To Attend Or Not: With March For Racial Justice Falling On Yom Kippur, Rabbis Forced To Choose


It’s a Trump-era conundrum that speaks to the heart of this hyper-anxious political moment: Some Jewish activists are said to be debating whether their place is in synagogue on Saturday in observance of Yom Kippur or at a march in Washington organized by black leaders to protest racism, white supremacy and anti-Semitism in the wake of the August neo-Nazi-white nationalist protest in Charlottesville, Va.

Some rabbis have opted to join the march.

In an email, Ira Stone, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, a Conservative congregation in Philadelphia, informed congregants that he would be “traveling to Washington on Yom Kippur,” and he invited “any members of the community who are so moved to join me.”

Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, said she did not know of any pulpit rabbis who planned to attend but that she had heard of “four or five rabbis” who plan to attend a Washington synagogue for Kol Nidre [services Friday night], attend part of the Yom Kippur service and also participate in the march.”

In addition, Rabbi Wechterman said she had “heard of numbers of [Jewish] people who plan to march who would probably have not gone to synagogue anyway. If you are a Jewish person who is not inclined to go to synagogue, what a wonderful way to spend Yom Kippur.” 

Organizers of the march issued a statement last month in which they said they did not realize Sept. 30 was Yom Kippur, and that it was a “grave and hurtful oversight on our part. It was unintentional and we are sorry for this pain ….”

Organizers added that they hoped Jews in synagogues on Yom Kippur would “pray for racial justice — lifting up black and brown people, Jewish and non-Jewish — in hope for safety and wholeness.”

Organizers added that they hoped Jews in synagogues on Yom Kippur would “pray for racial justice — lifting up black and brown people, Jewish and non-Jewish — in hope for safety and wholeness.”

To accommodate those who choose not to attend the March for Racial Justice on Yom Kippur, another march is being held Sunday in several cities including New York. The Jewish contingent is being organized by T’ruah: The Rabbinical Call for Human Rights. In an email, T’ruah said it would be “marching to end discriminatory policing, mass incarceration and religious and racial barriers to entry into the U.S.”

The Sunday march is to begin at 12:45 p.m. at the corner of Jay and York at Jay Street Plaza in Brooklyn. April Baskin, a Jew of color who is the URJ’s vice president of audacious hospitality, is scheduled to be a featured speaker.

Rabbi Stone told The Jewish Week that T’ruah had urged him to join a Sunday march instead of the one on Yom Kippur, but he said those marches will “become Jewish marches. … For me, the point was to give up the notion of our being leaders of the movement and to listen to those in the movement. It is a mostly grass roots, small organization of black, Hispanic and Native Americans. It is not Jews and not whites.”

He said he was reluctant to speak about his planned participation in the march on Yom Kippur for fear it would divert attention from the reasons for the march.

“I did not want there to be a reason for the press to focus on the fact that Jews were going on Yom Kippur,” he said. “I just felt the need to go. … This is my Yom Kippur. I may be 100 percent wrong, but this is my Yom Kippur.”

“I just felt the need to go. … This is my Yom Kippur. I may be 100 percent wrong, but this is my Yom Kippur.”

In explaining his decision to join the march, Rabbi Stone recalled that when a cholera epidemic struck the city of Vilna in 1848, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter insisted that Jews eat on Yom Kippur for fear that by fasting they would be weakened and thus more susceptible to catching the disease. Rabbi Stone said six to eight congregants plan to join him at the train station Saturday morning for the trip to Washington.

The president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Philip Scheim, told The Jewish Week that his organization has taken no official position on the march but that he could not imagine supporting Jewish participation in a march on Yom Kippur.

“The date chosen, even if unintentionally in conflict with our holiest day, precludes Jewish involvement,” he said. “I would disagree sharply with rabbis of any stream encouraging or supporting their congregants’ participation.”

Asked about Rabbi Stone’s example of Rabbi Salanter directing congregants to eat during the cholera epidemic, Rabbi Scheim said it did not apply here because the march Saturday is “not a life or death issue.”

Rabbi Stone disagreed, asking: “How close are we getting to a total breakdown between the races, continuing to pretend that this is a country not built on slavery and genocide?”

He said the war of words between President Donald Trump and the National Football League and many of its players is also “a racial thing” despite the president’s insistence that it is not about race but about respect for America.

Saturday’s march had originally been slated to protest the acquittal of a Minnesota police officer who shot and killed a black man during a traffic stop while his girlfriend recorded it. The protest took on added import after the Charlottesville far-right rally. Protestors at that event marched with torches across the University of Virginia campus chanting such things as, “Jews will not replace us,” and a woman was run down and killed by a motorist with white nationalist ties.

The Charlottesville rally had been called to protest the removal of Confederate statutes nationwide following the shooting deaths of nine people in a black church by a 21-year-old white supremacist who had been photographed with the Confederate battle flag.

Rabbi Stone wrote to his former congregants that while “we in America continue to trumpet our national fantasy of the land of the free and the home of the brave. … A virus untreated may go into remission, but it always re-emerges and each time with more virulence. The virus is back and is stronger than ever.”

The congregation’s two current rabbis, Abe Friedman and Yosef Goldman, wrote their own email to the congregation saying they “fully support the BZBI members who choose to join Rabbi Stone in Washington to march for racial justice.” They cited Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s description of his participation in a march in Selma, Ala., in 1965 to protest racial injustice as “praying with [his] feet.”

Two rabbis of Reform congregations in Washington contacted by The Jewish Week said they are unaware of any congregants who plan to attend the march.

Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel of Temple Micah wrote in an email: “If asked, I would counsel against not being at Yom Kippur services. It seems to me that we are in a long-term struggle in this country and that we need every bit of strength, inspiration, dedication, wisdom and perseverance that we can muster. This is what we get from our Judaism.”

Rabbi Jonathan Roos of Temple Sinai said that if asked, he too “would direct people to the statement from the march organizers: ‘Holding fast to Jewish tradition is also an act of resistance, in the face of growing anti-Semitism.’ And I would tell them that they should go to services and observe Yom Kippur.”

Rabbi Hara Person, chief strategic officer of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, said the CCAR “supports the goals of the march” and has not taken a position on whether Jews should attend.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, a political activist and spiritual leader of The Hampton Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation in Westhampton Beach, L.I., said in an email that “the values of the rally are endemic with the very principles of social justice articulated by our Hebrew prophets that we read on Yom Kippur. Nevertheless, prayer is the central ritual of the Day of Atonement. Members of the Jewish faith should be in synagogue that day.”

Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America, said that although it is “important for people to participate in the political process according to their convictions, the strictures of Torah and the demands of Yom Kippur observance would prohibit participation in a rally on this day.”