This past week, I spent the beginning of Sukkot in Washington DC building a sukkah at the Occupy K Street protests. One of the things that I was struck by was the amazing drawing power of publicly practicing Jewish ritual in the context of a protest. People from many different backgrounds were excited to join in the construction of this sukkah.
While different members of the Jewish community will have different opinions about the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Jewish community can learn a lot from social movements like Occupy Wall Street when thinking about how to engage the unengaged. There are several reasons for the excitement and energy around building the sukkah at the protests that can be applied to other Jewish communal projects.
When building the Occupy K Street sukkah, many different skills were needed: construction, ability to chant the blessings, and even a willingness to work in the rain. Because of the nature of the protests, no one person was assigned to any of these tasks, but rather, everyone was encouraged to help wherever they could. Because of this openness, non-Jews as well as Jews enthusiastically joined in the construction. People were excited to contribute, as everyone felt that their participation would be welcomed.
We also connected the themes of the holiday to the broader context of social justice. Sukkot, as a holiday that encourages people to welcome guests and give thanks for economic stability, helps to link Jewish ritual and Jewish social values. People with a variety of ways of relating to Judaism could connect with building this sukkah as a meaningful Jewish experience. As the broader Jewish community creates programming to engage those on the periphery, it is worth considering that many Jews may not connect to Jewish ritual, but may find something else in Judaism much more compelling.
As we as a community create “entry points” for those on the periphery to join us, we must remember that they have strengths, passions, and interests that will serve an immense value to the Jewish community. When we create low barrier programming where all can not just participate, but be involved and feel invested in the outcome, it is not only those on the periphery who benefit. The Jewish community benefits tremendously as well.