The 40th Day: Birthing the Poor Peoples Campaign.
A Letter from Rabbis Arthur Waskow & Phyllis Berman
[Rabbi Waskow is director of The Shalom Center. Rabbi Berman founded and for 37 years directed an innovative and intensive school for adult immigrants and refugees from all around the wprld to learn English and America, and has a special concern about attacks on immigrants and refugees by the present US government.]
The two of us had an extraordinary Shabbat day before yesterday (June 23) in Washington DC, from two perspectives: a Jewish perspective on the vision and work of the Poor Peoples Campaign, and the wonderfully multi-issue, multi-“identity” fusion vision and work of the Poor Peoples Campaign itself. It was the 40th day and the culmination of the nation-wide work so far, which involved thousands in nonviolent civil disobedience in state capitals all across the country. This day was intended to be a beginning, not an end.
As Rabbi Jeff Roth taught us, the recurrent "״"40 motif in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels may be rooted in the real length of human pregnancy –- 40 weeks, not 9 months. So the Poor Peoples Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival began with Mother’s Day and lasted 40 days of pregnant maturation, to be born for a new life yesterday as a continuing movement.
The Jewish perspective first: Since the Poor Peoples Campaign had chosen a Saturday for this action, the Reform movement could have chosen either to keep hands totally off (which for some years had been their stance on social-justice actions called for Shabbat) or to enter with a strong Jewish action that flowed from Shabbat and into Shabbat. Their choice did a lot to bring Jewish and even more multireligious and spiritual depth and breadthinto the Poor Peoples Campaign action. We say "even more" because all along, the Poor People's Campaign has shaped itself as a "National Call to Moral Revival."
The Reform movement's Temple Sinai Erev Shabbat service and the 45-minute Shabbat morning service sponsored by their Religious Action Center were rich and creative. (Full disclosure of one dimension of why we felt good about it: : On Friday evening, to our utter surprise, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, head of the RAC, singled Arthur out among clergy present for having been a prophetic voice long ago and still. That certainly felt good.)
There was fine singing, and pointed comments from old or new tradition (e.g. a passage from Michael Walzer about living everywhere in some version of "Egypt"; Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s Ahavah rabbah). As part of the service Friday night, Reverend Barber gave a brilliant sermon on the various aspects of what the Poor Peoples Campaign is doing. And after he spoke, all the multireligious clergy present (lots!!) were invited to come up and physically bless Rev. Barber with the Priestly Blessing, Birkat Kohanim. Incredibly powerful moment!
For Shabbos morning, for the 45-minute pre-Rally Shabbat service a multitude of rabbis and Rev. Liz Theoharis, the co-chair of Poor Peoples Campaign, were given roles -- each of the rabbis in tiny slivers, so that many could take part. Arthur was invited to lead the Torah blessings. It seemed to be not an opportunity to teach in any way, till Phyllis suggested he use his responsibility for the Barchu and the brochas to teach the meaning of our new forms of the Brachot, and that we have ready a leaflet with our alternative version of them so that people could use them if they wished.
So that’s what we did, and he was able to get across at least a hint of why “Ruach Ha'Olam” ("Breathing Spirit of the wprld") instead of “Melech Ha'Olam” (”King of the world") and “Yahhhh” (simply a breathing sound) instead of “Adonai, Lord.” About half the aliyah-niks – called up for one Aliyah honoring people who had done nonviolent civil disobedience for the Poor Peoples Campaign -- used the alternative version of the brochas.
Then Arthur added one more piece. Why, he asked, are we doing “Barchu” (the prayer "Let us bless," calling us into community) for the Torah service anyway, after doing it already at the beginning of the Service? Aren’t we already a community? He said it was to teach us that becoming a community is not a one-shot deal, like getting onto a plateau and that’s it. We have to keep growing into an ever fuller community.
And then he said that in our case, for our day, we need to grow our community to include Central American families who are fleeing terrible violence, and he quoted the Torah verse that prohibits sending runaway slaves or serfs back to their masters –- instead, they must be allowed to live anywhere they choose “within our gates.” And the Torah adds, "Do not maltreat them!" (Deut. 23: 15-16) There was a strong murmur of support for that.
After the brief morning service, the Poor Peoples Campaign began its “rally” around the 5 major issue-clusters it had proclaimed. Direct front-line victims / survivors spoke. That was really great. PPC really tried to and mostly did join “a face” with “a fact.” That is, it was in many ways a multi-issue teach-in, focusing on facts of poverty, racial oppression, eco-devastation, etc., each spoken by someone who was suffering in the result. Live-streamed nationally & internationally. Interspersed with songs from great social-justice choirs.
Then there was a two-hour march around the Smithsonian campus. The march was itself a community. We met up with friends from Philadelphia who had come to DC that morning and with a number of people whom Arthur had known when he lived in DC 30+ years ago, and we made connections with folks we had never met before.
Last time we took part in a Poor Peoples Campaign action, the heat and long walk had exhausted Arthur before we could get to the arrest site. So this time we borrowed a light-weight foldable wheel chair from a temporary-lending collection of the Germantown Jewish Centre. Phyllis was the chief wheel-pusher, AND a number of people -- some good friends from Philly, some total strangers -- were wonderful about taking a turn to push. Community-building is the destination, community-building is the path.
Tonight, the two of us are flying to El Paso TX to visit one of the refugee child “detention centers” (prisons). The delegation we are in includes several other rabbis and other clergy. It is being organized by the American Federation of Teachers out of the commitment of teachers to childreen, and its president, Randi Weingarten, will take part. . We’ll write more afterward.
In our joy over this wonderful birthing of the next stage, let us not forget the pain of children and their families ripped apart at the border, not yet reunited. Please link to <https://theshalomcenter.org/civicrm/petition/sign?sid=25&reset=1> to sign a petition for reuniting them NOW, and for making asylum a reality, as the Bible, US law, treaties the US ratified, and the best instincts of the American people all require. "You who have fled your beloved homes for fear of horrifying violence, come live where you choose within our gates."
May the week ahead be filled with our creating sparks of holiness as we respond to lightning flashes of cruelty---
Shalom, Phyllis & Arthur