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Occupy Rosh Hashanah: Praying With Our Legs, Part 1 -- Big Banks

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On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, last week, I was picketing a bank in Berkeley, Calif.; "praying with my legs" in a way that reminded me of one modern prophet and one ancient prophet.

The modern one, of course, was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who coined that phrase about his own legs after marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Ala., in 1965 to win the vote for African-Americans.

The ancient prophet was Isaiah. On Yom Kippur about 2,500 years ago, Isaiah walked into a crowd that felt good because (having fasted for about 18 hours already) it felt bad. He called out that merely refraining from food and drink was not the point. God, he said, intended the Yom Kippur fast to involve feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, and -- intensely political, not reducible to "charity" -- striking off the handcuffs put on prisoners by those in power.

Many in the crowd around Isaiah got angry at this shattering of their internal "spiritual" high. But Isaiah called out that it was impossible in the eyes of the One Who Interbreathes all life to get spiritually high without first going low -- breathing deeply with the lowly, the poor, the desperate, the humiliated of society.

And the rabbis, 500 years later, enshrined his words to be read on every Yom Kippur morning. They wanted to make the lesson unforgettable. But turning the disturbance into liturgy tamed it. Made it easy to mutter and forget. It takes new effort to make Isaiah's vision real.

So last week, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which was also the first anniversary of the Occupy movement, we gathered in Berkeley proclaiming "Occupy Rosh Hashanah," on behalf of the desperate poor and the humiliated former middle class, outside the branch office of a huge bank, Wells Fargo, that has thrown people out of homes and jobs.

Four Jewish-renewal-oriented rabbis -- Michael Lerner, David Jonathan Cooper, Phyllis Berman and I -- led about 200 members of the Shalom Center, Beyt Tikkun, Kehilla, Chochmat HaLev, the "Jewish Contingent of Bay Area Occupy" and others to take a joyful part in Occupy Rosh HaShanah on the streets of Berkeley.

Since Phyllis and I had been invited to join Rabbi Lerner in leading services at his shul in Berkeley, the Shalom Center originally proposed we do an Occupy Rosh Hashanah action on that day, after the morning prayer service (Tikkun worked out the action plan).

It felt, indeed, like a tiny but true slice of Isaiah's chutzpadik, crowd-shocking intervention on that Yom Kippur so long ago.

We urged people to move their money from banks that are global corporate oligarchies to local credit unions or community banks. We shared specific information about how to Move Our Money. We leafleted passers-by, greeted old friends and met people we had never known. We sang and laughed along with cantor/songwriter Linda Hirschhorn, and a serious/funny Occupella Choir.

And we prayed -- with our voices as well as our legs.

The atmosphere was high-spirited, hopeful, joyful and determined. You can see and hear some moments in a video that shows not only the singing energy of the picketing crowd but especially comments by Rabbis Berman and Lerner and the shofar-blowing by Rabbi Cooper.

An article in the Oakland Tribune about the action included this passage:

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, whose Shalom Center in Philadelphia works for social justice, came to Berkeley for the Rosh Hashana protest and believes Occupy changed the national discussion about financial equality. "The energy is continuing," said Waskow. "It didn't disappear. Occupy changed the conversation in the U.S. so we could talk about the concentration of wealth and power." "Before, it wasn't even taboo to talk about, it didn't exist. Suddenly, it was talkable. Now Occupy people are focused on keeping homes [from being foreclosed] and [on] the banks that were the center of the financial collapse."

You may notice this essay is captioned, "Part 1." Tomorrow, God willing, I'll share with you Part 2. It's about prayer and picketing last week in Philadelphia, confronting the corporate executives of the companies that are fracking large regions of the United States.

Rabbi Heschel could not have walked in Selma without support from the organizational sponsors of the March. Same with both the Berkeley and Philadelphia actions.

As I've pointed out, the Shalom Center had an important role in shaping the Berkeley action, and then in taking vigorous part. Ditto in the Philadelphia events. We could not have done that without the support you give us -- intellectual, emotional, spiritual and financial. To keep doing this work, we need your help -- in all four of those Four Worlds. Please donate (it's tax-deductible) by clicking to our website.

Many thanks for your help. It really is crucial.

With blessings upon your own work to heal and to reach toward wholeness -- shalom and salaam -- Arthur

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