Zach Teutsch and Virginia Spatz on Jews in Occupy DC

GTJ asked Zach Teutsch and Virginia Spatz — two leaders in the Occupy Judaism DC movement — to discuss Jewish involvement in the Occupy movement.


Zach Teutsch is a financial educator and labor activist.  He especially enjoys the moments when Jewish prayer is itself subversive.

Since the industrial revolution, and perhaps even before, Jews have figured prominently in the intellectual and practical movements that created capitalism as well as those that opposed it. Jews have always been disproportionately represented on both sides of the inequality debate. In the 1980s, Milton Friedman wrote a famous essay on what he viewed as a paradox–if Jews have benefited a great deal from capitalism why do they tend to oppose it. Jewish efforts against inequality and capitalism are not new phenomena; they have existed as long as capitalism has.

The question of Jews and Occupy Wall St/Occupy K St/etc was never one of whether we would be involved, but when and how. As the High Holidays approached, many were split between wanting to focus on the spiritual discipline that comes with this season in the Jewish calendar and the activist fervor that was building. The idea sprang up that we wouldn’t have to choose! We could host services is solidarity with the emerging movement.

This is not just any year. We are in a state of moral crisis as a country. The richest among us continue to live lives of great wealth (perhaps even opulence), while our nation, the richest on earth, sees families go to bed hungry. Many felt that praying in a new and different way was more appropriate on that night and many nights since. Rather than in a big beautiful synagogue, sometimes it’s better to pray in the street.

In NYC, a thousand people showed up on Kol Nidre night to a space adjacent to Zuccotti Park. In DC, a call went out to a few people at 7 a.m. the morning before Kol Nidre. By 9 a.m. a Facebook event page was up. Later that day, 200 people streamed to McPherson Square to hear Kol Nidre in a new way–deeply engaged with collective struggles, not just the individual focus that tends to surround the practice.

The feedback from the services was deeply moving. One participant said that he had never missed Yom Kippur services but at the same time he didn’t want to walk out on his non-Jewish friends and fellow activists. He was so grateful that we gave him a way to avoid choosing between his commitment to a fairer world and his commitment to his Jewish practice. An elderly woman said that this was the most powerful Jewish experience she had ever had.

It was clear that there was an appetite for more. A team of folks who had been involved in the Kol Nidre service worked together to build a Sukkah. There were teach-ins all week, and Friday evening services that attracted about 70 people.

Beyond DC, sukkot were built in NYC, Philly, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, Toronto, and London. Simchat Torah was celebrated in several cities with hundreds of attendees.

It’s not clear what the next steps are in Jewish practice in support of Occupy K St. What is clear is that the folks organizing the encampment are very supportive of Jewish solidarity events, appreciative that they are happening, and using them as a model to encourage similar events from other faiths. We have led the way and hopefully more religious groups will follow in this path.


Virginia Spatz is a local writer active in neighborhood, Jewish and interfaith community-building. A native Chicagoan, she has been in DC since 1988, with her husband, Cary O’Brien; they home-schooled two children who later attended DCPS high schools before heading off to college. Some Jewish writings appear on

I am not sure I can speak to “the Occupy Movement” overall and when/whether it developed a “Jewish angle.” I only know about my own experience as a Jew, a long-time DC resident, and an individual with about 25 years on most folks I meet in McPherson Square.

Without disputing one word Zach Teutsch offered, here is a somewhat different view:

Being a resident of the nation’s capital means experiencing uncountable protests of all sorts. I find it inspiring to step out my front door and take a local bus to a national anti-war march, pop away from a day’s work to join a pro-Choice rally, or be able to run home to grab a shofar, to replace the one which did not appear for a Jewish environmental action. My then 10-year-old daughter lead Psalm 121 at a 2001 Rabbis for Human Rights protest against war in Iraq (there’s a video somewhere). I am grateful that my children grew up with a sense that participation — even without representation — in national government is a regular part of daily life… and a regular part of Judaism.

Many protests, however, have little, if any, direct relationship to the 600,000 who call DC “home.” It can be disheartening to find one’s hometown overrun with thousands of people loudly expressing views with which one disagrees. (I confess that I am less tolerant of Metro delays and such, depending on who is taking over “my” subway platform.) And it is depressing for those of us from more troubled neighborhoods to see so much attention and so many of the District’s basic resources, like police protection, directed away from where it’s most needed.

Protests can also be logistically frustrating, sometimes frightening, for residents: My regular bus routes — to synagogue, e.g. — are detoured nearly every weekend for some kind of protest or other civic event. My children and I have been caught up in police cordons or unexpected (not always pleasant) crowds more times than I can count. And I still recall with panic the time that the public library kept my then-young children long after official closing time (eternal thanks to caring staff!), because protests at the World Bank trapped me in the Metro when I should have been picking them up.

Moreover, I raised a family in the havurah movement. My children were bnei mitzvah without ever attending religious school or engaging with clergy as clergy. I regularly read Torah, teach, and lead services in Reform, Orthodox women’s tefillah and a variety of independent communities. Social justice has always been a part of our immediate family’s religious life, as it is a part of my wider family’s lives in the Catholic and other Christian churches. The Chicago of my youth was steeped in largely Christian anti-war, Civil Rights, and anti-poverty efforts. In addition, faith-based efforts were central in bringing neighborhood voices to externally-driven “Urban Renewal projects. I’ve been “in the streets” since I was about five years old, and I’ve been “in the pews” even longer, learning lessons that inspired and informed me on those streets. Faith-based justice work is not new, nor is “empowered” Judaism. Therefore, much of the rhetoric about what OWS is changing just baffles me.

For all these reasons, I had doubts about Occupy K Street (and Freedom Plaza), and I was unsure about aiming for large Jewish prayer events at McPherson Square. When I first visited, I spent more time hanging out with homeless men — who are, I acknowledge, generally older and more likely to be steeped in a DC culture I recognize — than I did chatting with the main OKS folks.

Before Yom Kippur, I didn’t see any overtly Jewish presence at OKS in dire need of davening options. I was concerned that prayer could become one more “action” or PR/photo opportunity. However, I trusted the intentions of the participants and leaders and learned later that many Jews and non-Jews found the Kol Nidrei prayers meaningful and inspiring. (I helped set up but did not participate.)

The idea of a Solidarity Sukkah strongly appealed to me. The holiday carries many social justice themes but also stresses hospitality, an invitation for conversation. Through many hours in and around the Sukkah, I met Jews and non-Jews of OKS and saw the “occupiers” engage with those who’d come to the Square for other reasons. I believe the Sukkah fostered conversations that might not have otherwise happened. I found that the movement gave a voice to some of the homeless and other individuals who had not intentionally come to the Square for OKS. I met Christians and Muslims who are also active in faith-based approaches to the OKS movement. I am seeing some good cross-community conversations and collaborations.

“Ben Zoma said, Who is wise? He that learns from every man; for it is said, From all my teachers I got understanding (Ps. 119: 99)… Who is honored? He that honors mankind; for it is said, For them that honor me I will honor, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed (I Sam. ii. 30).” — Pirkei Avot 4:1-4

For me, Ben Zoma captures the promise and the challenge of OKS and Judaism, separately and together.

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