Last week, 13 prominent rabbis held a secret meeting — with Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour, leaders of the Women’s March.
The reason: to try to decide whether the rabbis and their congregations should attend the third annual march, scheduled for this coming Saturday. And if they should attend — which one?
There will be two Women’s Marches in New York, a reflection of the schism in the broader movement. Much of the split is about Mallory’s ties to the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. For a long time, many Jewish women felt ignored by the march leadership, and the leaders thought that Jewish women didn’t understand their perspective. Hence, the meeting.
“There’s been a prioritization of understanding the pain that the Jewish community has been in,” said one leader who attended, Rabbi Felicia Sol of B’nai Jeshurun, an independent synagogue in New York that hosted a citywide Jewish prayer service before the 2017 march.
The gathering, say those in attendance, was productive, but painful, and still inconclusive. It generated a letter of support for the march, signed by 9 of the 13 rabbis in attendance. And as of Tuesday night, lots of the rabbis still didn’t know what they would be doing come Saturday. They are grappling with the same choice as many other Jews across the country: to attend a march that espouses principles most of the liberal community agrees with, or to stay home in protest of the anti-Semitism allegations and lose the opportunity to build alliances with other minority groups in attendance.
The choice is even trickier in New York, because in addition to the boycott option, there are two separate Women’s Marches to choose from. One option is the Midtown march led by the Women’s March Alliance, the group that organized the 2017 and 2018 New York marches and whose leadership has denounced the national organization over everything from anti-Semitism to alleged copyright law violations. Or New Yorkers could go to the “unity rally” in Foley Square, sponsored by the national Women’s March leadership, which includes Sarsour and Mallory.
Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, the founder of the progressive Brooklyn synagogue Kolot Chayeinu, and Rabbi Barat Ellman, a rabbi and professor who is also the mother of a Women’s March employee, organized the meeting, which was held at Ellman’s home on January 9. African-American ministers and veteran progressive activists were also present, said Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, the flagship Reconstructionist synagogue, who also attended.
The meeting was full of “some honest conversations, really frank conversations” — about anti-Semitism, racism and the leaders’ longstanding ties to the anti-Semitic and homophobic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Grabelle Herrmann said.
Other rabbis known to have participated in the meeting include Sharon Kleinbaum of the LGBT synagogue Congregation Beit Simchat Torah; Rachel Goldenberg of the progressive Queens community Malkhut; Michael Rothbaum of Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton, Massachusetts; Joshua Stanton of the Manhattan Reform congregation East End Temple; and two leaders from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in New York: Lisa D. Grant, the director of the rabbinical school, and Nancy Weiner.
All of those rabbis signed a letter released Tuesday saying that the Women’s March leaders had “listened carefully and respectfully to our hurt and concern,” and encouraged people to participate in the Women’s March in New York and Washington.
“We have learned too well that divisions between Jews and People of Color only serve to further the aims of white supremacists and their enablers, and to erase the strong presence in our Jewish communities of Jews of Color,” the letter said. “We believe there is power and beauty in an intersectional, multi-racial, multi-faith, women-led movement that is the ideal of the Women’s March. We believe the best way to ensure that ideal is to stay in the conversation and work in good faith with our partners. We also want to support our Jewish women of color sisters who have called upon the community to show up to the Women’s March.”
Sol did not sign the letter; neither did Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie of the experimental Jewish community Lab/Shul, who Lippmann said was also at the meeting.
Sol and Lau-Lavie will be announcing their decisions about the march on Wednesday. Lau-Lavie did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. Lippmann said that Lau-Lavie would be appearing on the radio on Wednesday with two other meeting participants: Ellman and Rev. Jacqui Lewis, who was recently named to the Women’s March’s new steering committee.
Lippmann added that the draft of their letter was sent to the whole group. “I think even the rabbis who chose not to sign think it’s a beautiful statement,” she said. “Whether their communities are on board is a different story.”
The meeting began with a facilitator leading a get-to-know-you exercise where people shared important aspects of their identity like “I’m a Zionist, I’m a woman, I’m a rabbi, I’m a Jew,” Lippmann explained. It was then opened up for people to have what Grabelle Herrmann called “honest conversations, really frank conversations, about what was going on individually, the hurt they were feeling.”
Grabelle Herrmann made a distinction between Sarsour, who has apologized for her handling of the anti-Semitism allegations, and Mallory, who has continued to stop short of condemning Farrakhan - including when asked on “The View” on Monday.
“She can’t denounce him because she has a relationship with him,” Grabelle Herrmann said. “I don’t agree with that decision, but that isn’t going to stop me from having a conversation with her as long as I feel like she’s seeing me.” She added that she condemns Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism and said he does have institutional power, but called it “significantly less than the power in the White House.”
“There were some tears in the room,” Lippmann said. “I had been in one [meeting] a week or two before with Jewish leaders where it was overly polite. This was not that. This was strong and powerful and honest.”
When asked if she believed Mallory and Sarsour had truly listened to their concerns, Sol demurred, responding, “Good question.” But, she added, “I’m not willing to walk away. The injustices are too pernicious, the work is too great to break from this inspiring, agitated country of women who are rising up to work toward change…. If I’m not in relationships with Tamika or Linda, then what hope do we have about changing their hearts and minds?”
Sol said that even after that the secret meeting, as well as community conversation in the synagogue last Shabbat with 200-250 people, BJ had still not decided what to do.
Grabelle Herrmann’s congregation, SAJ, has decided to join the Women’s March Alliance, the group which defines itself in opposition to Sarsour and Mallory’s organization - both because it’s closer and because that group organized the local march for the past two years. Also at that march will be members of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, the prominent Reform temple. SWFS announced last week that it was formally disassociating with the national Women’s March organization over the anti-Semitism issue and affiliating with the Women’s March Alliance instead.
SWFS Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch said his congregation had had repeated meetings with the Women’s March Alliance to assuage their concerns about anti-Semitism. “They better represented the values that we thought we were supporting when we supported the Women’s March” in 2017, he explained. The congregation will also be having a teach-in on Thursday night with representatives from the march group, the feminist-Zionist group Zioness, the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League and other liberal organizations.
A spokesperson for Central Synagogue, whose spiritual leader Rabbi Angela Buchdahl was the first Asian-American to be ordained as a rabbi, told the Forward on Monday that they were not having any Women’s March-related events this weekend.
But other Jewish groups will be going to the rally in Foley Square organized by allies of Sarsour and Mallory. They include representatives from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, one of the three Jewish organizations that has been advising the Women’s March on issues of anti-Semitism. The group said in a statement that their presence at the Foley Square event was in response to an open letter from Jewish women of color in support of the Women’s March organization. That letter was spearheaded by the black Jewish educational consultant Yavilah McCoy, who was also named on Monday to the new Women’s March steering committee.
Grant, of HUC, and Lippmann have said that they’re also going to be at Foley Square. Rabbi Mira Rivera of the Jewish Renewal congregation Romemu said she was going all the way to Washington, to the rally directly led by Sarsour and Mallory. She said her trip was endorsed by Romemu founder Rabbi David Ingber, “albeit with a lot of reservations.”
Rivera, who is Filipino-American, said the promotion of a fellow Jew of color to the Women’s March steering committee “changed the picture” for her. She said Jews willing to boycott the Women’s March were not only missing the point, but abandoning those in the community who needed the Women’s March’s intersectional activism.
“As a person of color and a Jewish person of color, I don’t have that luxury to say I’m going to take my toys and walk away,” she said. “To be even included in the room has been a struggle.”
Correction, January 16: A previous version of this article misspelled Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg’s congregation. It is Malkhut, not Malchut.