On Monday night, for the first time in his life, Rabbi Jonah Geffen was arrested.
Committing an act that would get him handcuffed and jailed isn’t typical of Geffen, spiritual leader at the Conservative-affiliated Congregation Shaare Zedek in Manhattan. But when he was asked by T’ruah, a rabbinic organization promoting human rights, to risk his freedom to protest the Trump Administration’s immigrant and refugee ban, he heeded the call.
On January 27, President Donald Trump signed an order barring travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering for 90 days. All refugees are barred for 120 days, and refugees from Syrian are banned indefinitely. Many, including the T’ruah rabbis, feel the presidential order targets Muslims.
Geffen marched down New York’s Broadway from 88th Street with some 200 people in a T’ruah action consponsored by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, HIAS, Avodah and the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. Across Central Park West next to the Trump International Hotel and Tower at Columbus Circle, Geffen and 18 other rabbis — many wearing prayer shawls — sat down and blocked traffic, prompting their arrest by police.
Since the Soviet Jewry protests of the 1980s and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, this is the largest number of rabbis arrested in a single action.
As leaders of American Jewish communities, many rabbis are rethinking the meaning of clergy at this potentially pivotal point in history.
“I was asked if I was willing to do it,” Geffen said about the sit-in. “You can always say no, but it seemed to me that now was a time to act differently than maybe I would have been previously inclined, so I found myself saying yes,” he told The Times of Israel.
Geffen said that as a rabbi he helps people prepare spiritually for major life events.
“This [activism] is exactly what my practice has been for,” Geffen said.
Other rabbis among the 200 who had gathered in New York for a conference organized by T’ruah following Trump’s election felt similarly moved to put themselves on the line for their social justice values.
‘We ended up with 19, which was a great number, because it’s the number of blessings in the amidah’
According to T’ruah executive director Rabbi Jill Jacobs, specific rabbis were approached about participating in the sit-down.
“We asked those we thought would be interested and able to do it. We ended up with 19, which was a great number, because it’s the number of blessings in the amidah [the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy],” Jacobs said.
After being cuffed and arrested by police, the rabbis were bused to the 33rd precinct, where they spent approximately four hours before being released without arraignment shortly after 1:00 am Tuesday. (The rabbis have been charged with disorderly conduct, a violation, and face a court hearing in April.)
According to Jacobs, the men and women were held in separate cells, where they engaged in Torah study, song and prayer. “It was holy, sacred time,” she said.
Veteran nonviolent civil disobedience activisit Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, senior rabbi at Manhattan’s Congregation Simchat Beit Torah, helped prepare her fellow clergy members spiritually and strategically for the sit-down. While acknowledging that it was courageous of most of the group to be arrested for the first time, she put their risk into context.
‘Standing up and fighting for the vulnerable absolutely has to be front and center. It feels like everyone has to be in service of the vulnerable right now’
“We were a group of privileged people and the police treated us with courtesy and professionalism. We also had pro-bono lawyers right there ready to act on our behalf,” said Kleinbaum.
“If you want to talk about courage, talk about the people being bombed in Aleppo or the ones getting into unseaworthy boats with their children. That’s courage,” Kleinbaum said, referring to the Syrian refugees.
For Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, the Chicago-based rabbi-in-residence for Avodah, an economic and social justice leadership organization, risking arrest to take a stand was “a no brainer.”
“We’re talking about the lives of refugees. It’s a matter of pikuach nefesh,” Ruttenberg said, referring to the principle in the Jewish law that saving human life is paramount.
Ruttenberg, who marked her 42nd birthday in jail, said her arrest does not mark a drastic shift in how she perceived of her rabbinic role, but rather a clarification of it.
“Standing up and fighting for the vulnerable absolutely has to be front and center. It feels like everyone has to be in service of the vulnerable right now,” she said.
Ruttenberg also spoke of the opportunity to be a prophetic voice in this moment, a thought shared by other rabbis who spoke to The Times of Israel following their release on Tuesday.
‘One of the most religious things I can do now is to organize and advocate’
Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu in New York said he has recently concluded that to be silent about politics now has deep moral implications. He feels increasingly drawn to speak out about the tone and substance of what is happening and being said today in the US.
“I used to think of myself as a spiritual leader more in the model of a mystic or a contemplative, but now I am shifting to the prophetic model. It’s about the spiritual being acted out in the public space,” Ingber said.
“One of the most religious things I can do now is to organize and advocate,” he said.
All the rabbis interviewed for this article reported that they have received across-the-board positive support from their congregants. Several mentioned that, as a courtesy, they alerted their board presidents ahead of time of their intention to protest and willingness to be arrested.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor, spiritual leader at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California, reported that although there is never uniformity among his congregants when it comes to political issues, they all support acting on behalf of refugees.
“When Jews were being carted to the ovens, places like America didn’t take us in. I hope we’ve all learned our lesson,” Creditor said.
‘When Jews were being carted to the ovens, places like America didn’t take us in’
Rabbi William Plevan, a teacher in New York, viewed his and his colleagues’ arrests as “the flexing of a muscle for further protests against any other unjust laws that may be imposed.”
Plevan worries about America becoming even more divided along political lines and that the resurgence of “ugly things” like racism and anti-Semitism could change Jews’ optimism about the country.
As Plevan sees it, rabbis can play a key role in keeping Jews positively engaged in moral resistance by speaking their conscience on the issues. In practice, taking their Torah to the streets.
“Rabbis are not limited by sanctuaries, we create the world as a sanctuary,” Creditor said.