tell me that I belong there or not, because I know that I do. I’m not going to remove myself from that table. I want to be at that table, and I don’t need to agree with everybody at that table about everything.”
Wernick and Miriam Steinberg-Egeth, director of the Center City Kehillah, welcomed attendees, who then joined a discussion on anti-Semitism led by Jen Anolik of Moving Traditions, created Tu B’Shevat-themed trail mix or learned about a variety of different organizations that were tabling.
Steinberg-Egeth said she had no qualms about attending the locally organized march, especially since it was run independently of the national Women’s March group. (She added that were she in Washington, she would have been on the fence about attending that march.)
Steinberg-Egeth pointed to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation as one of the incidents over the past year that motivated her to show up.
“I know a lot of people who have participated in Women’s Marches in the past who are not participating this year because of a variety of issues, but we can’t stop,” Steinberg-Egeth said. “We can’t stop because things are hard. We can’t stop because things are complicated.”
At 10 a.m., the group left for the museum, where they joined a stream of others. Beyoncé’s “Who Run the World (Girls)” thrummed as the crowd marched toward the museum’s steps.
As others joined, the crowd bounced to the rhythm and occasionally sang along as a medley of other pop ballads, such as “Raise Your Glass” and “I’m a Survivor,” played out.
The speakers at the Philly Women Rally march spoke about gun violence, immigrant rights and women’s issues, among other subjects. Speakers included Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Philly Women Rally Founding Board Member Beth Finn and Rabbi Annie Lewis, director of rabbinic formation at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
“On this Sabbath morning, Jewish people around the world are telling this story of the Exodus from Egypt,” Lewis said. “The journey to liberation begins with a cry. The Israelite people are suffering; they can’t bear it anymore, and so they cry out, and their cries are heard.”
The list of speakers at the march in Love Park was much smaller. It included Sherrie Cohen, an activist who is running for an at-large seat on the Philadelphia City Council.
Cohen, who introduced herself firstly as “a Jewish lesbian feminist” at the rally, noted that there are Jewish women among the Women’s March Inc.’s leadership and that the leadership has denounced anti-Semitism and met with Jewish women and rabbis. (Despite those denunciations, Women’s March Inc. co-founder Linda Sarsour endorsed the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel during a speech at the national Women’s March in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 19.)
“I believe in building solidarity among women across lines of race and class and religion, because that is how we build understanding amongst one another,” Cohen said. “The more we understand one another, the greater our power as women will be.”
Some skipped both rallies.
That included Mariel J.K. Martin, who was one of organizers of the first Philly Women Rally march in Philadelphia but has not attended one since.
She resigned after the march that first year over several issues, including what she felt like was a lack of diverse representation.
She had intended on attending both marches this year for her work in politics, but in the end, her work didn’t need her to be there so she attended neither.
It was a decision she called “empowering.” She said it’s disheartening for her to see rifts in the Women’s March because it creates divisions in the civil rights and women’s movements and feeds into a narrative that women aren’t able to lead. She also doesn’t like to be tokenized.
“We don’t need to challenge the status quo all the time,” Martin said.
Finn, who is running for an at-large city council seat, was another Jewish woman who organized the first march in Philadelphia. She said she started to get involved in activism leading up to the 2016 election, when then-candidate Donald Trump signaled his support for a potential registry of Muslims.
She said she has received a lot of inquiries about if their march is affiliated with the national organization and their stance on anti-Semitism.
“It’s important that Jewish women’s voices are heard, just as much as everybody else’s,” Finn said. “If we sit it out, our voices get lost.”
At the museum stage, Finn made sure her voice was recognized as that of a Jewish woman.
“Like so many people who faced oppression and bigotry for millenia, Jews are resilient,” Finn said during the march. “We keep our faith, and we never stop hoping.”
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