Occupy Wall Street protests taking on a Jewish flavor

Participants embrace prior to Occupy Wall Street's Kol Nidre service across from Zuccotti Park in downtown New York, Oct. 7, 2011. (Danielle Fleischman)

Rachel Feldman originally had meant to attend a traditional synagogue Kol Nidre service. Aimee Weiss hadn’t 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 found themselves 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.

“Kol Nidre reminds us that though we make commitments under duress, ultimately we are accountable only to the higher values of justice and righteousness,” the organizer of the service, Dan Sieradski, said at the event, reading from a labor leader’s Midrash.

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 to perform mitzvahs such as sitting in a sukkah, the Occupy Wall Street protests are becoming a fulcrum of Jewish ferment. In Boston and Philadelphia, too, Jewish activists held Yom Kippur services at the site of the demonstrations.

“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 and to stand up for greater equality in the country.”

The person credited with the idea of holding the Kol Nidre services at the protests, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, told JTA 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. “From the Exodus, from Isaiah, from Jeremiah and all the way down to rabbinic Judaism, there is a sense that Judaism is constantly struggling against top-down power of the Pharaoh.

“Judaism calls for freedom, democracy and feeding the hungry,” he added.

Some Jews involved with the protesters said they’re 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 yeshiva in the West Bank. “They have freedom of speech, but so do I. What we did is we wrote on a big, 10 times bigger, sign: ‘This sign sucks, and it is not representative here.’”

Sieradski, too, said there are some anti-Zionist ideologues involved in the Occupy Wall Street protests who believe that Israel is central to U.S. economic issues.

They “think that the issue of the Israeli occupation is inseparable from the economic situation.

They think that Israel is an outpost of American imperialism, including economic imperialism,” he said. “There is a tendency on the left to make Jews who identify with Israel uncomfortable. I hope we can overcome that. There are plenty people against the Israel occupation, but that’s not what this is about.”

For Yoni Reskin, a Chabadnik who owns the PopUp Sukkah company, the protests were about an opportunity to have Jews fulfill the mitzvahs of Sukkot. In the lead-up to the holiday, he made plans to build a sukkah at the site of the New York protests.

“It’s not a political angle,” he told JTA. “I truly believe that on Sukkot everyone should be able to celebrate the holiday. When I found that this opportunity was available, I wanted to be able to help perform the mitzvah.”

The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly donated 120 High Holidays 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.

Last Friday night, the drumbeat at the plaza protesters have occupied since Sept. 17 was drowned out by the sounds of Kol Nidre.

Congregants arranged themselves in concentric circles around the bimah and a Torah scroll on loan from an Orthodox synagogue, chanting and singing so that the words of the service could carry back to the edges of the crowd. It was hard to tell whether the Kol Nidre call and response was borrowed from an old labor tactic or Jewish summer camp. Halal food carts ringed the congregation.

Feldman, 26, an activist who had demonstrated in Zuccotti Park earlier in the week, noted that the service drew many of her friends who would never go to services.

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