Jewish groups rally in sukkah at Occupy Los Angeles

As part of the Occupy Los Angeles movement, hundreds of Angelenos have been living in tents outside downtown’s City Hall for several weeks. On Oct. 16, Jewish groups rallied in a sukkah alongside these temporary shelters.

“I think of a sukkah as a structure that’s full of vulnerability,” said Elissa Barrett, chief of regional operations for Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Funds for Justice (PJA & JFSJ), a participant in the demonstration. “It forces us to look at what’s happening in the world around us.”

In solidarity with the protestors of Occupy Los Angeles — an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street and similarly anti-corporate — several Jewish clergy, community organizers and rabbinical students came together to organize the protest in the sukkah, billed as “Not Just a Sukkah: A JUST Sukkah at Occupy L.A.” 

The collaborators included Rabbi Jonathan Klein of CLUE-LA (Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice); Rabbi Jason van Leeuwen of Temple Ner Maarav; Lauren Henderson, a rabbinical student at American Jewish University (AJU); Rabbi Aryeh Cohen of American Jewish University; Charlie Carnow, a CLUE-LA board member; and Maya Barron of PJA & JFSJ. 

Around 1 p.m., approximately 100 people, with many more filtering in and out, gathered around the 10-by-10-by-8-foot sukkah located, as it happened, in the “anarchist section” of Occupy L.A., Klein said.

Participants recited chants, sang, danced and broke off into chevruta groups to study texts about Sukkot from Leviticus and the Mishnah. 

Approximately 300 tents have been erected as part of Occupy Los Angeles, and most house several people. On Oct. 15, the Occupy Los Angeles movement reached its greatest number of participants, with nearly 15,000 people taking part in a march from Pershing Square through the financial district and back to the Occupy site at City Hall, according to news reports.

Planning for the Occupy Los Angeles sukkah began earlier this month.

“Rabbi Jason van Leeuwen calls me and says, ‘We’ve got to do a sukkah down at Occupy L.A.,’ and I immediately thought of some of the people who would really get into that idea,” Klein said in an interview outside the sukkah. “Voila! A week-and-a-half later, we have a sukkah with over 100 people, probably 200 people, here learning Torah and learning about foreclosures and learning about the plight of tomato growers.”

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Throughout the day, Henderson and fellow AJU rabbinical student Joshua Corber — who said they planned to sleep in the sukkah that night — answered questions from passers-by about what, to many, looked like a strange, but welcoming, structure. Etrogs, lulavs, challahs and handouts about the day’s program covered a table, the only furniture in the sukkah. 

“The food hanging [from the ceiling] makes it look like it’s raining plentiful food. I think it’s great,” said Shane Portman, 31, who, with his fiancée, stopped to visit.

The sukkah builders didn’t need a permit, but Occupy Los Angeles organizers requested that the sukkah be approximately 10 feet by 10 feet, in accordance with city regulations; a height requirement wasn’t specified, Klein said.

Early that day, Klein and the others showed up with their materials. “It was wonderful … we parked across the street in a no-parking zone, and five guys with tattoos and lip piercings and everything ran across the street, pulled all the stuff, brought it over here, and we created our sukkah,” Klein said.

Prayer sessions were planned to take place each evening and, provided there are enough people, minyans in the mornings.

The “Just Sukkah” event participants hailed from numerous Jewish organizations, among them Habonim Dror, IKAR, the Sholem Community, PJA & JFSJ, The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring and the Jewish Labor Committee.

Members of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) and the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (the latter advocating for the rights of farm workers) — neither of which is a Jewish group — also attended the rally in the sukkah. Beverly Roberts, a South Los Angeles resident and a member of ACCE, discussed her financial problems, her inability to get a loan from the bank and the possibility that she will face foreclosure on her home.

Barrett said the Jewish presence at Occupy L.A. did not automatically indicate her organization’s support for the movement. Because part of the mandate of being Jewish is to ask questions, she said, PJA & JFSJ came to learn more about what’s been happening on the ground.

“We’re happy to have people engaging in the conversation. This isn’t about validating or invalidating,” she said.

Klein, meanwhile, threw his full support behind the Occupy Los Angeles demonstrators. “It’s purely around the question of economic justice …  So, from a CLUE perspective, we’re completely on board.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR weighed in on the motives of the people behind the movement.

“I think many people are driven here for a lot of different reasons — some of which I agree with, and some of which are much more challenging for me personally,” Brous said. “But what I think is great is there is a rising of voices in this country and around the world calling for economic justice, for more opportunity, for more possibility and for a better future … I think that’s a very good thing.”