People walk in a march
Marchers in Oakland begin the third segment of an interfaith pilgrimage calling for a cease-fire in Gaza on March 23, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Jewish groups join 22-mile interfaith ‘pilgrimage’ in East Bay to call for cease-fire

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More than 1,000 people took to the streets of the East Bay on Saturday to call for an “enduring and sustained” cease-fire in Gaza, part of a global “pilgrimage” organized by faith communities in more than 170 cities worldwide.

The local walk, organized by the Oakland-based Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, covered 22 miles from Berkeley to Alameda, approximately the distance from Gaza City to Rafah. It was a symbolic stretch meant to “map Gaza onto the East Bay,” according to a press release. Organizers said 1,200 people had signed up for the all-day march, which was broken into sections.

“We walk together to bear witness to the suffering of the Palestinian people,” said Ali Sheikoslami, board member of the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, speaking to the crowd at one of several stops at places of worship along the way. “70% of Gaza’s homes have been destroyed, 80% of the population is displaced. It’s a mass punishment and extermination of an entire people.”

Among the 45 local congregations and organizations that signed on as supporters of the cease-fire pilgrimage were six Jewish groups: Piedmont’s Kehilla Community Synagogue, Beyt Tikkun, Shomeret Shalom, Rabbis for Ceasefire, IfNotNow Bay Area and Jewish Voice for Peace Bay Area, a self-described anti-Zionist group.

It was a peaceful day, with no signs calling for the destruction of Israel. Some marchers carried Palestinian flags. At a short Shabbat service, organizers handed out prayer shawls with the word “cease-fire,” which many participants donned.

People wait to walk in a march
Marchers gather across the street from the Buddhist Church of Oakland during an interfaith pilgrimage calling for a cease-fire in Gaza on March 23, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

The demands articulated by organizers and speakers were an immediate and sustained cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, more humanitarian aid for Gaza, the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas and “Palestinian hostages” in Israeli prisons and the end of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territory. Notably, there was no visible police protection, just volunteers handling security duty.

Some of the march’s messages are diametrically opposed to the pro-Israel community’s positions, in particular their references to genocide, extermination, settler colonialism and Palestinian prisoners as “hostages.”

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb of Jewish Voice for Peace and Rabbi Cat Zavis of Beyt Tikkun led a Shabbat service outside St. Columba Catholic Church in Oakland, about five miles into the march.

“On Shabbat we usually put aside mourning,” Gottlieb told a group of about 200. “We are not doing that today.”

Two rabbis lead a service at a march
Rabbi Cat Zavis (center) co-leads a Shabbat service as Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb holds a microphone in Oakland during the interfaith pilgrimage on March 23, 2024. (Photo/Sue Fishkoff)

She began what she described as “this Shabbat, Ramadan and Lenten experience” by referencing the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, followed by forced conversion or exile of Spain’s Muslims, a “forced expulsion that has threads to this current movement.”

That type of intersectionality, pointing out similarities among ruling powers that oppress a minority class of people, was on display throughout the day.

Gottlieb and Zavis led the crowd through the Barchu and the Shema, explaining the meaning of each prayer in universalist terms. The Shema, for example, was described as the “unity prayer.” They also recited part of the Mourner’s Kaddish, asking those in the crowd to shout out the names of people they knew who had been killed in the current conflict, both in Israel on Oct. 7 and since then in Gaza.

At one point Gottlieb pointed to an olive tree planted in a large pot, calling it the “main ritual” of the service.

“The olive tree is akin to the buffalo, to the indigenous live oak of California, two-thirds of which were cut down by Spanish colonialists,” she said, noting that “tens of thousands” of olive trees have been destroyed in the West Bank.

“We weep for all of the olive trees,” she said, asking marchers to wave the olive branches handed out by organizers.

Gottlieb, who has more than 50 years in the rabbinate, told J. that she took a leading role in this event “because people want to hear from a rabbi at this time.”

Berkeley resident and Jewish educator Yael Platt, 29, was one of several Jews in the crowd wearing a kippah. “For me, Judaism is a spiritual grounding,” said Platt, who came on her own. She also welcomed the “opportunity to walk with other people in faith and to take advantage of the deep wellspring that is our tradition to walk for justice and an end to the occupation and to genocide.”

Three marchers
Yael Platt, third from right, stands outside of St. Columba Catholic Church in Oakland during the interfaith pilgrimage on March 23, 2024. (Photo/Sue Fishkoff)

About 12 miles into the walk, the marchers paused again, at First Congregational Church in downtown Oakland. Clergy members from churches, Jewish groups and Islamic centers addressed the crowd, sticking fairly closely to the organizers’ script of demands. Peace, atonement, love and shared humanity were common themes, punctuated periodically by calls to “end the genocide” and to stop U.S. tax dollars supporting a “military dedicated to the elimination of a culture and a people,” as one church leader put it.

“It is because of settler colonialism, land theft and violence that we are here today,” said Rev. Deborah Lee, one of the pilgrimage organizers, once more drawing the crowd’s attention to what she described as the similarities between America’s treatment of its Indigenous population and Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.

Hauled from stop to stop was a large placard bearing the words of a letter being sent to California’s U.S. senators, Alex Padilla and Laphonza Butler, laying out the organizers’ demands and signed by clergy in attendance.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan of Berkeley, formerly of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El and Kehillah San Francisco, was at one of the stops along the way, standing off to the side. Urged by a colleague to sign the letter, he quietly declined.

“I’m here to support my daughter, who is one of the marchers,” he told J. “My other children would be here if they were around. We’ve had many long conversations about this. It’s been the throughline of conversation not just with my children, but their entire generation, all my students, from judicial reform to UnXeptable to the atrocities of Oct. 7 and the Israeli government response.”

He did not offer his support to the pilgrimage but also did not disavow it. He told J. that he’d once lived at Kibbutz Re’im, the site of the Nova music festival massacre on Oct. 7. Like many in the crowd, therefore, he said the current conflict is a “family trauma, externally and internally.”

Hamas massacred about 1,200 people in Israel on Oct. 7, and about 100 are believed to remain alive as hostages in Gaza. The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry has listed more than 32,000 people killed in Gaza as of Saturday. A United Nations Security Council cease-fire resolution passed unanimously Monday, with the U.S. abstaining. It came three days after a U.S.-backed resolution calling for an immediate and sustained cease-fire in Gaza was voted down after Russia, China and Algeria opposed it.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].