March for Racial Justice Organizers Apologize Over Yom Kippur Scheduling

A potential crisis was averted between black and Jewish activists over the date of the march

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File photo: People watch as demonstrators march against Donald Trump.
File photo: People watch as demonstrators march against Donald Trump.Credit: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
New York

NEW YORK — Almost as soon as the March for Racial Justice was announced and people became aware it is slated to take place in Washington, D.C. on Yom Kippur, online expressions of anger from American Jews began to explode online.

After meeting with progressive Jewish leaders Tuesday night, organizers issued a long apology.

And while it hasn’t satisfied everyone, march organizers and the American Jewish leaders they met with are developing ways to thread the theme of racial justice through Yom Kippur, and Yom Kippur through the racial justice march.

The conflict between the march and the Jewish calendar had the potential to turn into a major clash between Jewish and black progressives, and almost did. But a political organizer in D.C., Rebecca Ennen, who knew some of the march organizers through professional networks, helped them connect with leaders of Jewish communities.

“When the news came out of the march timing lots of people got angry online,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, who was one of the Jewish leaders who participated in Tuesday’s videoconference. Jacobs also reached out to march organizers on Monday, had a long conversation with co-chair Dorcas Davis and helped draft the apology.”

“A number reached out to the organizers and we spent the last couple of days talking this through and helping organizers understand the significance of Yom Kippur, which does not have a parallel outside of Judaism. Now they really do understand, as a result of those person to person conversations,” she told Haaretz.

The march intends “to stand for racial equality and justice,” according to its website. The organizers’ goal is to “dismantle oppression, and to challenge, reverse and put an end to racist laws, policies, and practices that dehumanize people of color while sustaining white supremacy and racism. Our mission is to harness the national unrest and dissatisfaction with racial injustice into a national mobilization that strengthens local and nationwide efforts for racial equity and justice.”

After their Tuesday night meeting, march organizers said that logistically they cannot reschedule the Washington D.C. march, which they hope will attract 50,000 people, but offered to reschedule “sister marches” in New York City and elsewhere to make them Sunday, October 1st, the day following Yom Kippur, in order to be as inclusive as possible.

Sixth & I’s Rabbi Scott Perlo, who is welcoming Racial Justice marchers to Yom Kippur services.Credit: Yoav Magid

Rabbi Scott Perlo of the downtown synagogue Sixth & I (named for its location) became aware of the march and scheduling on Tuesday, when an upset congregant asked if the Conservative congregation could provide Yom Kippur services at the march.

“That would be amazing, except for the 4,000 people coming to the synagogue” for services on the holiest day of the year, he said. “I was upset about the march timing mostly because I wanted to go. We thought maybe we could get organizers to change the time or date of the march,” he told Haaretz.

“When they approached us to talk they seemed incredibly regretful, and a little befuddeled, that people were so upset,” Perlo said.

The march organizers wanted to rally on a date meaningful in African-American history. They picked September 30th because it is the anniversary of a racist lynching in Elaine, Arkansas, for which no white perpetrator was ever brought to justice.

The idea for the rally came after the police officer accused of killing Philando Castile, a black man who was pulled over while driving in Minnesota with his girlfriend and their child in 2016, was aquitted of murder in June, said Dorcas Davis, a march co-chair. She described that as one more in a series of stunning, excruciating moments for black Americans who are traumatized by systemic racism and injustice.

March for Racial Justice co-chair Dorcas Davis.Credit: Courtesy of Dorcas Davis

When it came to finding a date that worked for their rally, organizers “did not think it would totally exclude people,” Davis told Haaretz in an interview.

The scheduling, said T’ruah’s Jacobs, “was not malicious. It was just not knowing.”

Davis first got word of the rising anger from a Jewish friend, who explained the avalanche of email and Facebook comments that she and other organizers were beginning to receive.

Those got a public boost when actress Mayim Bialik complained about the march’s timing on Facebook. Having the march on Yom Kippur “automatically excludes a distinct portion of people who historically have stood up for racial equality in enormous waysAnd trust me: it's on every calendar they checked before setting the date argh, super mad right now,” she wrote Sunday.

When Davis and her march co-chairs realized what was happening, “as someone coming from a community with that kind of pain I said ‘it’s time for me to listen,” Davis told Haaretz. “We felt the pain and needed to understand what we had caused. We wanted to have dialogue and stronger relationship. Our misstep was not having that strong bond. When we realized this is a big mistake, a really big mistake, we said, ‘we need to listen, to understand and be in dialogue,’” Davis said.

Perlo said that the attitude made a huge difference in the ability of the two groups to connect. “They were thoughtful, gracious and humble about it,” he told Haaretz. “When you’re operating in the world of justice, especially within communities that have historically been oppressed and feel aggrieved, that isn’t always so easy. People can sometimes perceive criticism as hatred or an attack on core values. The organizers of the march responded the way the Jewish community would have hoped.”

Now “we are talking about ways in which Jews and Judaism and Yom Kippur can be brought to the march in ways that are appropriate for Yom Kippur,” he said. His synagogue, for instance, will welcome any marcher who wants to come straight to the closing Yom Kippur service, called Ne’eilah. The synagogue is just a 20 minute walk from the march, he said.

T’ruah, for its part, adapted the El Maalei Rachamim prayer to explicitly commemorates victims of racial violence. The new version prays: “for the souls of our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, who have been killed, burned, and lynched/because of racism and baseless hate./May the Garden of Eden be their resting place.” It is meant to be downloaded and shared with congregants to chant during the memorial prayers known as Yizkor, remembering.

Another organizer said they are trying to organize a large Yom Kippur break-the-fast at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in downtown Washington, D.C. where both blacks and Jews can gather and share a meal.

March organizers, unfamiliar with local Jewish organizational terrain, first reached out to the Reconstructionist rabbi of a havurah on Capitol Hill. They issued a statement indicating she said that participating in the march would be a meaningful choice for some Jews to observe Yom Kippur.

The rabbi, Hannah Spiro, later said she felt she had been misquoted and issued a statement of her own, in which she wrote: “I did not and would not advocate for any march to be scheduled on Yom Kippur it is sadly disappointing that the march is happening on the one day of the year on which Jews are least likely to be able to attend. When contactedI expressed my hope that the date would be changed, and said that I wouldn't personally attend, because I will be spending the day in services or in solitude. I also noted that some Jews might go, and that their attendance of the march might be an appropriate and powerful way for them to observe the holiday. It was a description, and not a prescription -- I will not be attending and I will not be urging my community members to attend. I have reached out to the organizers to clarify my position.”

Then Ennen, who works at the organization Jews United for Justice, reached out to march organizers. “It had the chance to turn into a real mess,” she told Haaretz. She is continuing to work with them, she said, to ensure that anti-Semitism does not become part of the March for Racial Justice.

Though April Baskin, a Jew of color who works as a vice president at the Union for Reform Judaism, was disappointed when she first learned of the march’s timing, she reached out to the organizers and offered to help them connect with Jewish community leaders. “Particularly in today’s political climate one of the most important steps we can take is continually work to strengthen relationships within our communities and across lines of difference,” she told Haaretz.

“We must remember that we aren’t each other’s enemy, even when we disagree. Sadly, today, we do have actual enemies. Anti-Semitism and racism are both outgrowths of white supremacy and we need strong relationships with each other in order to effectively dismantle both,” she said.

Some Jews are still angry about it, however, as dozens of comments underneath the march organizers’ apology online attest. “After everything that has happened, especially this past week [in Charlottesville, Va.], the emotional roller coaster that Jewish women are riding as victims to the Alt Right and Nazis marching through our country, as they're worried sick about their children, grandchildren, how dare you leave us out and hand us an alternate date? How dare you. I don't buy it. CHANGE THE DATE!” posted Jude Canton Brownstein, of Kennebunk, Maine.

In an interview, she said, “We all have to be in this thing together.” Seeing the absence of a large number of Jews at the Yom Kippur march, “someone is going to say ‘look they don’t want the Jews there,’ “ she told Haaretz. “Reading the apology is fruitless. It’s not enough.” She said that organizers should “cancel the march, start over again.”

March co-chair Davis, who works as a racism educator, said hearing the Jewish community’s anger hasn’t been easy. But that it’s been worth it.

“As rough as it has been, to have this input and dialogue has been magnificent and transformative,” she said. “We want to make sure the Jewish community stays in tune.”

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