Now in its third week, the Occupy Wall Street protest that began in New York is gaining strength. Not only is it attracting increased media attention, but it has spread to other cities, such as Los Angeles and Chicago.
While no Jewish organizations have formally set up camp at the New York gathering, Jews are clearly involved, said former New Milford resident Daniel Sieradski, who has joined the demonstration about five times.
“I’ve seen folks I know from the young New York Jewish social innovation scene and from the Israeli activist scene,” he said, pointing out that the Shabbat potluck dinner he organized at the protest last Friday night drew some 25-30 participants.
“Our thing was the first and only Jewish event,” he said.
One of the attendees was Sieradski’s mother, Jewish Standard contributor Jeanette Friedman, who lives in New Milford. “I’m a victim of the banks and the bankruptcy court,” she said, noting that her home is in foreclosure. Her husband lost his job after becoming ill and the couple is no longer able to make their mortgage payments.
“A lot of families are being thrown out of their homes in New Jersey,” she said, explaining her support for the protest. “What are the banks going to do with these houses? Knock them to the ground? Leave empty lots? They’re not even trying to renegotiate.”
Friedman is also troubled by “skyrocketing drug prices,” pointing out that she has changed health care plans several times to try to contain costs. “I marched against the war in Vietnam in 1965, for women’s liberation in 1970, and for Soviet Jewry. Why wouldn’t I march for myself? What am I, nuts?” she joked.
Friedman said she brought challah, tuna fish, luckshen kugel, and juice to the ad hoc Shabbat dinner.
“We washed our hands in the rain since there was no water available,” she said. “Some people stopped by and asked for food. One person asked if we had anything gluten-free,” she said. Fortunately, her daughter-in-law had made a “huge pot” of vegetarian cholent.
Sieradski advertised his Shabbat dinner through Facebook and Twitter, and everyone who participated agreed in advance to bring some food.
“I put out the call erev Rosh Hashanah, so only people not fully shomrei mitzvot were likely to hear about it,” he said. Nevertheless, “There were observant people present, including a rabbinical student.”
He said he plans to hold a dinner again, possibly during Sukkot, so that more people can attend. He may also seek a permit to erect a sukkah.
Sieradski said there was “no negativity” directed to the group as Jews. The only complaint from some longtime protesters was that the food should have been donated to the official “kitchen” of the demonstration.
“We brought enough food to feed 50 people,” he said, adding that the guests recited kiddush, made motzi, and sang niggunim (religious tunes) and zemirot (Shabbat songs). Among those present was musician David Peel, who, said Friedman, “used to hang out with John and Yoko,” referring to the late singer John Lennon and his widow, Yoko Ono.
“The mood was very pleasant in a way, like back in the day,” she said. “People were cooperative. Even the [police] were nice at that moment. There need to be more people coming out, but they shouldn’t get ugly about it. Our country needs leaders who will speak to our needs.”
She said she would like to see Jewish organizations that provide social services participate in the demonstration. “We need those who are in touch with people who are hurting to make their voices heard,” she said.
While the demonstration has so far drawn mainly college-agers, attendees “run the gamut,” said 32-year-old Sieradski.
“My mother was there,” he said. “And young kids, 12-year-olds, were among those arrested on the [Brooklyn] bridge. I’ve also seen 80-year-olds.”
He noted that the organizers – who spread the word mainly through social media such as Facebook and Twitter – “are working on the ethnic diversity issue.” While the protest began with a preponderance of young, white men, “We’re working on getting more women and people of color.”
In addition, he said, the demonstration is “all consensus-driven. There’s no-one in charge; we’re all cooperating. That’s what’s so radical. It’s the first protest action that’s completely decentralized.”
Sieradski said he has been attending the demonstration every few nights.
“I was drawn by the fact that there is zero accountability,” he said. “Bankers are buying political clout by financing politicians who don’t hold those bankers accountable when they impoverish the nation.”
He described the often-chaotic decision-making process at the protest as “kind of like a Quaker meeting. One reporter called it ‘a church of dissent.'”
He said he feels “an extremely positive vibe,” describing participants as a diverse group, from the left and right, “from anarchists to Ron Paul supporters and everyone in between.”
Sieradski said that for the vast number of participants, anti-Semitism is not “on their radar.” As in all demonstrations, however, some groups want to publicize their own cause.
This includes radical anti-Zionists, who conflate economic injustice with U.S. support for Israel, and neo-Nazis, who blame economic unrest on the Jews.
The former Bergen County resident said he has been pointing out to organizers that these streams exist, and that there is a need to deal with the problem they create. “It steals the thunder from our focus on challenging politicians,” he said.
The young activist also said he will join the protest again this weekend.
“I’m going because of the words of Isaiah,” he explained, citing the Yom Kippur morning prophetic reading. “How should I spend Yom Kippur – beating my chest, or standing in solidarity with suffering people?”