Shabbes in the Shadow of ICE

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By Savannah Gordon

Shabbes is a time when Jews are commanded to step away from the efforts and the unrest of the previous six days of the week to come into a more direct dialogue with their higher selves (or G-d, or the divine, or whatever you personally name it). It is time set outside the boundaries of ordinary life—to wonder, to wish, to contemplate. We create this separation with candle lighting. It is then that Shabbes begins, and we chant further blessings of thanksgiving. We reflect on the miraculous gift of life we have each been given, and we go with a gentle touch into the terrain of our souls to examine what troubles us, as well as what sustains us.

As details of the government's “families separated in detention as deterrent" policy emerged during the week of June 17, I thought about how I could best be of service to communities in increased danger and about how I could bring my most assured, committed self to respond to a call to #OccupyICE published by the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council (MACC). MACC is group that facilitates the development and strengthening of independent anarchist organizing efforts across the NYC metropolitan area. The Shabbes rituals that I recently began practicing rose to the forefront of my mind as a way that I could ground myself physically at the space being held by protesters, spiritually as a witness to the forces of deadly white supremacy that we are up against, and historically in the long tradition of radical Jews who have engaged in similar struggles around the world.

I shared the idea with Sofia, a member of the Jewish Solidarity Caucus (JSC) in DSA, and coordinated with her throughout the afternoon. The JSC is a informally bound group of Jews of different tendencies and varying degrees of faith across the country that seeks to provide “a specifically Jewish perspective on socialism informed by our lived experiences as Jews, our historical memory, and our philosophical traditions” (read the wonderful mission statement for more on this). I quickly saw that I was not alone in wanting a traditionally Jewish way to address my feelings around the week’s events. The decision to observe Shabbes outside of the ICE offices was made mid-day, so when we gathered at sundown there was not a special set of candlesticks or a proper Kiddush cup typically required to sanctify the ceremony. Regardless, on the evening of Friday, June 22, about twenty people of mixed faiths sat together in front of a locked ICE parking garage in lower Manhattan and participated in our quick-and-dirty Shabbes service.

Other comrades kept watch around the building's perimeter while we lit candles and blessed them as outward manifestations of the spark of divinity that is always present within us, ready to be ignited into something more. We said the Kiddush prayer, which distinguishes the Shabbes day from all others in the week, over our “fruit of the vine” (grape juice in this case). A member of the JSC asked if despite the great pain and rage we were feeling we might allow ourselves to enjoy the sweetness in our cups. A twelve-ounce bottle of juice somehow served us all, including folks who had joined later on.

Next we blessed and ate challah. This act, sharing a loaf of delicious bread among friends out in the open, was an opportunity to savor the taste of our good fortune at being together. Had I been observing Shabbes at home alone, I might have remained in bitter anger towards the machinations that have long kept incarcerated people from having similar gatherings with their loved ones. A few moments of silence reigned. I looked at the flickering tea lights and the people around me and considered how powerful it would be if I could direct my rage into fierce, concentrated action and unabating solidarity instead.

Our services drew to a close and the murmur of regular occupation business returned. I walked away with what felt like a vision into radical Jewish collective memory: I saw, clear as day, that my capacity to remain active in liberatory movements is dependent on both my inner reservoir of resolve (the one I gain an easier access to each Shabbes), as well as my being part of a larger network of peers that act from a similarly principled places within themselves, and that the two feed each other. For me, the rituals of Shabbes beget self-knowledge, and a closer relationship with my essential self not only transforms me, but transforms the relationships I have and the groups I organize with. This can scale up ad infinitum.

I believe in freedom of movement for all people, freedom from carceral solutions to social problems, freedom from being reduced to our labor power, freedom from white supremacy and imperialism in service of the preservation of this system. The work it will take to co-create a better world is calling, and on that Friday I remembered that our victory is beshert.

Savannah Gordon is a musician and organizer from New York in the Jewish lesbian feminist tradition. She is the great-niece of the late Morris U. Schappes.

Image: "Rainbow Shabbat" by Judy Chicago, via Wikiart