We are living through a time of public protest our country hasn’t really seen in fifty years. From the Women’s March of January 21, 2017 through regular street protests throughout the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, up through this weekend’s March for Our Lives, we are witnessing people taking to the streets in a way many of us can’t remember.
For many Jews, the seemingly historic nature of these public protests has prompted some fascinating questions. Most acutely, for many ritually observant Jews, the original Women’s March, its one-year anniversary march, and the March for Our Lives have all taken place on Shabbat. And that has prompted questions, in my own family and among a wider circle of friends, about how to negotiate our multiple religious commitments.
This isn’t the first time these questions have been raised. Half a century ago, a group of shomer Shabbat Jews made their way to Washington, DC to participate in a massive antiwar rally. And what they experienced proved to be profound.
On November 14, 1969, thirty-five students from Yeshiva University, men and women, traveled to Washington, DC for the largest anti-war demonstration to date, with over a quarter-million participants. There they joined Jewish students from other universities, representing a wide array of Jewish backgrounds, who organized at the Jewish Movement Center, staffed by the National Jewish Organizing Project, a confederation of Jewish activist groups.
The rally was scheduled for Saturday, so the YU students had to make accommodations for Shabbat, including finding kosher food and a Torah scroll for services. When they marched to the White House on Saturday morning, they carried no placards and accepted no pamphlets, as there was no eruv in Washington at the time that would enable carrying on Shabbat according to Jewish law. They had to explain why. As they did, and as they sang Hebrew songs of peace, they drew admiring comments from the others in attendance. “It’s great to have you here,” one girl said, “to know you people care too.”
Joseph Telushkin, then a student at YU with a column in the campus newspaper, referred to the entire experience as “the most beautiful Shabbat” he could remember. “I, at least for a moment, synthesized the values most significant to me.” What enabled that synthesis was the series of encounters Telushkin and the other orthodox students had with both non-orthodox Jews, and with the non-Jewish students at the rally.
Telushkin recalled that on Friday night, word reached the Jewish Movement Center that protesters had been tear gassed outside the South Vietnamese embassy. As Telushkin told it, a “non-ritualistic” Jewish student got up and declared, “I’ve never worn a yarmulka in my life. But I think we should all put on yarmulkas” and go down to protest. “We should participate as actively identifying Jews. It will hurt me like hell to wear a yarmulka, but I’ll put it on.”
Michael Masch, who would go on to a career in politics and higher education, wrote that the event showed non-orthodox students “that there is a very real alternative to the kind of Judaism they had known from their parents.” In place of what they viewed as their parents’ bland, suburbanized Judaism that emphasized the empty performance of ritual, the Orthodox students showed them that a ritually-thick, embodied Jewish practice could be a force that expressed their deepest moral and political commitments.
The general attitude among Orthodox Jews, Telushkin observed, was to reject non-Orthodox Jews. Yet Telushkin credited Rabbi Irving Greenberg, who was then on the YU faculty and accompanied the group, with helping him realize through the march experience that this attitude was wrong. The protesters he had encountered were “often more advanced than we are in their concepts of tzelem elokim.” The non-Orthodox protesters were “performing religious acts in a non-religious context, to a large extent because they feel that the religious context excludes the possibility of moral concern.” The YU students, and Orthodoxy in general, thus had an opportunity to show non-Orthodox Jews that halakha could, in fact, respond to the things that mattered to them.
In the weeks before the rally, Telushkin used his columns to openly contemplate aliyah as the only way he could live fully as a Jew. The encounters he experienced at the march seemingly changed the trajectory of his life, and led him to a career as one of American Jewry’s leading writers and teachers. Others undoubtedly had similarly transformative experiences. In the years following the antiwar movement, young Jews would produce an effusion of new expressions of American Jewish life: the havurah movement; the Jewish catalog; Jewish feminism; the ba’al teshuva movement; Jewish folk music; the re-embrace of traditional ritual among liberal Jews; and much more.
In this moment of reawakened protest and activism, it isn’t too much to wonder what encounters are being had, what lives are being shaped, what seeds are being planted. Our youth are leading, and a future is being born.