Putting Aside Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Jewish and Muslim Feminists Unite to Pray With Their Feet

Channeling Biblical heroines, Jewish feminists journey from across U.S. to march against Trump in D.C., and some pro-Palestinian rhetoric won't stand in their way.

Betsy Rosen of Charlotte, N.C., hugs Muslim girl of Moroccan descent Aya Laoufir, 17, of Arlington, Va., during a women's rally against President Donald Trump in Washington, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

As larger than expected crowds converged on the nation’s capitol, threatening to shut down the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. before it even started, members of synagogues throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic were just arriving at Robert F Kennedy Stadium after 4-6-hour drives, undeterred by the 5-five mile trek into the city that still lay ahead or the near-hour-long wait at local metro stops. The fleet from Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn fittingly named their two buses: Shifra and Puah, after the midwives who craftily defied Pharoah’s orders and are revered for their pluck, faith and for saving Jewish lives.

It was the spirit of these two Biblical heroines that resonated with many Jewish groups who participated in the Women’s March in D.C. Though it’s hard to estimate how many of the roughly half-a-million participants in the march were Jewish, the National Council of Jewish Women, who played a leadership role, estimate there were thousands who came from as far away as California and the Pacific Northwest.

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Gloria Steinem greets protesters at the barricades before speaking at the Women's March on Washington during the first full day of Donald Trump's presidency, Jan. 21, 2017 in Washington.
John Minchillo, AP

“We had over 1,200 people for our morning service and over 2,000 throughout the day,” says Graham Roth, a spokesperson for the Union for Reform Judaism and RAC (Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism). “Several thousand more Reform Jewish activists marched in Washington and at other marches across the country.”

For members of Brooklyn’s Beth Elohim, marching alongside men and women of all faiths, for those campaigning for LGBT rights and civil rights for immigrants in Washington, was a less than 24-hour endeavor that began before dawn and lasted until the wee hours.

“We brought 150 people from New York,” says Rabbi Rachel Timoner. “Though we were stuck for a long time, everyone seemed in great spirits. People were singing and being kind to each other and marching in every direction with great respect to one another, it was just amazing that such a large gathering was so full of peace and faith.”

Though she never got close enough to the main stage to hear the speeches, she says the overall message of unity shined through. “In my conversations with the march’s organizers, people were explicitly told that we were to gather as allies to combat anti-Semitism and end Islamophobia. To me, the messaging was very clear not to discuss issues that divided us.”     

But at least one speaker didn’t appear to get the memo.

“The struggle to save the planet, to stop climate change, to guarantee the accessibility of water from the lands of the Standing Rock Sioux, to Flint, Michigan, to the West Bank and Gaza. The struggle to save our flora and fauna, to save the air –this is ground zero of the struggle for social justice,” said Angela Davis, a former Black Panther, founding feminist and member of Black Lives Matter and is a distinguished professor emerita in the feminist studies department at University California Santa Cruz. “Women’s rights are human rights all over the planet and that is why we say freedom and justice for Palestine.”

“Sounds like she deviated from the essence of the march,” says Timoner.

Others concurred, stressing that no one really heard Davis due to audio problems and the soft tone of her voice. In addition, the buoyancy of the crowds eclipsed her message. She also appeared last, roughly an hour behind schedule, as marchers began chanting: “Less talking, more walking!”

Though intersectional feminism was a buzzword in this year’s campaign, pitting white against black feminists, the Jewish and Muslim feminist communities seemed to heed a more harmonious tune.

“I don’t think anyone in our group paid attention to anything other than messages of mutual respect and unity,” says April Baskin, vice president of Audacious Hospitality, the diversity outreach wing of the Union for Reform Judaism. Indeed the dissection of class, race, ethnicity, nationality and faith that seemed to plague feminists during the election season, was not existent among Jewish and interfaith marchers today.

“We recognized this tremendous opportunity to come together with other communities in a spirit guided by our Jewish values of peace, human rights and social justice,” says Rabbi Susan Shankman of the Washington Hebrew Congregation. Though she wasn’t thrilled with Davis’ comments, she notes there’s wasn’t an Israeli flag burned or any riots or arrests or any signage that targeted Israel or Zionism.

“We can come together and are so much stronger when we do,” she notes, adding that she’s buoyed by the day's outcome to commit to more activism and outreach to ensure the Jewish community is more inclusive and engaged in social issues. That’s already the case for groups like Repair the World and the Schusterman Foundation, which hosted social service projects throughout Inauguration weekend and after the march, part of “Rise Up: Post-March Action Party.”

How to turn the soaring goodwill on parade at Saturday march, where there were no arrests or violent incidents, into tangible results? The NJCW is sponsoring a Sunday workshop on women’s health advocacy, partnering with Planned Parenthood and NARAL-Pro Choice America. “It’s part of our mission,” says Jody Rabhan, executive director of NCJW and one of the march organizers. “We need to turn this moment into a movement.”

For Rabbi Sharon Brous, who spoke alongside Gloria Steinem and such interfaith leaders as Melissa Harris-Perry, Michael Moore and Van Jones, and devoted her sermon to the story of Shifra and Puah as examples of spiritual resistance, turning intention into action, a negative into a positive, is what today was all about. “It was amazing,” she says. “But we need to focus on the next step.”