TORONTO — One of the tents that was set up in St. James Park for the Occupy Toronto protest was not quite like the others. It was a sukkah.
When Leora Smith’s friend mentioned that she wanted to participate in the Occupy movement, but also wanted to celebrate Sukkot, which fell at the beginning of the protests in mid-October, Smith, 23, had an ideal solution.
“What if we build a sukkah at Occupy Toronto? Then you get to fulfil both things,” she said. So they did just that, with the help of several other occupiers, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
Smith said many people came by to ask questions, learn, participate in potluck dinners and help decorate and maintain the sukkah. “Everyone was so welcoming,” she said. “I just thought that it was such a beautiful symbol of the movement.”
Sukkot is a great holiday to relate to a movement that’s working toward ending inequality, she said. The holiday celebrates the harvest, when food is plentiful. “What our community traditionally does in a time of plenty is share the wealth,” she said.
Like Smith, Jenny Isaacs was able to relate her Judaism to the Occupy movement. Isaacs, 23, was at St. James Park almost every day after the protests began more than a month ago. She has also been active in the movement’s facilitation committee.
Isaacs, a member of the progressive Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, said that many of the human values at the core of Judaism, such as tikkun olam, figure strongly in social activism.
“I just think it’s very important that when we engage in social activism, we don’t leave our identities at the door,” she said, adding that, while Judaism is not the focus of her activism, it is very much a part of who she is.
Another member of Hashomer Hatzair, Daniel Roth, 30, has participated in both the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, and the Occupy Toronto protests, where he was also an organizer. He, too, draws a connection between Judaism and the message of the movement.
“Jewish thought, culture, history and faith are all rooted in a vision of justice, compassion and equity. The Occupy movement is deeply in line with Jewish values. To work in this movement is to do a mitzvah,” he wrote in an e-mail from Tel Aviv, where he has just moved “to work toward social justice, economic equity, sustainability and self-determination for Jews and Palestinians.”
While there was some concern raised in the media recently about anti-Israel and antisemitic protesters at Occupy Wall Street, Smith, Isaacs and Roth all said they did not encounter those sentiments in St. James Park.
“One of the challenges of being a left-wing Zionist, as I am, is that often, when you go out to support a social struggle, people want to drag [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] into it,” Isaacs said, adding that she was “pleasantly surprised” not to find that at Occupy Toronto.
Instead, protesters were more focused on addressing inequality and achieving social justice. Smith thinks the ideas being put forward in the movement can also be addressed in the Jewish community, with a focus on making the community more inclusive, on issues like synagogue membership costs, for example.
Roth feels that members of the Jewish community have begun to pick up the Occupy message and to become more involved in the movement, even though the Occupy Judaism activities, which had Jewish protesters in New York holding prayer services regularly, didn’t reach Toronto. “The Occupy movement is deeply in line with Jewish values and we as a community are beginning to realize that,” he said.
Although the tents have come down at St. James Park, for many activists, the struggle is not over. Isaacs said the protests have been an important step forward. “What’s happened here in the last month is that a conversation has been started,” she said. “I think that we’ll continue and continue to grow.”
Protesters in St. James Park [Solana Cain photo]