Lilli Petersen: Yom Kippur at Occupy Wall Street

(Click here for a video of Yom Kippur at Occupy Wall Street.)

Lilli Petersen is a student at CCNY and an intern with Jewish Currents. She believes in feminism, fair trade, and the light side of the Force.

This past Friday, a new group gathered at the former Liberty Plaza, among the “Occupy Wall Street” crowd.  This new group made no demands and required no attention save from the crowd gathered. While they kept in mind the same principles and ideals as the protesters across the street at Zucotti Park proper, their purpose was much more intimate.

Some several hundred people, Jews and non-Jews alike, had gathered before the offices of Brown Brothers Harriman on Broadway to celebrate Yom Kippur. With the voices of the protestors echoing in the background, the celebrants reminded themselves of the principles of forgiveness, and questioned how we would be able to forgive ourselves, in the words of one speaker, for failing to live up to our ideals. An organizer yelled, fighting to be heard over passing trucks and the space of the gathered crowd, “There is no more appropriate way to celebrate Yom Kippur than in solidarity with the protestors here!”

As I stood there and listened to the impassioned speeches, juxtaposed with ancient words, I asked myself what promises I had failed to live up to. Was I working harder towards my goals? Was I speaking up for what I believed in when my values were challenged? Was I letting the little things go, and keeping my gaze focused forward? Had I been wrong for believing in the system that was so obviously failing me? Had I been wrong for thinking I couldn’t change it, or myself?

I wondered what those around me were forgiving themselves for, or what failures they were questioning. For some of them, I had my answer at the end of the night, as one of the organizers finished the evening with an unconventional aleinu — he invited the crowd, one by one, to call out a commitment, and for all of those who would take that same commitment upon themselves, we should shout, “Aleinu!” (“Our duty!”)

The shouts rang out. “I will raise my children right!” “I will shop locally, and not at Big Business!” “I will never be complacent!” “I will remember that you are all individuals!” (This one, repeated en masse, made me laugh.)

Despite the focus on Yom Kippur, no one forgot why we were there at night, on the street, instead of inside, warm and without the faint chance of arrest. It came back to us, on that street corner in downtown Manhattan, with the night breeze blowing, with the old story of the Golden Calf. What was still meaningful in that story here and now, as it had been meaningful centuries ago? “It is the fallacy that gold is God!” someone yelled to the crowd. “How do we become forgiven for worshipping gold?”

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