On Monday night, around 200 rabbis marched from B’nai Jeshurun synagogue on the Upper West Side to the Trump Hotel on West 61st Street. They were joined by members of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Avodah, HIAS, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the MultiFaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. Hundreds of people sang “Hinei Matov” (“How good it is for brothers and sisters to sit together”), “Gesher Tsar Me’od” (“The world is a narrow bridge”), and “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” (“We will build this world with love”). They chanted “This is what tefilah looks like” and “This is what theology looks like.” They carried signs that said “Another Rabbi Against Islamophobia,” and quoted Torah verses on loving the stranger as ourselves (that would be Exodus 22:20 and 23:9, Leviticus 19:18 and 19:34, Numbers 19:15, Deuteronomy 23:16-17, 10:19, and 24:17, if you’re keeping score at home), and proclaimed, “This Texas rabbi says ‘howdy y’all’ to refugees!” They wore tallitot, blew a shofar, banged drums like Miriam at the Sea of Reeds, and savvily used social media—tweeting, hashtagging, streaming the march on Facebook Live. Individual rabbis spoke into a microphone: “We remember when the Jewish community was turned away, when we were the refugees, and we don’t want it to happen to anyone else,” one said. Another said, “I’m a child and grandchild of immigrants. They gave me a life of comfort and protection. There are people now who are in desperate need of comfort and protection, and I want to do what I can for them.”
Police met the marchers in front of the Trump Hotel. “If you step in the street you will be arrested,” an organizer warned. “If you’re not risking arrest, go that way!” Nineteen rabbis stepped into the street and sat down in front of traffic. A recorded voice from a police bullhorn repeated on a loop, “If you remain in the roadway and refuse to utilize the sidewalk, you will be arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.”
The seated rabbis—from New York, New Jersey, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—were arrested. As they were led away, in kippot, prayer shawls, and handcuffs, other marchers sang “Ozi Vzimrat Ya” (“The Lord is my strength and my song”) and chanted, “That’s my rabbi! That’s my rabbi!” A speaker promised to find out where they were being taken, and urged the assemblage, “Support them in their awesomeness!” As Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah was conducted to the police van, her hands cuffed behind her back, she kept turning to look at her tallit. It was dragging on the ground because she couldn’t put it back on her shoulders.
The 200 rabbis were in town for a convening called “No Time for Neutrality,” sponsored by T’ruah, a 14-year-old organization formerly known as Rabbis for Human Rights. (T’ruah means a blast from a shofar, or a repeated, broken sound.) From Sunday to Tuesday, these rabbis—along with a smattering of cantors, Jewish educators, and seminary students—from all around the U.S. and Canada met to brainstorm about how to support refugees and immigrants, combat Islamophobia, and prevent burnout on the long march toward justice. Getting arrested was only a small part of their vision for tikkun olam.
As the Patriots battled the Falcons on Sunday night, T’ruah tweeted: “Who needs sportsball when you have late-night protest songs? This is the rabbinic Super Bowl!” Inside B’nai Jeshurun, there were tables of snacks, sodas, and a big bottle of hand sanitizer labeled “Anti-Nazi Goo.” Walls were papered with sign-up sheets on which participants could share the social-justice issues they hoped to work on. As the building filled up, there was much hugging among colleagues who saw each other only rarely. Men and women wore many kinds of kippot—embroidered, crocheted, Bukhari, suede. There were scraggly hippie ponytails and an occasional whiff of patchouli.
As participants signed in, they were handed purple T’ruah gift bags filled with fair-trade chocolate; a brightly colored fidget toy; a “Handbook for Jewish Communities Fighting Mass Incarceration”; a Haggadah about fighting modern slavery; and pamphlets from the Fair Food Network, the ACLU, JFREJ, and more. There was also a pocket copy of the Constitution. The rabbi next to me offered to share his chocolate.
Breakout sessions addressed such subjects as activism as spiritual practice, pastoring to politically polarized congregations, the role of liturgy in social-justice work, talking about Israel across political divide. There was a training session on how to stand up for Muslim women. There was a conversation about addressing anti-Semitism from allies in progressive movements. (Where, precisely, is the line between criticism of Israel and actual anti-Semitism?) There was a text study of “Ahavat HaGer,” the commandment to love the stranger. For rabbinical students, there was a discussion group about joining the rabbinate in this difficult time. There were opportunities to share strategies for civil disobedience, ponder how to craft a liberal Zionist identity, and give and receive pastoral support for clergy who’d experienced hate. (Torrents of neo-Nazi hate included. One of the speakers was a leader of the Jewish community in Whitefish, Montana.) The closing plenary was an interfaith presentation called “Relationship as Rehearsal for the Revolution,” led by Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation and Reverend Traci Blackmon of UCC Justice and Wellness Ministries, both in St. Louis.
I was not allowed to attend the breakout sessions. Why on earth wouldn’t rabbis want a journalist present while they talked about, say, congregants who say vicious things about Muslims, a synagogue board’s insistence that rabbis not rock the boat with too much rabble-rousing, or the anti-Semitism they’d experienced from supposed allies on the left? (I am employing sarcasm, a tested coping method of the Jewish people.) I understood.
The conference began, as so many communal things do, with a niggun, a wordless communal melody. I was pleased to note that Anthony Romero, the executive director of the ACLU, could yai-di-di-dai with the best of them. A young woman in a hipster Helvetica ampersand T-shirt featuring the names of the foremothers blew a shofar to call the gathering to order. Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, came to the podium. She said the conference was pulled together in only six weeks, “but I think we all needed it.” She said quietly, “This is our moral moment.”
At dinner, Rabbi Jonah Geffen of Shaare Zedek, an egalitarian Conservative shul on the Upper West Side, talked about his experience with the familiar Prayer for Our Country. “Until six months ago, I never really thought about what it meant to say a prayer for ‘our government, for its leaders and advisers, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority.’ Now I do. I’m praying harder than ever. You never know when something’s going to change your perspective on a thing you’ve been doing your whole life. The blessings stay the same, but the meaning changes over time, and that’s what gives them their power.”
Later that night, Romero was interviewed by Rabbi Felicia Sol, the first woman rabbi at B’nai Jeshurun in the congregation’s 200-year history. Romero hadn’t realized when he accepted the invitation that he’d be speaking on Super Bowl Sunday. “I didn’t think many people would turn up, but I gave my word,” he said. “And what’s a gay guy gonna do on Super Bowl Sunday, anyway?” (He needn’t have worried about the turnout. The event sold out and had a long waiting list.)
Romero spoke affectingly about growing up as the son of immigrants from Puerto Rico, living in public housing but never thinking he was poor because he never wanted for food or love. He said he felt an affinity for religious audiences. “When I was a little boy, I thought I’d be a priest,” he commented. “I would preach on the bus and collect money and put it in the basket on Sunday. I was taught that we should serve people who need shelter and do unto others as we’d have them do unto us—moral teachings that are ubiquitous across religions, and are why I do what I do. Then I hit puberty and gave up on the idea of being a priest.” Ha.
Skipping ahead to his current job, he said his general philosophy is “hope for the best and plan for the worst.” Back in July, the ACLU prepared for the possibility of Trump’s win, putting out a “very wonky report” (“we are wonky people”) on the impediments Trump would encounter if he tried to make good on all his campaign promises. (“There are lots of footnotes and no pictures,” Romero said. “You can read it on our website if you have insomnia.”) The ACLU quickly had legal arguments to counter all of Trump’s pledges ready to go. “I would prefer not to use these lawsuits, but we’re ready if necessary,” Romero said.
Sol asked how the ACLU was planning to use the vast sums of money donated in the last couple of weeks. “I’m going to buy everything on sale,” he answered, deadpan. “I’m a New Yorker.” More seriously, he said that the ACLU was planning to do battle on three fronts: individual key battleground states (such as Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Colorado), litigation (“when Trump’s party controls the two branches of Congress, the courts are possibly the only way we can stop them dead in their tracks”) and building a more robust grassroots operation. “People keep asking me, ‘What can I do? I want something to do!’ and we’ve been a little flatfooted in putting them to use. With a grassroots program, we can mobilize. We’re thinking about things as simple as urging people to show up with signs of support in front of mosques. That story of the synagogue … that gave its keys to the imam of a burned-down mosque? That’s powerful!”
Romero spoke of the importance of religious leaders speaking out for civil rights and liberties if Trump winds up going forward with his most oppressive plans, like the still-unsigned executive order that someone on the inside photographed on an iPhone and sent to the ACLU. “This White House leaks like a sieve,” Romero chortled. “It’s wonderful!” At times when people are most fearful—with good reason—“tapping into something bigger than today’s headlines or tomorrow’s tweet is incredibly important.” And religion can help people do that. “What you [rabbis] can do is give people a sense of purpose and hope and encouragement,” he said. “Some of what they’re proposing is not just unlawful and unconstitutional, but immoral. When I call something immoral, it’s histrionic; when you call something immoral, it has weight. You are the keepers of our collective morality.” If Trump’s administration pushes to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which limits the role religious institutions can have in politics, “it will be very important to hear from religious leaders about why that wouldn’t be good,” Romero said.
Romero urged the rabbis to reach out to congregations unlike their own, because reaching across the aisle sure isn’t happening in Washington. “At the federal level, we have Montagues and Capulets, and we’ll see if Verona will survive,” he said. But local synagogues can connect with other religious communities that don’t have the same politics. “They may have similar views on criminal justice or immigration, but very different views on LGBT rights or abortion,” he said. “The cross-denominational collaboration of strange bedfellows can make for important progress.” People on the left will need to pull in old-fashioned, ethical Republicans who believe the executive branch should abide by judicial orders because that rule of law is what our nation is built on. “If this administration goes further than calling the judiciary names,” Romero said, reminding the assemblage that Trump questioned the qualifications of a Hispanic judge and tweeted about a “so-called judge,” it could hearken back to the 1950s and ’60s, when Southern governors defied the Supreme Court about integration. “We have to make sure that doesn’t come to pass,” he said.
Romero also gave the rabbis cause for hope. The real action in criminal justice reform happens at the state level, he said, and the states making real inroads are surprising. Oklahoma, which voted for Trump, enacted two ballot referenda “that were the most progressive pieces of criminal justice reform in the country,” he said. The ballot initiative was led by Republicans and evangelicals who felt that “redemption is lost in the way we’re dealing with our criminal justice system.” This is in a super-red state, with one of the highest rates of incarceration in the country! “If we can win in Oklahoma, we can convince legislators in other deep red states that we can deal with criminal justice,” Romero said. “And I think we can go on the offense on LGBT issues in those states, too. We have a lot of open road ahead of us.”
And the fact that people are so galvanized is good news for the ACLU and for progressive Jews. “In moments of darkness, a little light in a big cavernous room can orient you,” Romero said. “And the public response has been a big light.” He cited the ACLU’s challenges in organizing the March for Women’s Lives in 2004, which took nearly a year to pull together. But “the Women’s March, the people at airports around the country,” he marveled, “that just happened!”
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.