The magnitude of the Women’s March on Washington took Jewish participants, like many others, by surprise. Organized groups of Jewish protestors had planned to meet on a street corner not far from the rally’s staging point and march together with the rest of the huge throng.
But as they got closer to the National Mall, it became impossible to keep up the structure. It was simply too crowded.
The Reform Movement was forced to close the doors for its special Shabbat morning services after reaching capacity at more than 1,300 participants. Hundreds of others waited outside. 25 local Reform clergy led the prayer, which was as much of a Shabbat service as a send-off for the troops going out to march. U.S. Rep. Jacky Rosen, a Democratic freshman from Nevada who is the first member of Congress to also serve as president of her Reform synagogue, told participants it is appropriate to recite the Jewish blessing aimed at healing pain and at the same time to say shehecheyanu, the blessing of praise, for the unity shown by the Jewish community.
The massive show of force staged on the same grounds that hosted Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony a day earlier, served as a cathartic moment for many Jewish Democrats and Clinton supporters seeking a way to channel their feelings of dissent and frustration.
“As the daughter of a child refugee, I must march,” said Melissa Hacker a documentary filmmaker from New York. “As a woman concerned with the threatened defending of Planned Parenthood, repeal of the Affordable Care Act and criminalization of abortion I must march. As a citizen concerned with the privatization of education, prisons, water, I must march. As a human concerned with global climate change, I must march.”
“Mom asked us to march for her,” said Tamara Meyer, who was joined by her sister in downtown Washington. It was their mother’s 91st birthday Saturday, but she made clear to her daughters that she’d rather see them march. Meyer, a lecturer and therapist from Potomac, Maryland, comes from a family of Holocaust survivors, and she believes it is her responsibility to do something “in the face of winds of fascism that are picking up speed and threatening the civil liberties that those of us in Europe and the U.S. have held dear.”
“For it is not only in America that we are weeping for what has been lost,” Meyer added.
Others framed their protest in more of a lighthearted, though no less committed, manner.
“We’re marching today because we’re f*ing pissed!,” said Stacy Stuart, co-founder of JewBelong, an online portal that promotes Judaism. She and her co-founder Archie Gottesman, were part of a 60-person bus group from New York. “We’re traveling with a diverse group. White, black, LGBTQ, men, women, young, old. And we’re singing to everything from Hamilton to 60s peace songs. Some of us have never met but we’re sharing snacks and smiles and a desire to stand up for humanity!”
In the colorful noisy crowd that took over downtown DC for the better part of the day, Jewish protestors blended in well. Some carried home made signs, others held banners prepared by Jewish organizations, stating their religious affiliation, just like dozens of other diverse communal groups of faith, gender and ethnicity that joined the march. The National Council of Jewish Women, the only Jewish group that participated in the march’s policy committee, organized hundreds of members carrying signs and stickers reading “Jewish Women Speak Up.” The messages, however, were universal, stressing demands for women’s rights, LGBT equality, and an end to racial discrimination. Though there was concerns beforehand that the march would be overtaken with anti-Israel messages, there seemed to be very few placards and chants that would have made Jews feel uncomfortable.
“It’s all about human rights,” said Elizabeth Hembree from Philadelphia. “I am Jewish and it’s part of that, but to me its about human rights.”
And like others attending the massive gathering, Jewish participants sought to make clear they are not taking to the streets only to vent political frustration after witnessing their candidate lose the elections.
“This is clearly not just about politics but about an entire social movement that seems to be pointing in a direction away from many people’s self interest, so we need to stand for our own self interest to make the streets safer,” said Rabbi Scott Perlo of Sixth & I synagogue in Washington. He noted the recent bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers around the country as a sign of the concern American Jews felt since the elections.
The synagogue co-hosted, with Jews United for Justice and T’ruah, a full weekend of activities for participants of the march, sponsored by several progressive Jewish groups. Before joining the march Saturday morning, Yavilah McCoy, an African-American rabbi energized hundreds of Jewish participants gathered at the synagogue calling on them to keep up their activism even beyond the march. “We must stand up and say: ‘not in my Jewish name,’” said McCoy.
The next step could present the biggest challenge for American Jews seeking to maintain their pledge of resistance. “It’s all about tomorrow,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. His message to the community is to follow Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s call to pray with their feet by participating in the march, but also to plan for the upcoming weeks and month. This plan of action includes creating alliances with local churches and mosques to work together on social justice issues; getting involved in state-level advocacy efforts; and keeping the base mobilized on a national level “so Congress really feels the pressure.”
Lilly Maier is a news intern at the Forward. She is a graduate journalism student at New York University, where she studies as a Fulbright scholar. She also holds a B.A. in Jewish history from the University of Munich.
Contact Lilly at firstname.lastname@example.org, read her portfolio, or follow her on Twitter.