Rabbis arrested for protesting the U.S. president’s travel ban near Trump Tower in Manhattan on Monday night told Haaretz the following day they hope their act of civil disobedience inspires others to take action.
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Almost all of the 19 rabbis – 11 women and eight men – participated in a conference sponsored by T’ruah, a human rights-focused rabbinical organization, and spent the better part of Monday night handcuffed and behind bars after crossing a police barrier and sitting down in the middle of the street, blocking traffic in all directions. They were protesting U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent executive order that denies entry to immigrants and refugees from certain Muslim-majority countries into the United States.
“Because people saw their rabbis do this, it might inspire them to take this risk as well,’” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of T’ruah told Haaretz on Tuesday. The demonstration was organized in collaboration with HIAS, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and Avodah, a non-profit organization that trains emerging Jewish social justice leaders.
About 200 protestors participated in a mile-long march down Broadway, before the 19 rabbis, who represented all the Jewish movements except for Orthodoxy, held their sit-in outside Trump Tower. “Something that was incredibly powerful was the sight of people on the sidewalks pointing at us and saying, ‘That’s my rabbi. That’s my rabbi,’” recounted Jacobs. “To me, that’s a sanctification of God’s name because it says that yes, what it means to be a religious leader is to put your body on the line, to stand up for what’s right and to protect other human lives.”
Danya Ruttenberg, the rabbi in residence at Avodah, described her experience as “profound and holy.”
“It was an honor to offer up my body and my privilege on behalf of those whose bodies are on the front line right now,” she told Haaretz. “In the scheme of things, what we did is such a small gesture, but to the degree that it has even the smallest impact on the conversation, it was absolutely imperative to do.”
Ruttenberg said she hoped other concerned Americans would follow suit by moving beyond traditional protests to acts of civil disobedience, as they challenge the establishment. “It is important that people see that this move is available, that it is on the menu, and that if we’re willing to put our bodies on the line, that a lot of people can,” she said.
During the five hours they spent in jail, Ruttenberg said she and the other rabbis sang songs, read excerpts from the Torah and meditated. Many of the others, like her, she said, “feel very strongly about continuing to put our bodies on the line and protesting laws that are unjust.”
As Jews, said Jacobs, she and her colleagues feel a special obligation to stand up for immigrants and refugees. “When the borders were closed to us in 1924, as a result, millions of people died,” she said. “We also now hear echoes of the language used then to keep us out – that we would be a fifth column, that there would be Nazi spies hiding among us. It’s the same kind of language being used now.”