Jewish Women Divided Ahead of March on Washington

Members of some organizations aren’t marching because of Shabbat, but others fear the event might push an agenda hostile to Israel.

Demonstrators at an anti-Trump protest in New York, January 19, 2017.
Kathy Willens / AP

NEW YORK - “I’m usually Shabbat observant,” says Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, director of Rabbis Without Borders for Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “However, there are times when you have to speak out. And this one of them.”

By “this” she’s referring to the Women’s March on Washington Saturday, a day after a presidential inauguration that has divided the American Jewish community as much as it has the United States as a whole.

Sirbu was so passionate about marching she discussed it on a private Facebook page for Jewish women. She also shared that she had been a victim of sexual harassment and was deeply concerned about women’s rights under President Donald Trump, whom she called a “known attacker of women.”

Citing Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous quote about marching in Selma, Alabama, “I felt my feet were praying,” she wrote: “I must march as a form of prayer.” But she wasn’t exactly greeted with cheers.

As Sirbu put it, “Comments ranged from ‘What do you mean you were harassed in the workplace? No one gets harassed anymore!’ to ‘How can you call yourself a Jew and march alongside someone who is pro-BDS?’”

She added: “I was shocked at the tenor of the comments. I believe you have to come together when you can come together. That doesn’t mean I stand for everything Muslim groups do, but on this we can agree on. So why shouldn’t we try to work together and build consensus?”

A number of Jewish organizations are officially sponsoring the march, including the National Council of Jewish Women, Ameinu, American Jewish World Service, Bend the Arc, Hazon, Ikar, Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, Jewish Women’s Foundation, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, Jewschool, Keshet and Lab/Shul.

But many have opted out, among them the UJA, which boasts a powerful women’s network, the Anti-Defamation League, Hadassah, Na’amat and Americans for Peace Now. For some, it’s a simple matter of Shabbat observance.

Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, director of Rabbis Without Borders for Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership
Dee Portera

“Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, supports the values underlying this march,” their statement reads. “Yet because the march falls on a Saturday, and we are a Sabbath-observant organization, Hadassah is not co-sponsoring or participating. Our members and supporters should feel free to attend as individuals.”

The ADL issued a similarly noncommittal statement, though Shabbat observance is not listed as a reason.

“While ADL is not sending an official delegation to the events in D.C., we will have many staff and supporters who will be joining with other Americans on the inauguration parade route and at events surrounding the Women’s March, and we wish them well,” says ADL spokesman Todd Gutnick.

The UJA declined to release a statement, though many of its members are participating in marches all around the country.

The influential Linda Sarsour

For the record, the Women’s March is a nonpartisan demonstration of support for women’s and human rights, according to its platform, which cites Jewish feminists like Bella Abzug as guiding spirits. The platform acknowledges the scourges of both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

But there have been reports about racial divisiveness in the group and trepidation about one of its organizers, Palestinian American Linda Sarsour, executive director of the American Arab Association of New York and a supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. This drove many would-be Jewish supporters from endorsing the march out of fear Sarsour would push an agenda hostile to Israel.

“Coalition politics are very complicated,” says Conservative Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar in Los Angeles, who will be speaking at the event as part of an interfaith roster of orators. “You’re not going to always agree with every position but I really believe this march is about women and men rising up and proclaiming that women’s rights are human rights.”

Though Brous wasn’t involved in the drafting of the unity points, she was invited to speak at the march through Sarsour.

“I was deeply honored and moved by her request,” Brous says. “In this incredibly polarizing atmosphere, we have to learn to sit and argue respectfully with those who don’t see the world the way we do. I feel fortunate to have a working relationship with Linda and others whose perspectives I don’t always share.”

But for others, Sarsour’s mere presence was a deterrent.

“In speaking to the leadership of one of the Jewish community’s most progressive organizations, I asked why it was they were not listed as a co-sponsor of the upcoming Women’s March in D.C.,” said Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue in his weekly sermon two weeks ago. Park Avenue is not sending a delegation to the march.

“My colleague explained that the group simply not risk being a co-sponsor to an event where an Israeli flag might be burned,” Cosgrove said.

As Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of Religious Action Center and senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, puts it, “For us the two important considerations were no Israel bashing and no anti-Trump points in the platform. When we saw that the principles of the march aligned with our core values, and that it wasn’t partisan or against any political party or candidate, we wanted to do everything we could to be part of a unifying, interfaith voice.”

‘Interesting time to be a rabbi’

Steering clear of endorsing or bashing any particular party was an important consideration for Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia, where Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, is a member.

“I have many people who work for Republican senators and congressmen in my congregation or who worked for President Bush,” Schwartzman says. “It’s an interesting time to be a rabbi trying to discern where Jewish values and liberal politics intersect.”

Perhaps the women’s march is a first test of where they mesh.

“The Jewish world is not a monolith,” says Sirbu, who was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “All liberal Jews are not all Democrats; there are lots of different factions, and old alliances no longer stand. We’re at a crossroads.”

Jewish organizers of the march say the topic of Israel and Palestine never came up in conversations.

“From the beginning there was nothing in the messaging of the march that had to do with Israel or BDS,” says Jody Rabhan, director of Washington operations for the National Council of Jewish Women, who helped draft the platform.

“This is a pro-march, not an anti-march. So when I hear people express reluctance about the march because of the Israel piece, I have to say, it has never come up in any of my dealings and is just not a facet of this march. The only message is one of incredible inclusivity.”

That sentiment was echoed by human rights lawyer Jessica Neuwirth, president of the ERA Coalition, who helped write the platform.

“This was a fast-moving and fast-growing process and it only took one month,” Neuwirth says. “I have never felt such a strong sense of unity among so many different groups working on so many different issues.”

Once the platform was solidified, the National Council of Jewish Women became the conduit between Jewish groups and the march.

“We didn’t push groups in any particular direction,” Rabhan says. “Some have not joined as supporters, but are organizing services or are marching as private citizens and we respect all and any response to this. We’re thrilled with the Jewish response.”

But that didn’t mean it was necessarily smooth sailing for those who did come on board.

“I have women in our foundation who have said to me ‘You’re fear mongering, nothing has happened to women, you’re biased,’” says Jamie Allen Black, executive director of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, one of the official sponsors.

“To me, the march in Washington, D.C., has nothing to do with him, but is a pro-women’s statement, an empowering, historic moment. You could argue that the march in New York, which ends up at Trump Tower, is partisan, but not the one in D.C. And that’s the one I’m going to.”

That mixed messaging and openness of the platform were other deterrents.

“The message of the march is broader than ours, so while we’re happy to add our voices to it, we didn’t feel it was our place to officially sponsor it,” says Rebecca Kirzner, campaign director and community engagement chief at HIAS. She’ll be marching with banners HIAS has drawn specifically for the event.

Though some groups like Americans for Peace Now said they weren’t involved with the march because they’re a single-issue groups. Other groups like Ameinu decided to come on board out of a deep commitment to protect the rights of women, which are in line with their human rights platforms.

To others, there’s a sense of urgency that outweighs the desire to stay in the good graces of the new administration.

“My greatest challenge as a rabbi in America has been to wake people up from apathy,” Brous says. “Now my challenge is how to mobilize. People are awake. I’ve seen a real surge in participation and engagement since the election. They’re grateful for an opportunity to daven and have a place where their souls can be nourished and join a community of activism. And that gives me hope.”