Racial Justice March on Yom Kippur Leaves U.S. Jews Agonizing Over Attendance or Atonement

Saturday’s March for Racial Justice in Washington will feature some progressive Jews determined to ‘pray with their feet,’ while others plan to make their voices heard in a ‘sister march’ in New York on Sunday

Demonstrators participating in a march against racism and hatred, in Los Angeles, August 13, 2017.
Damian Dovarganes/AP

As Jews observe their solemn day of prayer and atonement on Saturday, thousands of others will take to the streets of Washington for the March for Racial Justice, controversially scheduled for the same day.

The conflict between Yom Kippur and the large-scale political event has left Jennifer Silver “struggling” with the decision as to whether her family will spend the day in synagogue or participating in the march.

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“When I heard about the march and the conflict, my first thought was I should pray with my feet this year,” said the resident of Takoma Park, Maryland, on the outskirts of Washington. “That was my gut reaction. I’m a white Jew and feel very strongly that white people need to do our part to dismantle racism and fight against white supremacy. That means showing up and putting our bodies on the line, and being present so we can leverage our privilege to be there for people of color.”

That sentiment, she said, is directly related to the theme of the Jewish holy day – contemplating one’s shortcomings and how to improve in the upcoming year.

Part of her Yom Kippur reflection “means showing up and being active. I feel like I need to be doing more actions like joining the march – that is one of the things I should be atoning for.”

At the same time, her High Holy Day services are “really meaningful” to her and her family, and as part of a small community, she feels a “strong personal responsibility” to be there.

While Silver says she doesn’t feel angry or resentful that the march was scheduled on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, “I do feel a little bit sad because it touches off that ‘being overlooked’ feeling that we Jews experience in our society. But at the same time I know this isn’t about me.”

Many of her friends are “very resentful” that they are being forced to choose, and if “I was a Jew of color, I would definitely feel upset,” she added.  

When it was first revealed in August that the racial justice event had been planned for Yom Kippur, the issue threatened to spark a serious rift between Jews and African-Americans on the progressive left. Many stunned Jews reacted angrily and sharply criticized what they saw as deep insensitivity.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs of the T'ruah rights organization blows a shofar at the anti-Trump protest in Manhattan, November 13, 2016.
Jennie Kamin

At the time, the explanation that September 30 was chosen because it had symbolic significance to African-Americans as the anniversary of the Elaine Massacre – one of the most horrific and bloody race confrontations in the nation’s history – did little to ease their unhappiness. It didn’t help that the controversy broke out in the midst of a national crisis over racism and anti-Semitism following events in Charlottesville, when both communities were feeling particularly sensitive and vulnerable following violent clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters.

Still, Rabbi Jill Jacobs – who was part of a dialogue between the march organizers and Jewish community leaders – said the unfortunate circumstances has been transformed into a unique opportunity for dialogue and mutual understanding.

That dialogue resulted in an apology by the march organizers and a rescheduling of several “sister marches.” This marked “a turning point in the role of Jews in fighting for racial justice and the place of Jews in the progressive movement,” said Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

Her group has helped organize a Jewish contingent of several hundred participants to represent the community at a New York march that will take place the following day, October 1.

She said the dynamic of the relationship between African-American race activists and the Jewish community had been strongly affected by the actions and words of the white supremacists who converged on Charlottesville in August.

“Until Charlottesville, there was a sense that anti-Semitism was not a big problem in this country, that it has gone away or was extremely rare,” said Jacobs, adding that it had been ignored or downplayed by those struggling against other forms of racism, sexism and anti-immigrant sentiments.

The public displays of anti-Semitism at Charlottesville – including anti-Semitic chants and the threatening of the local synagogue – “may not have come as such a surprise for the Jewish community, but it was a total surprise for the non-Jewish community,” she added. Charlottesville was a wake-up call “that anti-Semitism has not gone away,” she added, and the behavior of the march organizers has demonstrated that.

Jacobs said the “honest and thoughtful conversation” designed to harmonize the two events – bringing the theme of racial justice through Yom Kippur, and Yom Kippur through the racial justice march – was both productive and educational.

“The organizers really heard and understood what Yom Kippur means to us, and learned that it was not at all parallel to what Christmas or Easter means to them. We learned about the largest lynching in American history, and we were able to hear that this date had great significance in the black community,” said Jacobs.

She noted that, significantly, the march’s platform explicitly “includes opposing anti-Semitism as part of what it means to fight for racial justice.” Furthermore, that it represented not only “Jews standing up for people of color, but people of color standing up for Jews.”

March for Racial Justice co-chair Dorcas Davis
courtesy of Dorcas Davis

The platform states it “believes in building an intersectional racial justice movement that challenges and undoes racism, white supremacy, sexism/patriarchy, gender oppression, anti-immigrant oppression, class inequality, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and the oppression of people with disabilities.”

March for Racial Justice co-chair Dorcas Davis admitted in August the scheduling clash had been a mistake: When they first scheduled the event, organizers “did not think it would totally exclude people,” she said. It was only after the outcry from many Jews, including celebrities like actor Mayim Bialik, that the organizers “felt the pain and needed to understand what we had caused. We wanted to have dialogue and a stronger relationship. Our misstep was not having that strong bond. We realized this is a big mistake, a really big mistake.”

While it was determined that rescheduling the march was impossible, the waters were calmed with the publication of a contrite apology by the march organizers on August 16, acknowledging that the choice of date had been “a grave and hurtful oversight on our part. It was unintentional and we are sorry for this pain, as well as for the time it has taken for us to respond. Our mistake highlights the need for our communities to form stronger relationships. ... We have learned from our Jewish friends that Yom Kippur is a day of making amends and of asking and receiving forgiveness. We hope that our sincere apology will be received with compassion, and that we will build a stronger relationship among all our communities as a result.”

Rebecca Ennen, development and communications director of Washington’s Jews United for Justice, was also part of the dialogue process that resulted in the apology. She said it was important for those who were upset about the scheduling to remember it had been planned in a grass-roots effort by “passionate private individuals” and not, like January’s Women’s March, by a coalition of organizations who had experience in planning such events and “are used to paying closer attention” to important dates like Yom Kippur.

“If there is a lesson I learned from this, it is one that fits the holy day – about teshuvah,” said Ennen, using the term for repentance. “When these folks realized they had made a mistake, they were so eager to learn, to understand, to figure out how to apologize and own it. I think that we Jews are not used to getting an apology, and so it was a challenge to figure out how to accept it in a gracious way and move on from there.”

In an effort to do so and unite the themes of Yom Kippur and the march, Jacobs said, some rabbis have decided to address racial issues in their sermons. Her organization, meanwhile, has circulated a special memorial prayer “for the souls of our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, who have been killed, burned and lynched because of racism and baseless hate,” that can be included in Yom Kippur services.

Jacobs said it was clear to her that the organized Jewish community should not be participating in the Washington march on Saturday. “On Yom Kippur, people should be going to shul. In shul, we should be thinking about teshuvah. We should do teshuvah for racial justice on Yom Kippur Saturday, and then take action for racial justice on Sunday.”

Ennen is traditionally observant and is not going to the march, but she said she knew many individual Jews would be there.

As for Silver, just days ahead of the march, she remained torn as to where she should be. Her family is split: Her husband and teenage daughter want to go to the march, despite the fact they are fasting. Her 7-year-old daughter, though, “said she wanted to be at services” at the shul.

“I may not know where I am heading until I wake up in the morning on Saturday,” Silver admitted.