Bonnie Levine
Of ITP synagogues and Paramount's "Wife Swap"

Spiritual fuel for Jewish resistance

Like many American Jews, I see the Trump administration as an urgent threat to progress, global stability, and American democracy, which must be met with strong and sustained resistance. I am on the streets and on the phones every chance I get, exercising democratic freedoms like they’re going out of style.  But as a full-time working parent of two kids under four, I have trouble achieving my own equilibrium. I feel simultaneously guilty for not doing more for the world in its time of need, and for neglecting my home life. In one particularly ironic illustration this week, I blew off an activism meeting after spending seventeen minutes fruitlessly searching through four baskets of unsorted laundry for a matching pair of socks for my three-year-old, eventually giving up and shoving a pair of mine onto her as “knee socks” (I also had to pull these from the unsorted laundry).

My three-year-old and I standing up to be counted as a part of the largest inaugural protest in history (which took place on Shabbat).

Our long history of resistance to oppression implores us that nourishing our souls is a key component necessary for healing the world (tikkun olam).  Spirituality has empowered both Jewish and non-Jewish resistance movements, inspiring the best in us and breaking down walls between us. The American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s leaves a legacy of voices singing of freedom, of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s impassioned sermon-like speeches envisioning a better future.

Indeed, on MLK day this year my congregation sang passionately as we walked down the Atlanta streets where Dr. King lived–“we who believe in freedom will not rest until it comes.”  Where does our weekly day of rest fit in?  Feeling assaulted by daily escalating injustices, I find myself unable to disconnect emotionally from our ailing world, even when I try to disconnect physically.

My suggestion to those feeling similarly adrift–mix a little Shabbat into your activism and a little activism into your Shabbat.  Regardless of observance level, Shabbat helps us remain inspired and engaged for the long journey ahead.

A few simple ideas for weary Jewish activists to delight in Shabbat as a way to maintain the momentum of our resistance:

  • As a family, give tzedakah to a cause you are passionate about before Shabbat begins. Use the opportunity to discuss the cause with your children.
  • Commit to brief family rituals on Friday nights, and circumscribe the holiness with Havdalah ritual Saturday night. Shabbat offers not just rest, but stability during a time of unrest–moving through these traditions allows rattled parents to bring some consistency to their children, and connects these difficult times to generations before us–to those who celebrated in this way during even darker times. This need not be a daunting affair–a short medley of songs, candles, blessing our spouse and children, grape juice, and challah takes less than 15 minutes.
  • Seek out or develop fulfilling Shabbat experiences to focus you, inspire you, and keep your energy positive.  Our Torah and liturgy are rich with passages on freedom and justice; traditional and alternative services can offer motivational kavanah, chanting of Jewish melodies, and incorporation of other inspiring American words and songs. Our traditional practice of worshiping with a minyan builds community solidarity, but a half-hour scouring the parsha for inspiration or a five-minute gratitude meditation may be a better fit for a given moment.
  • Invite guests over for exchanging ideas on next steps in the resistance–commiserate with like-minded friends and family; or engage and try to find common ground with the unlike-minded.
  • Practice mindfulness in every choice you make on Shabbat. Choose only actions that you can view as a part of your Jewish observance and not in spite of it. Certain tasks may constitute pikuach nefesh–saving a life, thus overriding mitzvot of refraining from activities on Shabbat. Even without a concrete Shabbat exemption, we can still understand some actions in a way that honors Shabbat.  At the Jewish gathering before the Women’s March, one speaker at the 6th & I Synagogue advised–“our tradition calls for us to rest on this day; let this march be a source of rejuvenation to us for the work that lies ahead.” And returning to the creation story itself, my rabbi pointed out that Shabbat was the final step in G-d’s acts in creating the world from formless chaos (tohu va’vohu); those who perceive the world falling back into tohu va’vohu may conclude that the ongoing process of creation is not complete enough to claim a full day of rest.

One portrayal from Jewish mysticism envisions the creation of our world as the bursting of vessels of divine light–in tikkun olam we attempt to gather the sparks of divine light and restore the broken vessels. In moments of overwhelm, remember that we cannot heal a broken vessel as empty vessels ourselves.


About the Author
Bonnie Levine is an attorney and musician, as well as a wife and mom of a three-year old son and a five-year old daughter. She writes about Jewish spirituality and observance, parenting, intersectionality, and the U.S. and Atlanta Jewish communities. Views are her own and not those of her employer, synagogues, or any other organization.
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