A fulcrum of Jewish ferment?
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A fulcrum of Jewish ferment?

Occupy Wall Street protests taking on a Jewish flavor

NEW YORK ““ Rachel Feldman originally had meant to attend a traditional synagogue Kol Nidre service. Aimee Weiss had not found a place to daven, but was looking for something more interesting than a “big box synagogue.”

Come Yom Kippur eve, they and several hundred other Jews were drawn to lower Manhattan, where, under the gaze of curious onlookers, they held an open-air Kol Nidre service organized to support the Occupy Wall Street protesters near Zuccotti Park.

The service was the most salient, but hardly the only sign of a growing attempt to infuse the economic protests with a Jewish flavor – at least, for the Jews involved.

From progressive activists who seek to conflate the protesters’ aspirations with Jewish values to Chabadniks looking for opportunities to have Jews perform mitzvahs such as sitting in a sukkah, the Occupy Wall Street protests are becoming a fulcrum of Jewish ferment.

“For many of us, social justice is where we find our Judaism,” said Regina Weiss, the communications director for Jewish Funds for Justice. “For many, there is no more important way to stand up and express Judaism on the holiest night of the year than to stand with people who are hurting.”

The person credited with the idea of holding the Kol Nidre services at the protests, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, explained that protesting is a key part of Judaism.

“The reason there is a Jewish place in these protests is that there is a protest place in Judaism,” he said. “[T]here is a sense that Judaism is constantly struggling against top-down power of the Pharaoh.”

Some Jews involved with the protesters said they are also trying to combat a minority strain of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism running through the movement.

“There was a guy with a sign ‘Zionists control the financial world,’ ” said Kobi Skolnick, an ex-Chabadnik who once attended a yeshivah in the west bank. “They have freedom of speech, but so do I.”

For Yoni Reskin, a Chabadnik who owns the PopUp Sukkah company, the protests were about an opportunity to have Jews fulfill the commandments relating to Sukkot. In the lead-up to the holiday, he made plans to build a sukkah in Zuccotti Park.

“It’s not a political angle,” he said. “I truly believe that on Sukkot everyone should be able to celebrate the holiday.”

The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly lent 120 High Holy Days prayer books for the Yom Kippur service. “Wherever there is an opportunity to bring Torah and learning to Jews, wherever they are, we want to be there,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the organization’s executive vice president.

On the evening of Oct. 8, protester/congregants arranged themselves in concentric circles around a makeshift bimah and a Torah scroll on loan from an Orthodox synagogue. It was hard to tell whether the Kol Nidre call and response was borrowed from an old labor tactic or Jewish summer camp.

“This is what shul should feel like,” said activist Rachel Feldman, surrounded by a congregation wearing a mix of sneakers, ties, tallitot, yarmulkes, jeans and T-shirts. “Overwhelmed by community.”

JTA Wire Service

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