Attendees participate in a High Holidays tashlich ceremony organized by Jews on Ohlone Land in Berkeley. (Photo/Brooke Anderson)
Attendees participate in a High Holidays tashlich ceremony organized by Jews on Ohlone Land in Berkeley. (Photo/Brooke Anderson)

Through reparations, education and land statements, local Jewish activists are standing with Bay Area Indigenous people

As dusk fell on a recent Shabbat, a group of Bay Area Jews gathered at a mostly vacant parking lot in West Berkeley. They had come to perform Havdalah, but as they began walking through the open gates, a private security guard pulled up in a white car and blocked their path. The guard hopped out and announced that the group was trespassing and needed to leave.

“We’re not looking for a confrontation situation,” replied Ariel Luckey, who has been organizing the prayer groups at least once a month for the past year and a half. He ushered the group back to the sidewalk where, across from the boutique shops on Fourth Street, his sibling, Rabbi SAM Luckey, led the 25 Jews in prayer and song. In closing, the rabbi blew a shofar fashioned from a piece of kelp that had washed ashore at Big Sur. A passing Amtrak train tooted its own tekiah.

This was not the first time security had restricted the group’s access to the lot, which is surrounded by fencing and “Private Property” signs. As Ariel Luckey would explain to those assembled that chilly evening, the 2.2-acre lot is contested because it is part of an ancient Native American shellmound and village.

Rabbi Dev Noily (left) and Ariel Luckey (right) co-founded Jews On Ohlone Land in 2019. (Photo/Brooke Anderson)
Rabbi Dev Noily (left) and Ariel Luckey (right) co-founded Jews On Ohlone Land in 2019. (Photo/Brooke Anderson)

The shellmound, or burial ground, once stood about 35 feet tall. It was leveled and paved over in the early 20th century, and a developer is preparing to build a multistory housing and retail complex on the site. Lisjan Ohlone activists have challenged the development in court, arguing that it will disturb their ancestors’ remains. Last year, the California Supreme Court ruled that construction could proceed.

“We are mobilizing to keep that from happening,” Ariel Luckey told the Havdalah participants. “The earliest events of the Torah were happening at the same time Lisjan people were living right here in this village [5,000 years ago]. Berkeley needs a lot of housing, for sure, but Berkeley does not need to put it in this place.”

As the co-founder of a group called Jews On Ohlone Land (JOOL), Luckey, 42, is among a growing number of Bay Area Jews who are engaging in activism around Indigenous rights. (Ohlone refers to several non-federally recognized tribes native to Northern California.)

Their activism takes a variety of forms, from making a “land acknowledgment” statement at a public gathering that names the Native Americans who lived on that spot (and describes that land as “unceded” or “stolen”), to offering prayers at sacred Indigenous sites and attending pow wows, to circulating petitions and showing up at zoning meetings to advocate for Indigenous sovereignty, to canvassing for local political candidates who are sympathetic to Indigenous struggles. Hundreds of East Bay Jews are also paying reparations to a local Indigenous group in the form of a self-imposed “land tax.”

Community members gather at the West Berkeley Shellmound site for Jews on Ohlone Land's annual tashlich event, Oct. 2, 2022. (Photo/Brooke Anderson)
Community members gather at the West Berkeley Shellmound site for Jews on Ohlone Land’s annual tashlich event, Oct. 2, 2022. (Photo/Brooke Anderson)

In interviews with dozens of the Jewish community members who are involved in this work, the goal of figuring out how to be “good guests” on Indigenous land was mentioned over and over. These community members — the majority of whom are white and Ashkenazi — say they approach this work as a form of teshuvah, or repentance.

Along the way, they are raising uncomfortable questions about Jewish privilege in benefiting from colonialism and the genocide of Native Americans, as well as complicity in the erasure of Indigenous history. Some are also struggling with what they see as a parallel between being Jewish “settlers” on Native American land in Northern California and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

Longtime social activist Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb told J. that Indigenous solidarity efforts in the Bay Area have been gaining momentum in recent years.

“I’ve been here for 10 years, and I’ve definitely seen increased activity in the last four to five years,” said Gottlieb, who has been doing Indigenous solidarity work for decades and participated in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in 2016. “This is a global issue, and working on this connects us to people who are concerned, for instance, about climate change.”

She added, “It took a long time to understand the intersectional nature of colonialism.”

* * *

Gottlieb, who lives on Ohlone land in the territory of Huchiun (North Berkeley), is among the hundreds of local Jewish individuals and institutions who are paying the Shuumi Land Tax. (Shuumi means “gift” in Chochenyo Ohlone.) Each month, she makes a tax-deductible contribution of at least $100 to different groups, among them Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, an Indigenous, women-led organization based in Oakland that uses the funds to “rematriate” land, or return it to Indigenous caretakers who can then use it to grow food and medicine and host ceremonies. (On its website, Sogorea Te’ has a calculator that generates recommended donation amounts for individuals based on whether they rent or own property, and for institutions based on their annual budget or profits.)

Corrina Gould, the co-director of Sogorea Te’ and the tribal spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, is known to many in the East Bay Jewish community, having spoken at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont and, via audio recordings, at JOOL events.

Corrina Gould, co-founder and co-director of Sogorea Te' Land Trust (Photo/Karina Gonzales)
Corrina Gould, co-founder and co-director of Sogorea Te’ Land Trust (Photo/Karina Gonzales)

In a statement to J., Gould said, “Sogorea Te’ Land Trust is grateful for the support from so many people in the Jewish community and in particular for our partnership with Jews On Ohlone Land. Jewish individuals and organizations are paying their Shuumi Land Tax, learning about the Lisjan people and our work of rematriation, and showing up to protect the sacred at the West Berkeley Shellmound.”

Urban Adamah, the Jewish educational farm that is situated on Ohlone land in Berkeley, has paid $3,600 to Sogorea Te’ annually since 2019, according to executive director Adam Weisberg. “We do this to acknowledge that the Ohlone people are present today and that we respect that, while according to dominant notions and current laws of ownership we ‘own’ the land on which Urban Adamah stands, this land was historically the dwelling place, home and property of the local Ohlone people,” Weisberg wrote to J. “Paying Shuumi land tax is one part of how we acknowledge that we are only able to own the land as we do as the result of the Ohlone people having been dispossessed and forced off the land they’d lived on for centuries.”

Urban Adamah co-sponsors some of JOOL’s Havdalah gatherings at the West Berkeley Shellmound, and Weisberg noted that his staff teaches Urban Adamah fellows and other program participants about local Ohlone history and culture.

Wilderness Torah, a Berkeley-based Jewish nonprofit steeped in nature, also pays Shuumi ($1,800/year), and next month the organization plans to launch a two-year Indigenous solidarity cohort. Participants will learn about the colonization of California, with a focus on the North Bay, and identify ways local Jews can support Indigenous sovereignty in the region. (Wilderness Torah is currently building its Center for Earth-Based Judaism at URJ Camp Newman in Sonoma County.)

Wilderness Torah executive director Rabbi Zelig Golden told J. that the cohort, which is supported by a grant from the S.F.-based Walter and Elise Haas Fund, is an important part of his organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion work.

Stickers distributed by Jews on Ohlone Land (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Stickers distributed by Jews on Ohlone Land (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

“As an earth-based Jewish organization, putting roots down here in the Bay Area and, in particular, in Sonoma County, we feel it’s essential to be building relationships with the Indigenous people who have called this place home for thousands of years,” Golden said. “Given the history of genocide, it’s especially important that we honor the legacy of Indigenous peoples that are here today and be in solidarity with people who live on these lands and support them as we inhabit and benefit from living on these lands.”

* * *

Historically, Jewish-Indigenous relations in North America have been, in a word, complicated. Between 1769 and 1833, the Spaniards established missions across what is now California to convert Native Americans en masse to Christianity. For the most part, these missions operated like slave plantations and forced the Native Americans out of their traditional ways of living. Today, some Indigenous people refer to them as concentration camps.

Jews began arriving in California during the 1849 Gold Rush, among the earliest pioneers from the East. In his 2019 book “The Jews’ Indian: Colonialism, Pluralism, and Belonging in America,” York University history professor David S. Koffman writes that some frontier Jews subscribed to a theory that Indigenous people were descendants of the Biblical Israelites and, thus, related to them. “If Indians and Jews shared a tie of ancient kinship, or had been the first to colonize America, American Jews could revel in the idea that they belonged to the New World in a cosmically significant way, unprecedented in the Jews’ centuries-long entanglement with European civilizations,” Koffman writes.

While Jews did not participate in the often violent efforts to convert Native Americans that were led by white Christians or seek to acquire large plots of Native land to farm, they did fight in so-called Indian wars as volunteer soldiers. They also attempted to help “civilize” Native Americans by teaching them how to participate in a capitalist society.

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Fast-forward to the 1960s, and Jewish lawyers and social justice activists were among the earliest “movers” in the Indigenous rights struggle, Koffman told J. “There’s definitely a whole bunch of examples of Jewish individuals who established chapters of advocacy organizations like the Association on American Indian Affairs in California,” he said. These Jewish leaders took land claim cases on behalf of Native American clients “partly because they were Jewishly motivated, in the way that we know Jews were also motivated to fight for racial justice and religious equality on behalf of other American minorities.”

One of the more well-known figures in the annals of Jewish-Indigenous relations is Solomon Bibo, a German-born trader who is said to be the only Jewish Indian chief. Bibo married an Acoma woman in New Mexico and moved his family to San Francisco, where he invested in real estate and ran a grocery. The engagement of Bibo’s daughter, Rose, to a Mexican man was announced in 1907 in The Emanu-El, a newspaper to which J. traces its roots. Both Bibo and his wife, Juana Valle, are buried in Colma.

There were a number of other Jews, more men than women, who married Indigenous spouses. Some received honorifics or were ceremonially “adopted” into a tribe. “Jewish journalists from yesteryear loved to cheer this stuff on,” Koffman said, “but claims like this can certainly be read in a number of different ways.”

* * *

Among Bay Area synagogues, Kehilla is at the forefront of Indigenous solidarity work. Every service opens with a land acknowledgment statement and an invitation to those who do not already pay Shuumi to do so. (While membership at Kehilla is not contingent upon paying the land tax, new members are asked on a registration form if they do so.)

In addition, Hebrew school students are taught local Native American history and take a field trip to the West Berkeley Shellmound.

On a recent afternoon, members of Kehilla’s “sacred land” committee met to discuss plans to re-landscape the synagogue’s grounds. Several cars in the parking lot sported bumper stickers reading “Rematriate The Land.” After walking around the grounds, the committee members sat under a canopy behind the synagogue and discussed ways to “respectfully decolonize” the land. One of the women suggested inviting a local Indigenous person to offer guidance. “We would pay them, of course,” she said.

Members of the Sacred Land committee at Kehilla Community Synagogue inspecting the grounds, Sept. 30, 2022. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Members of the sacred land committee at Kehilla Community Synagogue inspecting the grounds, Sept. 30, 2022. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

In an interview after the meeting, committee member Dvora Gordon — a professional gardener who has tended Kehilla’s grounds for many years — recalled spending a weekend at a Native American reservation in New York in the 1970s, when she was in her 20s. She said the words of an elder there have stayed with her.

“He said he was pretty disgusted with the progressive community because they didn’t ever notice or acknowledge Native people,” Gordon said. “I took that in really deeply. I’ve always had this desire for that [acknowledgment] to expand, and to see it happening now is just an incredible thing.”

Gordon, 70, has incorporated a land acknowledgment into her email signature — “I live on unceded Huchiun territory, home of the Lisjan people, an Ohlone tribe (aka Oakland)” — and has been paying Shuumi since it was first introduced in 2015. “I pay federal taxes because I have to,” she said. “I pay Shuumi taxes because I really want to. It makes me feel like I’m in right relationship.”

While the practice of Jews acknowledging their presence on Ohlone land at the beginning of public events is not new, longtime Bay Area residents say it has become more commonplace in recent years. Such statements have been read in a variety of settings, including at the 2019 New Israel Fund gala in San Francisco and before San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screenings this past summer.

Meanwhile, some local synagogues are in the early stages of determining how they can support Indigenous people and causes beyond simply making statements.

Laura Callen is one of three coordinators of an Indigenous solidarity group that coalesced last year at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. The group members have attended Havdalah ceremonies at the West Berkeley Shellmound and met a number of times at the synagogue to talk about the meaning of land acknowledgments and to discuss the 2015 book “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

“We’re in a place right now where we’re thinking about what’s next,” said Callen, a JOOL organizer who lives on Ohlone land in Kensington. “We don’t have some fully articulated plan for this group. What we have is a real commitment to do this work with incredible integrity and care and commitment to Lisjan Ohlone people, and so what that means is we have to go slowly.” She noted, for example, that the group has yet to craft its own formal land acknowledgment statement for Netivot Shalom to use.

Further north, at Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa, the social justice committee invited a speaker with both Jewish and Native American heritages to address congregants this fall. Over two presentations, Benjamin Benson, whose maternal great-grandmother was born in Philadelphia into the Leni Lenape tribe, gave an overview of the history and cultural practices of several tribes native to the North Bay, including the Miwok, Pomo and Wappo.

Benjamin Benson, who has Jewish and Native American heritage, at the Santa Rose Junior College Multicultural Museum, Oct. 4, 2022. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Benjamin Benson, who has Jewish and Native American heritage, at the Santa Rose Junior College Multicultural Museum, Oct. 4, 2022. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

Benson, who lives on Pomo land in Forestville, taught anthropology at Santa Rosa Junior College for 27 years and coordinated its Native American Studies program. He also greatly expanded the collection of Native American art at the college’s Multicultural Museum and counted Mabel McKay, a renowned Pomo basket weaver, as a friend. Growing up, Benson told J. he spent a lot of time at the Hopi Reservation near the Grand Canyon in northeastern Arizona. Later, he did ethnographic research among Native peoples in the Amazon rainforest.

In his presentation, “Nature as Native Torah,” Benson pointed out similarities between Jewish and Indigenous cultures. “They have their own version of klal Yisrael,” he said, using the term for the community of Israel. “They see each other in ways that are immediately bonding. If you’re Indian, they recognize that about you in the same way that we do.” (Benson said “Indian” is an acceptable term that is used by Native Americans themselves.)

One of the most impressive accomplishments of the tribes indigenous to the North Bay, Benson said, is that, over thousands of years, they “achieved a level of harmony with the habitat, and we’ve got to get back to that.” He added, “They know how to care for California, and we can learn from them.”

* * *

Rabbi Dev Noily, Kehilla’s senior rabbi, co-founded Jews On Ohlone Land with Ariel Luckey in 2019. The all-volunteer collective runs workshops tailored to Jewish audiences, promotes the return of land to Lisjan Ohlone people and mobilizes volunteers to respond to Indigenous calls for support. Two years ago, the group introduced the symbolic practice of placing an acorn on the seder plate as a reminder of Indigenous stories and struggles.

Noily began cultivating relationships with Native Americans in the 1990s after being deeply moved by conversations they had with Native dancers at a festival held at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens — the former site of one of the more than 400 shellmounds that once stood in the Bay Area. Luckey, who joined the staff of Sogorea Te’ as development director in 2020, became interested in Indigenous history while working on a theater project about his grandfather, who lived in Wyoming. In 2011 Luckey participated in the 109-day occupation at Glen Cove in Vallejo, which Gould, the land trust’s co-director, led to prevent the development of a park atop a sacred Native American site. (The protest ended with the city agreeing to scale back the project.)

Rabbi Dev Noily speaks at the Jews On Ohlone Land gathering at the West Berkeley Shellmound site, Oct. 2, 2022. (Photo/Brooke Anderson)
Rabbi Dev Noily speaks at the Jews On Ohlone Land gathering at the West Berkeley Shellmound site, Oct. 2, 2022. (Photo/Brooke Anderson)

In a joint interview, Noily and Luckey highlighted the principles of truth-telling and kindness as being central to JOOL’s work.

“I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with our communal legacy of genocide, and I felt like I had a lot to learn from the Indigenous community,” Noily said. “That also drew me into understanding that I owe a lot to the Indigenous community, and that the injustice of their genocide continues to be perpetrated every day — in the ways that we teach our children about this place, in the ways that we name or don’t name this place, in the ways that we disregard sacred sites.”

Luckey, who was born and raised in Oakland and has a tattoo of an oak tree inside of an acorn on his left arm, added, “There’s an incredible amount of diversity in the Jewish community in terms of family lineage and history and place of origin. We are saying, ‘Here we are, Jews living in diaspora, living on this stolen and still very sacred Lisjan Ohlone land — let’s talk about what it means to be here.’”

Those conversations can be painful to have, Luckey said. “The truth of the history of this place is so devastating,” he said. “The violence that existed in the Mission system and the Rancho era and the Gold Rush is horrifying. We’re not trying to spare anybody from that honest reflection, but we’re not trying to attack anybody either.”

Another JOOL organizer, Leora Cockrell, cited an analogy used by Gould: “She says that what happened in Nazi Germany to Jewish people was atrocious, and there’s a possibility of healing because German people today are being honest about what happened. The same thing needs to happen in America. Only through that honesty is there a chance to heal.”

Leora Cockrell
Leora Cockrell

Cockrell, 31, added, “I just like to imagine a world in which land is returned to the stewardship of Indigenous people and guests understand their roles, but I think we’re a long way off.”

On Oct. 4, Wilderness Torah invited representatives of JOOL to lead a pre–Yom Kippur workshop at a farm in Sebastopol. Luckey opened the workshop by burning cedar leaves, explaining that the plant is sacred to both Jews and Native Americans. Participants were then invited to place an object they brought with them representing their ancestors onto a table, which was referred to as an altar.

A volunteer read the workshops’ guiding questions, which included, “What does it mean to move toward right relationship with the Indigenous peoples of the places where we are guests? What acts of teshuvah are needed in order to begin to build relationships of integrity with local Indigenous communities? How can we draw on Jewish teachings, values, lineages, histories to inform our action in support of Indigenous sovereignty?”

During the workshop, Luckey played recordings of Gould and Otis Parrish, a Kashaya Pomo elder living in Sonoma County, speaking about the horrors their people have been subjected to — including being hunted for their heads. In one clip, Gould says that historians estimate 90% of Native Americans in what is now California were wiped out. “What I like to say is they didn’t get all of us,” Gould says. “My work really has been about making sure that people in the Bay Area know that we’re still here and that the genocide wasn’t complete.”

Burning cedar, which is sacred to both Jews and Indigenous people (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Burning cedar, which is sacred to both Jews and Indigenous people (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

Asked to share their reactions, one workshop participant spoke through tears about how, as the descendant of Holocaust survivors, she felt “how mixed together the grief is.” Another woman said she couldn’t help but think about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. “Is it something that we’re not supposed to mention?” she asked. Luckey would address the comment later, explaining that, given its close relationship with Sogorea Te’, JOOL is focused entirely on local activism.

(Citing commentary in Native American news outlets, Koffman, the York University history professor, told J. that Indigenous people fall on both sides of this particular issue: There are those who side with the Palestinian perspective and view Israeli Jews as colonizers, and there are those who accept that Jews are indigenous to the land of Israel and are engaged in a “postcolonial” project by returning to their ancestral homeland and reviving their ancient language.)

In a breakout group, Eva Orbuch shared that, although she was born and raised in Marin County and has lived in different parts of the Bay Area her entire life, she has stopped referring to herself as a “native.” As she has learned more about Indigenous history, she said, it no longer felt right to do so. “I’m technically from here, I identify strongly with it, but I don’t feel like calling myself a ‘native’ because I’m not indigenously from here,” she said. “I just respect the growing movement and awareness of people to speak the truth and honor the history of this place.”

Orbuch, 33, told J. that she has been paying $10 per month in Shuumi for several years and that she intends to “step it up” in the near future.

Participants at an Indigenous Solidarity workshop hosted by Wilderness Torah at a farm in Sebastopol, Oct. 4, 2022. (Photo/Julia Maryanska)
Participants at an Indigenous Solidarity workshop hosted by Wilderness Torah at a farm in Sebastopol, Oct. 4, 2022. (Photo/Julia Maryanska)

* * *

A couple of days before Yom Kippur, JOOL held its third annual tashlich ceremony at the West Berkeley Shellmound and Berkeley Marina.

More than a hundred people, including couples with young children, congregated across the street from the parking lot where, the night before, the security guard had turned the Jewish worshippers away. As buses whipped past the group, Luckey gave his spiel about the fight over control of the site, and another JOOL volunteer promoted a Berkeley City Council candidate, Elisa Mikiten, who publicly supports returning control of the shellmound and village site to the Ohlone. Then the group chanted “We are good, we are flawed,” a song by Batya Levine.

Standing at the edge of the crowd, Ron (who declined to give his last name) said he was not convinced that JOOL’s focus on protecting this particular shellmound would lead to meaningful change. “The problem of expropriation of Indigenous land is nationwide, and there are so many related issues, including climate change,” he said. “It’s all so complicated.”

Walking from the shellmound to the marina(Photo/Brooke Anderson)
Walking from the shellmound to the marina
(Photo/Brooke Anderson)

Laura Callen’s two teenagers stepped to the center of the circle and read a prayer written by Noily and Luckey. “We come here with humble hearts, grateful for the gift of living as guests on Lisjan Ohlone land,” the teens read. “We come here with strong hearts, committed to answer the call to protect the sacred shellmound. We come here with hopeful hearts, trusting that beyond time and place, all of the ancestors are gathered, smiling, their hands at our backs, guiding us toward wholeness. Blessed are You, Creator, who brings healing to broken places.”

With that, the attendees began the 1.3-mile walk to the Berkeley Marina, where they would symbolically cast their sins into San Francisco Bay.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.