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Set for Shabbat, Huge Women’s March Poses Challenge to Liberal Jews

The Women’s March on Washington, planned for January 21, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of protesters and create numerous logistical difficulties. There’s the challenge of mapping a route when lots of areas are off-limits because of security concerns around the inauguration. The marchers themselves have security concerns. And there’s the perennial Porta Potty problem. For Jewish participants, add one more potential challenge: Shabbat.

The inauguration is on Friday; the march is on Saturday, the Jewish day of rest on which observant Jews refrain from various forms of labor. Some won’t so much as flip an electrical switch, while others avail themselves of all modern conveniences but try to relax. What would the rabbis make of an emotionally intense day walking for miles amid a huge, noisy crowd?

“It was a hard decision. We don’t usually endorse events taking place on Shabbat,” said Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, which will be leading the Jewish participation in the march. “But the fact that so many of our constituents will be there made the difference.”

Only a few Jewish groups have formally endorsed the march, which will focus on ensuring women’s rights and those of marginalized communities. Some liberal-leaning organizations that identify with the causes of the march had expressed concerns regarding their tax-exempt not-for-profit status that prohibits political endorsements. Others preferred to avoid a formal endorsement of an event that will require so much effort on the Sabbath.

Nancy Kaufman

The demonstration started as an online call by a Hawaiian grandmother seeking to counter the inauguration festivities. It went far and fast on the web, and within days thousands of people signed on to attend. Organizers, who received permits from the Washington police to hold one of the city’s largest-ever inauguration weekend demonstrations, say hundreds of thousands of participants have already committed to travel to Washington and march in a route not far from the White House, where Trump will be settling in after his first day in office.

Traditionally Sabbath-observant Jews wishing to attend the rally must travel to D.C. before Friday evening and lodge in accommodations within walking distance from the march route, which will begin near the U.S. Capitol. The timing complicates this task, since most D.C. hotels are fully booked weeks in advance by people attending the inauguration.

Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, has been fielding questions from observant Jews wishing to participate. Many of these people joined a Facebook group that they’re using to crowdsource the question of how to keep the rules of Shabbat while protesting Trump’s policies regarding women and minorities. These issues include sources for kosher food (D.C. has precious few kosher establishments), traveling to Washington and walking in areas not encircled by an eruv, the line creating a symbolic enclosure inside which observant Jews can carry belongings during the Sabbath. “There is no halachic reason not to participate,” Weiss-Greenberg said, using the term for Jewish law. “It’s about the spirit of Shabbat and what people believe is appropriate.”

Many members of the Jewish community wishing to express their rejection of the incoming administration’s policies will participate in local protest events now being arranged in major cities, including New York. These events, planned to allow those struggling to travel to D.C. to make their voices heard anyway, could prove especially valuable for Jewish participants.

Gather the Jews, a D.C. network of Jewish local activities, has launched an inauguration housing drive, signing up Jewish residents interested in hosting out-of-town guests. The initiative does not distinguish between those coming to Washington for Trump’s inauguration on Friday and others arriving to attend the Saturday protest against his policies.

Other Jewish groups are working to bypass the religious limitations on Sabbath activity by offering events designed to facilitate Jewish participation. The Reform movement, while not endorsing the march, will offer Shabbat prayer services at a nearby hotel. Several Jewish groups will hold a Saturday pre-march event at Washington’s historic synagogue Sixth & I and a Sunday teach-in in cooperation with Planned Parenthood. Two groups, Repair the World and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, are organizing service projects in D.C. throughout the inauguration weekend.

Indeed, some Jewish participants feel that the march, despite its disruption of traditional practices, is the perfect way to celebrate Shabbat.

Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish organization that has also endorsed the march, said it was up to the members to decide if they’d like to participate Saturday.

“We do recognize,” said Jonathan Lipman, the group’s chief strategy officer, “that some members feel that participation in a social justice movement is part of their spiritual practice.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com

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