On the day of the Women’s March this year, while hundreds were walking around downtown Cleveland, I and thousands of other Jews were at home, sitting the march out.
It was not an easy decision. Two years ago, as the director of volunteers, community and program development at the National Council of Jewish Women, I had a large role in planning the first Cleveland march.
At the time, two Case Western Reserve University graduate students had volunteered to take on the role of leading the march. But they needed a navigator. My organization had a lot of experience in that realm. Plus the mission of the march — to remind the world that women’s rights are human rights — was a part of my own Jewish value system.
I, for one, believe in praying with one’s feet. So with the organizers’ blessing, I jumped in. I helped them get the proper march permits, connected them with potential speakers and edited speeches. I pitched in with the not-at-all-sexy but very important work of reminding everyone about the need for port-a-potties (maybe my most important contribution to the day).
On the day of the event, I walked side by side with roughly 15,000 other Clevelanders. I held my sign high that read, “We march for those without a voice.”
My euphoria that day was the sort you experience after leaving a really amazing concert. I felt totally understood and connected to everyone else who shared that same sacred space with me.
Fast forward to December 2018, when articles from Tablet and The New York Times detailed allegations of anti-Semitism at the highest levels of the Women’s March national leadership team.
One of the original march organizers, Vanessa Wruble, went on record saying she was pushed out, she believed, largely because of her Jewish identity. Two organizers refused repeatedly to denounce Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has referred to Jews, among other things, as “termites.”
These revelations, coming out just before this year’s march, left a very different taste than I had felt ahead of previous marches. I felt betrayed.
At work, my role is to be the connector. I meet with organizations that have missions similar to ours, to see how we can work together to advance social change. It’s not always easy. Some issues we disagree strongly about. But it’s necessary and important work.
When there are disagreements — and there always are when it comes to issues that are important in Cleveland — I’ve mostly been able to get through them. I listen hard to the other side, and try not to get defensive. You can’t work through issues when both parties only think about their own hurt feelings. (I learned this from a relationship book once.)
More often than not, I’ve been able to get through tough situations by focusing on what everyone does agree on. But that can only happen when everyone feels respected.
That’s why this march felt so different. The articles about the national march, and my own interactions with local organizers, made it clear that the Jewish voice was not really being heard. There was a huge disconnect between the words of some of the movement’s national and local leaders, and the reality of their beliefs.
For instance, they said all women’s voices were welcome, and denounced all acts of anti-Semitism. But then one of the national leaders refused to condemn Louis Farrakhan on The View five days before the march. From Roman times to the Spanish Inquisition to today, Jews have been targets of persecution, expulsion and genocide, aided by charismatic speakers like Farrakhan, who has called Hitler “a great man.” I couldn’t trust that the national movement had my back.
Then I, along with other leaders in our organization, reached out to organizers of the Cleveland march to talk through our concerns. The conversation did not go smoothly. When I tried to tell the organizers how demeaning it feels to be on the receiving end of anti-Semitism, one of them instead demeaned me by repeating well-worn stereotypes about Jewish people running the world. It is those exact stereotypes of Jews as “globalists” manipulating the world and the economy that have gotten members of my community killed. We later declined to endorse the Cleveland march.
At the same time I was having these discussions, my office was holding mandatory training drills on how to apply a tourniquet to a gunshot wound.
In light of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October, Jewish Federation security thought it was important for every employee of a Jewish agency to know how to stop a colleague from bleeding to death.
I was getting emails from my four-year-old son’s Jewish preschool about security cameras being installed on the building to monitor cars and record license plates 24 hours a day, just, you know, to be safe.
In moments like those, I didn’t feel supported in the fight against anti-Semitism and oppression. Instead, I felt like a pawn.
And so, I found myself in a quandary.
Could I support the movement’s mission, without supporting its leaders?
But to do that by marching would be putting Jewish women last. It would show that discrimination against my people is OK, and that there are no consequences for it.
For me, the decision came down to this: the Cleveland march is not the whole women’s movement, and neither is the national one. They are one-day events.
So for the past few months, I’ve instead been focusing on the hands-on, day-to-day work of ensuring local women’s rights. I’ve been meeting with legislators to talk about issues that are important to women, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act and pregnancy discrimination. I’ve helped restock care packages for victims of sexual assault that NCJW gives to survivors at MetroHealth. I’ve been working on publicity for an educational series about rape culture. These actions felt just as, if not more, meaningful to me than walking around Public Square.
Others in the Jewish community, I know, believed differently. In New York, nine rabbis signed a statement supporting the march. I have friends who donned pink hats and comfy walking boots because they thought it was important to have a Jewish presence in the streets and believed that boycotts are not effective tools for change.
As for the path forward? It involves more truth-telling. I’ve been talking more to my coalition partners. About anti-Semitism, and what it looks like. About the need for more transparency in our leadership. And about the reckonings we need to have — and the security that needs to be in place — to make sure that at the next march, the Jewish community is not sitting out, but standing proudly up front.
We’ve already got our signs printed.