By: Rachel Van Thyn
After some initial hemming and hawing, I decided to join my roommate for Kol Nidrei on Wall Street. It is not that I take issue with public prayer (or prayer in general) or the protesters downtown. But I have been to protests and gatherings that are sometimes co-opted or taken over by other causes, and I was wary about what could happen. You show up for one reason, and all of a sudden people around you are chanting or saying things you aren’t sure you agree with. However, I reasoned that a group of people gathering for the non-violent purpose of prayer ran little chance of that kind of appropriation, or for interference from others. I didn’t have any particular responsibilities for Yom Kippur leading, so I hoped I could represent some of my friends or fellow seminary classmates in their stead—many of whom expressed that they would have been there in a heartbeat, had circumstances afforded it. In Abraham Joshua Heschel terms, I prayed with my feet.
Regardless, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. And I am still processing different sights, sounds, and experiences from the evening. But that night I found:
- People engaging in worship: Many who may not have had the opportunity or ability to go elsewhere on this holy day.
- A vast range of people: Old and young, ranging in political affiliations and religious practices.
- Joy: People celebrating the freedom to pray, standing in solidarity in community with others.
- Recommitment: People committing themselves to doing better, asking for forgiveness for not fully seeing humanity when in front of them, and calling for the recommitment and responsibility of everyone to make true and lasting change.
- Cacophony of voices: People acting as human microphones for others so everyone could participate; a range of melodies and words that spanned multiple spectrums, both religious and secular.
- Inclusion: People making room for individual practices, time for introspection, and widening the space for a variety of sentiments about why they were there and what they believed.
- Values: People living out Jewish and human ideals, heeding the prophetic call to support the stranger, the hungry, and the needy in their midst.
It certainly left me a great deal to contemplate. As I went to synagogue the next morning, the voices of the hundreds of people present rang in my ears: Aleinu—it is upon us to make the world a better place. Aleinu—it is upon us to not remain silent. Aleinu—it is upon us to show our children a more just world. Aleinu—it is upon us to do this because no matter our background, we have the responsibility to help others, to acknowledge our own transgressions and to attempt forgiveness for those who have wronged us. Our future depends on it.
Avinu Malkeinu—let the new year be a good year for us.
Rachel Van Thyn originally hails from Toronto, Canada, but moved to New York in 2004 to participate in AVODAH. Her placement was with Project Renewal, helping previously homeless folks with various issues prepare to re-enter the workforce. After her time in AVODAH, Rachel held several positions in the Reform Movement, including 7 years of work in their summer camps. She then joined AVODAH’s staff as their Communications Associate in NYC. Rachel is currently in rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College and works as a Rabbinic Intern at Central Synagogue.
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