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  • A Prophetic Voice: Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Judaism

    Posted on November 16th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments


    This morning American’s across the country awoke to news that the various “Occupy” encampments from New York to Oakland had been shut down over night. In the slightly less than two months since it began the movement has captured attention across the country. On Yom Kippur a group of Jews came together in New York to pray and Occupy Judaism was born.


    How does this movement play out for the students and alumni of HUC? To be sure, Occupy Judaism is non-denominational enshewing the hierarchies of movement based Judaism. Yet over the last few week I put out calls and connected with some current HUC students and Nancy Weiner, the Clinical Director of the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling and faculty advisor to the Student Association and Interfaith programs to understand their perspective.


    The students spoke candidly but asked that I not use names. They were concerned about the perception their involvement might have on employment –current or future- which suggests that even as the mainstream media covers the protests, Occupy remains a fairly small group on the margins. For the students there is both fear and pride. Fear, that involvement will mark a person as too radical (there are rumors that people involved with Occupy Judaism and currently employed in mainstream Jewish organizations have been asked not to be too public about Occupy involvement.) Pride, that they are carrying out the prophetic tradition.


    For Nancy Weiner, a tenured professor as well as a rabbi to a small congregation, pride dominates. Growing up, social justice was the essence of what it meant to be a Reform Jew. Her High Holidays sermon on the issues raised by the Occupy Wall Street protests and her participation in the protests during Sukkot were obvious extensions of a long standing commitment to social justice. Was she concerned that her sermon might offend or provoke her financially comfortable congregants? Not really. “They understand that there is a need to fix the system.” Nor is she alone in speaking out. According to Weiner several rabbinic colleagues, in wealthy congregations spoke about the movement over the High Holidays. As she pointed out, all of these communities have been touched by the concerns raised by those who were camping in Zuccotti Park. Weiner was neither the only HUC faculty member nor the only HUC rabbi taking part in the Occupy Sukkot action that took place. Shirely Idelsohn Dean of the New York School was there as was Ellen Lippmann.


    Lippmann wrote in the Huffington Post about the connection between the holiday and the contemporary movement. For one of the students, the highlight of eating and sleeping in the sukkot in Zucotti Park was studying the laws of sukkot and recognizing that everyone, from the richest person with the most beautiful home to the poorest person, all have the same obligation to dwell in a sukkah during the holiday, reinforcing a vision of fundamental equality no matter our earthly riches. Another described a scene that amazed her, Councilman Brad Lander was teaching the Occupy Judaism group about law pertaining to housing in New York and all of a sudden Jesse Jackson comes by. The learning stopped, the two embraced and spoke and then the learning continued. It was the embodiment of the sukkah as an open place of peace.

    But for all that I spoke to, the message of Occupy Judaism transcends the direct connection to sukkot. Repeatedly I was told of David Sapperstein’s recent address to the HUC-JIR community in which he spoke of the Occupy Wall Street as a prophetic voice in the best tradition of the prophets of old. True enough there is no clear agenda, no clear answers to fix the problems of society. But that does not seem to bother the supporters. Our ancient prophets did not focus on the fix but rather the identification of the difficulties.


    As for concerns about OWS being anti-semitic, according to those who had spent significant time in the park in Manhattan, they are simply part of the attempts to discredit the movement. Yes, there have been negative signs and slogans here and there, but they have been overshadowed by bigger signs discrediting the anti-semites and the general signage that says nothing about Jews at all.


    No doubt there will be those among the alumni who do not support either or both Occupy Wall Street or Occupy Judaism, I’d love to hear from you as well. For whatever happens next, it is clear that the voices of Jewish wisdom and tradition should not be left out of the economic debates that are so critical for our collective future.



    2 responses to “A Prophetic Voice: Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Judaism”

    1. I, for one, am deeply concerned about these demonstrations. I have been told that already signs such as “We need jobs, not Jews” have been seen at demonstrations throughout the country…and the anti-Israel placards are numerous and plentiful throughout all of the demonstrations. Brown shirt demonstrations in pre-WW II Germany also started out innocently enough. I find it ironic that middle class Jews, complete with their i-pods, cell phones, and beautifully made sleeping bags are condemning the very system that keeps them solidly comfortable and middle class. It’s enough with these demonstrations. My heart is with the abused police who have to protect and shield these demonstrators. Forgive me for being such a dinosaur.

      Rabbi Jon Haddon

    2. Dear Rabbi Haddon,

      Thanks so much for adding your perspective to this conversation.


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