Sapphire, age 27, originally from Israel, carried a sign at the 2019 San Francisco Women's March that said in Hebrew "justice, justice, I shall pursue," a paraphrase of a well-known biblical line. (Photo/Sue Barnett)
Sapphire, age 27, originally from Israel, carried a sign at the 2019 San Francisco Women's March that said in Hebrew "justice, justice, I shall pursue," a paraphrase of a well-known biblical line. (Photo/Sue Barnett)

Jewish identity rings out at Bay Area Women’s Marches

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Many Bay Area Jews skipped their nearby Women’s March over the weekend because of anti-Zionist comments made by some leaders of the national organization. Those who did attend said it was important for them to show Jewish support for the social justice issues at the core of the movement.

Several days in advance of the Jan. 19 events, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council issued a statement reminding people that the Bay Area marches were separate from the national march in Washington, D.C., and that all the local groups had issued statements strongly condemning anti-Semitism. The JCRC encouraged Jews to attend and “to do so while proudly expressing all aspects of their identity, including being Jewish.”

Exemplifying that was Marci Glazer, CEO of the JCC of San Francisco, who spoke at the S.F. rally in front of City Hall.

“Anti-Semitism has re-emerged violently, along with its hateful ‘us’ versus ‘them’ counterparts: racism, homophobia, sexism, Islamophobia and so many others,” she said.  “We can all be understandably fearful of the violence inflicted on so many Americans, from San Bernardino to Orlando, from Charleston to Pittsburgh, and every day in too many neighborhoods across our country. So we need to take courage to act on our values, to have the chutzpah — the audacity — to act on our values.”

Synagogues including congregations Sha’ar Zahav and Emanu-El were also represented at the San Francisco march, which drew an estimated 60,000 people, while Shabbat services were held by Jewish groups just before the start of marches in San Jose and Oakland. Some synagogues, such as Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, decided not to organize a group to attend, though congregants were encouraged to march if they so desired.

“Sha’ar Zahav was there because our Jewish values and our history as an LGBTQ synagogue compel us to stand up for justice and human rights, and so we belonged at the Women’s March,” said Karen Schiller, a lay leader at that synagogue.

“We couldn’t let the words of a few people keep us from doing what we believe is our responsibility, and we very much appreciated the statement by the S.F. march organizers condemning anti-Semitism,” Schiller added. “Our members may be uncomfortable with what was said [by Women’s March national leaders], but we are not uncomfortable being a part of a movement for social justice.”

The controversy was never far from the surface at the Northern California marches.

In San Jose, Jenny Higgins Bradanini, president of Women’s March Bay Area, noted in her speech that the local marches did not take any money from the national organization.

“We will not tolerate hate,” she told the estimated 15,000 to 18,000 attendees. “The recent controversy has saddened me deeply, especially the pain our Jewish sisters have suffered. Anti-Semitism has no place here.”

The Women’s March launched in January 2017 as a platform for myriad feminist issues, such as gender equality and civil and reproductive rights. Immigrant and refugee rights were also a focus this year.

But the movement drew controversy when one of its founders, Linda Sarsour, said in March 2017 that Israel denies basic rights to Palestinian women and that “you either stand up for the rights of all women, including Palestinians, or none.” Another national march founder, Tamika Mallory, has had connections with the Nation of Islam and its leader Louis Farrakhan, who has a long history of making anti-Semitic statements.

And Lara Kiswani of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center said from the podium at last year’s Women’s March in Oakland that “Zionism [has] absolutely no place in the women’s movement” and referred to Israel as “a settler, colonial and apartheid state.”

Rabbis Sydney Mintz (left) and Jason Rodich (right) with California State Senator Scott Wiener (Photo/Courtesy Sydney Mintz
Rabbis Sydney Mintz (left) and Jason Rodich (right) with California state Sen. Scott Wiener (Photo/Courtesy Sydney Mintz)

Jewish groups around the country, such as the Jewish Democratic Council of America, disavowed connections with the Women’s March and many Jews decided to sit out this year.

But Bay Area Jews who attended said the controversy, and the local response to it, made participation even more important this year.

“I’m here because the San Jose march made it clear that they stand against anti-Semitism and they are inclusive,” said Mindy Berkowitz, executive director of Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley. “They had the guts to go against what some of the leaders of the national march were saying. I’m here to promote our Jewish values that support progressive causes, especially those of refugees.”

Her husband, Rabbi Allan Berkowitz, marched while carrying a sign with American and Israeli flags that read: “I am pro-Israel, proudly progressive, rooted in Jewish values, against all forms of oppression.”

“I’m here in support of the local organization,” said the chief operating officer of Faith in Action Bay Area. “I’m here to represent that there is a place in the progressive movement for those who are pro-Israel.”

At the Oakland march, which drew a reported 8,000 to 10,000 people (down from between 60,000 and 70,000 last year, according to the East Bay Times), several members of Temple Sinai said their presence was a way of supporting the goals of the Women’s March and the Bay Area marches that had spoken out against anti-Semitism.

“The controversy made me want to come — to be part of the conversation, not remove ourselves from it,” said Karen Marker, a Temple Sinai member.

“I’m here to support diversity in our community — to lean in to the conflict within the Women’s March community — because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” added Maxine Turret, another Temple Sinai member.

“There’s much more that unites us than divides us,” Jewish environmental leader Deborah Newbrun said of march participants around the country.

“We wanted to be obviously Jewish today because of all the kerfuffle,” added Newbrun, who carried a “Fighting Tyrants Since Pharoah” sign. “Of course, in a mass movement, you’re not going to be in agreement with everything.”

About three dozen people attended a Shabbat service near the starting point of the San Jose march. Each person read a line from “Blessing for the Women’s March,” a poem by Erika A. Hewitt, which included the plea, “May the line for the restroom be short.”

The 25-minute service ended with “Miriam’s Song” by the late Debbie Friedman, with attendees singing and dancing around with tambourines, followed by grape juice, challah and babka.

The service was led by Diane Fisher, director of the Silicon Valley Federation’s JCRC, who also led a Shabbat service before the first Women’s March in 2017.

“This year it felt much more important to be part of the march as authentic Jewish women because of the national controversies,” Fisher said. “[This is] our Jewish identity, this is what we do every Saturday morning. We’re praying here and then praying with our feet.”

Daryl Messinger, a Palo Alto resident and national chair of the Union for Reform Judaism (the first woman ever to hold that post), attended the Shabbat service and marched in San Jose “to be supportive of those local marches that understood some people with the national marches were divisive and hateful.”

Added Messinger: “I very much believe in the issues we will be marching for — equality, immigration, inclusiveness, criminal justice reform. They are the issues we care about as individuals and as Jews. It’s very unfortunate we’ve had the national controversy, but the local marches have spoken out against hate. [I appreciate] being able to march and doing so knowing my Jewish identity is being supported.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.