Not For Political Purposes, For Spiritual Ones

Kol Nidre at Occupy Wall Street

I do not normally look forward to Yom Kippur. It has always been, for me, a somewhat dutiful holiday, whereby the moral struggles of everyday life, as if they didn’t weigh heavily enough on us already, are magnified by lumping them into a year’s worth of sinful action and, by the magic of the ritual, supposedly forgiven.

But Yom Kippur this year was different; it was infused with political conviction and, rather than abstractly addressing our sins (sexual immorality, false speech, stealing), these wrongdoings were lent concreteness by the surroundings in which we welcomed the Day of Atonement: the Financial District.

Across from the Occupy Wall Street protest in Zuccotti Park, in front of the Brown Brothers Harriman building, an egalitarian service in both English and Hebrew was led by Avi Fox Rosen, Sarah Wolf, and Getzel Davis, with support from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. From my estimate, about five hundred people were in attendance. At one point, when we turned toward the building to say our prayers toward the East, one of our leaders shouted, “We are not praying to the building!” A ripple of laughter ensued. “We’re praying toward Jerusalem!” he continued. “But not for political purposes!” More laughter, and cheers. “For spiritual ones!”

The entire service was conducted through the “people’s microphone.” As the officiators spoke each line, it was repeated in waves from the inner circle to the outer. If you’ve attended Jewish services before, you know that the congregation already plays a vocal role, reading certain phrases from the prayerbook. But in this instance, participation was full-on. We were all guiding the service; though the words initiated from our leaders, each person roared the verses up toward the tall buildings around us as if they were coming directly from us.

Yom Kippur is a day of atonement for wrongdoing, and it is always emphasized that we can only ask forgiveness in the eyes of God on that day; we are responsible for asking forgiveness of ourselves for self-harm and of others to whom we have done harm. But the location of Friday night’s service made that responsibility more than symbolic. In the midst of a protest against financial exploitation, we stood as individuals culpable for our bonds to an unjust system in which we are all complicit: as consumers, as home-owners, as holders of debt loads, as citizens of this country, as members of an international community.

Following the aleinu, people shouted out the ways in which they would move into the Jewish New Year in a new light, making amends for previous wrongdoings. Some were the typical concerns heard in most Yom Kippur services: giving more attention to one’s parents, finding ways to be happier with less. But there were also a slew of overtly political promises: to refuse to remain silent in the face of social, racial, and economic injustice; to stand up against human rights abuses in Palestine; to cancel accounts with large and powerful banks; to never stop fighting for better lives for working people.

This was a Yom Kippur in which we were not just Jews, cleansing ourselves in the hopes of improving our own lots. We were speaking out about wrongdoings that we all commit, as human beings implicated in broad, intricate networks of power. We were acknowledging our complicity with Wall Street, even as we occupied it. And even if we knew, practically, that our everyday existences could not be wrested from the millions of ways in which we support the very economic system we speak out against, we were wishing for a year ahead in which, at the very least, Wall Street ceased to occupy us.

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