Not Even Police Zip Ties Will Stop These Rabbis From Fighting for Standing Rock
Heads tilted toward the sky, we sang at the top of our lungs:
Min HaMetzar karati Yah,
Ahnani b’merchav Yah.
From the depths I called to God,
Who answered me with the Divine Expanse.
As they tightened the zip ties around our wrists, we sang these words even louder. This was why we came to Standing Rock. To pray. To act.
On Thursday, November 3, we were arrested in Bismarck, North Dakota in an act of civil disobedience. With 11 other allies, we sat in the State Capitol Building, imploring Governor Jack Dalrymple to stop the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) on Lakota treaty territory, to order the removal of the National Guard, to respect sacred burial ground.
DAPL is a $3.8 million dollar project, thousands of miles of pipe that are certain to leak the oil it transports and destroy a major water source for millions of people. Native leaders invited clergy to a day of prayer and action in support of the Standing Rock Water Protectors as they resist the construction of the DAPL, and we were among the 524 who responded to the call. When asked, our delegation offered words of Torah-we chanted Genesis 1:9-10, the third day of Creation in which God creates water. We blew shofar, the sound that echoes in the time of our redemption, and reminds us that we are holy vessels, capable of holy justice work.
Our arrest was challenging and at times physically painful. It involves legal repercussions we will be managing for months to come. But our arrest still could not have been more different than that of the Water Protectors who stood in the freezing Cannonball River, trying to get close to sacred burial sites. They were sprayed with mace, shot at with rubber bullets, addressed with malice. Native ritual objects have been destroyed but ours were returned to us. There were hard moments but we were primarily treated with respect, because of our status as clergy and moreso because of our whiteness. These are the stories we are now holding.
Ariana: While being booked in Bismarck, I experienced the way that the Native arrestees in this struggle are often catalogued—by having a number written on their arm in dark sharpie. They wrote the number 3 on my arm, I shook and wept for the history of my people, still paralyzed by shock of the Holocaust. A Catholic Worker leaned her forehead on mine, whispered comfort. From her I saw, the world is filled with bountiful kindness.
And, I remembered that the Shoah is over, my people are not being catalogued and rounded up. While in North Dakota I learned history, that the ways in which the Jews were murdered in the Holocaust was inspired by the ways in which Indigenous people were murdered in the United States. My arrest was inexplicably triggering, and yet these stories must propel us forward, rather than hold us back.
Later, I was strip searched and forced to take a shower. The memories of my people echoed in my bones, but my brain and heart protected me. I sang the words of Isaiah that we had sung in the State Capitol, and felt a comfort. “When you walk through the water, I will be with you” (Isaiah 43:2). These moments connected me to a terrifying history, into my body, to the struggle for water for all of us. The struggle for water and self-determination for us all.
Miriam: Eight years ago, I lived on Standing Rock. I interned for the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, the branch of tribal government that preserves oral histories and fights oil pipelines that threaten Native sacred sites. The relationships I built there are still dear to me.
After our release, friends talked about the trauma they experienced. People asked me to keep praying, and although I had done so hours earlier with my co-clergy, singing with my full force as officers tightened my cuffs and bent my wrists until I shouted in pain, I couldn’t do it on my own. How could I ask G-d to keep the Water Protectors safe when genocide, colonialism and its aftermath, continue to wreak havoc?
Days later, it hit me. As Jews, we are taught to wrestle with G-d. So I prayed in my tradition. I wrestled. I got angry. And from that honest state of anger I remembered that survival in the wake of genocide is sacred. For my family, that journey has been holy but fraught. At times we have been so traumatized that we have been unable to see the ways we are safe. I do this work because I am accountable to friends on Standing Rock, to following Native leadership. I am also accountable to my ancestors. My grandmother is my link to a tradition that was nearly wiped out. And I am her link to a future where all people’s liberations are our bound up together.
Linda: When I became a rabbi in 1979, one of my teachers said that each rabbi has one teaching, one essential message that they bring to the world. I quickly said “Mine is that everyone is created in the image of God.” Stepping up to face arrest at Standing Rock is a natural outgrowth of that belief.
Seeing the desecration of Native burial grounds, such a blatant example of the country I call home treating those native to the land with cruelty and disrespect, inspired me to take action. This cruelty has been perpetuated for hundreds of years, and, as a Jew, it is my responsibility to always stand with the oppressed.
Even though I was treated with respect, during our arrest I felt doubt and fear. But the teaching kept coming back to me: all people are created in the image of God. People who are indigenous to this land must treated with the respect that they deserve. And we all must do whatever it takes to stop DAPL.
We are deeply humbled by Native resistance to further colonization of land and protection of culture and tradition. Our time in Standing Rock pushes us to further action. This week we will fast, we will pray, we will donate. Our song continues: From the depths of fear and violence we call out in solidarity, “G-d’s loving kindness is boundless (Psalms 107:1)” . Together may we build up a world on that foundation of boundless compassion.
Rabbi Linda Holtzman is the Rabbi of the Tikkun Olam Chavurah. Miriam Grossman is a Student Rabbi at Kolot Chayeinu. Ariana Katz is the host of Kaddish the Podcast. Ariana and Miriam are students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where Rabbi Linda teaches.