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Occupy Wall Street: Yom Kippur

Though I would feel somewhat incomplete if I did not observe the Jewish holidays, I usually prefer to do so at home, in my own private way. The high cost of tickets around the holy days, paired with my inability to find a service that fits just right has left me fasting at home, alone in my bed, year after year. It goes without saying, I think, that I feel the loss of community in this method of observance, but it has always felt preferable to standing awkwardly in a service that does more to alienate me from my fellow Jews than bring me closer.

I am overjoyed to report that this year, for the Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service on Friday night, I joined a community of Jews in observance of the holy day and never once felt bored or estranged, but rather, engaged, emotional, and very much at home. This Yom Kippur, I stood with over 1000 Jews of all ages and all denominations, as we lent our voices to the Occupy Wall Street protest, across the street from Zuccotti Park.

Pictures by Damon Dahlen, AOL

The event was organized by Jewish activist Daniel Sieradski and promoted largely via social media. On his blog, Sieradanski introduced the event with a quote by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”

There has been some good coverage of the event (972mag, DailyKos, HuffPost) and I recommend any of those links for pictures and videos, and comments on the general vibe (personal, inclusive, empowering, moving). I want to provide a recap of the structure of the service itself, because I think the particular way the leaders of the service connected Jewish values and Jewish rituals to the protest is a valuable model for contemporary Jewish worship.

Though the event itself was unaffiliated, the machzors (100 of them) were donated by the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative movement’s organizing body) and in many respects, it was a traditional service.  This is a good thing. Too often, services that are aiming for “progressive” or “modern” stray too far from the traditional, until what’s presented is barely recognizable as Judaism at all. This is problematic for many different reasons. First of all, it falsely assumes that Orthodox or Conservative Jews are not progressive. At best, it leaves very little space for them to join the discussion. At worst, it reinforces old and useless divisions between likeminded Jewish people. Also, the traditional melodies and prayers are more likely to be recognized by everyone, and foster a feeling of togetherness that cannot be replicated by say, a secular poem or song. Although there weren’t enough machzors to go around, some of the most powerful moments were when we didn’t need the text to join in—the music and the lyrics embedded somewhere deep in our (collective?) consciousness, as illustrated in this short video, courtesy of @aimeeweiss.

During the shmona esrei, the traditional silent prayer, and a time when many people simply zone out in shul, the rabbi encouraged us to take the time to turn inward. “There are lots of beautiful words in here,” he said, raising the machzor. “There are also lots of beautiful words in your heart.”

While there was an adherence to the traditional service, it was flexible, and the rabbis allowed themselves to take a few key liberties with the service. In the part of the service “al cheit,” where we list the transgressions on the last year and ask forgiveness, a supplementary list was circulated and incorporated, pictured in part below.

Photo courtesy of @aimeeweiss/Twitter

The sermon began with this thought: Yom Kippur has been cast as one of the most somber days of the year, but in actuality, and according to a traditional understanding of the holiday, it is one of the most joyous, because on this day we are being forgiven. We are being forgiven, above all, for the sin of the golden calf. “And what is the sin of the golden calf?” the speaker (whose name I don’t know, unfortunately) asked, “it is the false belief that gold is G-d.” (Applause, jazz hands.) The speaker pumped his fist into the air as he spoke, partly because he had to scream—there was no amplification equipment, due to both the rules of the protest and the rules of Yom Kippur—and partly because he was clearly energized by the crowd, who was not only listening but—as in the protocol of the general assembly meetings taking place across the street—repeating his speech in unison, line by line, in order to make it heard by everyone. Here was a distinctly Jewish message that had something to teach us about why we had chosen to gather here, at Occupy Wall Street, that night.

The service ended with an “unconventional” take on the aleinu prayer. Aleinu, which literally means, “it is our obligation,” is the way that all Jewish services end. Instead of reading the traditional text (though many of the more observant in the crowd certainly chose to do so, to themselves), the speaker encouraged individuals in the crowd to shout out resolutions, things that they would like to take on in the coming year. If members of the crowd agreed, they could answer with “Aleinu.” People pledged to stop the Tarsands Pipeline, to stand up for Palestine, to visit their grandparents, to open their hearts, all to the resounding affirmation: “Aleinu!” It was ever more apparent, at this moment, that there was no bimah (stage), that our rabbis were open and accessible, and we were capable of, and responsible for, determining for ourselves how to live progressively as Jews.

Of course, there are some things particular to this service that would be difficult to replicate in a synagogue. Worshipping outside, in the open, created a permissive environment. People could be themselves (in dress and appearance and otherwise), and be Jews. They could come and go, participate or not participate, in any way that they saw fit—which made the traditional “in shul” kind of worship feel even more “boxed-in” or claustrophobic by contrast. As aforementioned, the necessity of repeating everything that was said had a curious charm to it. While it would just be plain silly in another context (“Speaker: We will continue on page 8. Crowd (in unison): We will continue on page 8. Speaker: Or page 234. Crowd (in unison): “Or page 234”), here it added a level of engagement—we all had to work together to make the service run smoothly—as well as creating a procedural resonance with the protest.

I don’t believe Sieradski could have anticipated the success of this event, which is part of what makes Occupy Wall Street as a whole so exciting–even as the media seeks to diminish the relevance of this movement, as well as the seriousness of its participants, it continues to grow. While Sieradski was initially skeptical of his ability to mobilize 20 people (10 men and 10 women) for an egalitarian minyan, he instead found that all different kinds of Jews were hungry for the opportunity to show their support for the protest on the holiest day of the year– to connect to their Jewishness and to the outside world, simultaneously. Many people who would usually not go to shul, and many people who would usually not go to a protest, latched on to this service as an opportunity to reclaim their place in two seemingly co-centric communities, as both Jews and agents of social justice.

This is not just a lesson for the Jewish community, and those that endeavor to be leaders within it, but for the Occupy Wall Street protest, as well. Not only does Judaism benefit from making connections to the events of the outside world, this protest will benefit from people personalizing its message by accessing it through the channels that are dearest to them. In recent days, there have been growing reports of anti-semitic sentiment at Occupy Wall Street. It is not unusual for liberal/radical causes to attract this sort of thing, via opposition to Israel. But of course, there is a difference between informed criticism of Israel and anti-semitism. OWS’s organizers cannot allow their movement to become a platform for people preaching hate. From the showing Friday night, Occupy Wall Street only stands to gain from inviting all people who share their aims to participate in the protest in increasingly personal, and thus meaningful, ways.