Sukkahs are the new front in the battle to occupy NYC and Seattle

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Protesters at Occupy Seattle lock arms to defend a sukkah from destruction by the Seattle Police.

This weekend, police in NYC and Seattle forced Jewish protesters to take down temporary shelters used to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot – the Feast of Tabernacles – an annual week-long harvest festival, which also commemorates the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. During Sukkot, Jews are obligated to treat a temporary dwelling known as a sukkah as their primary residence, and “should eat, drink, study, amuse ourselves, and sleep” there, according to the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law. “Even our friends should be entertained in the sukkah,” it says.

However, in both New York City and Seattle, where hundreds of protesters are occupying public parks, city government is preventing individuals from erecting shelters that would allow them to survive the weather and continue their occupations.

On Wednesday, members of Occupy Judaism NYC erected a Popup Sukkah, a portable nylon tent-like sukkah, while surrounded by supporters, press and legal observers. Police inquired as to the commotion surrounding the structure and upon learning that it was a Jewish ritual object, one officer threw up his hands and said, “We’re not messing with that,” and backed away. This precedent gave Occupy Judaism impetus to advise other demonstrators who identified as Jewish to erect temporary dwellings for themselves and their guests in order to join in the celebration of Sukkot.

Daniel Sieradski, national organizer of Occupy Judaism and co-organizer of Occupy Judaism NYC said he told other protesters that “If you identify as a Jewish person, you should build for yourself a temporary dwelling and join us in the celebration of the holiday. Inform the police: I am not Orthodox and I do not follow the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law, which says that you should dwell in a temporary shelter for the week of Sukkot and that it is our custom to invite our friends and neighbors to join us in our dwellings. This will help people stay out of the rain and cold for at least a week.” When asked whether this constituted a distortion of Jewish practice, he responded, “There is no better application of Jewish practice and law than towards the elevation of human dignity. Let the occupiers occupy sukkot!”

On Wednesday evening, another Jewish demonstrator, acting on Sieradski’s advice, erected a shelter which he identified with a sign as his sukkah and was approached by over a dozen police officers who insisted he take it down. 200 demonstrators then surrounded the police chanting “Do the right thing!” and “Shame on you!” The structure nonetheless came down.

On Thursday afternoon, Sieradski and members of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) moved their sukkah to the center of the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park in anticipation of a showdown with the NYPD which was expected to evict the occupiers under the pretense of cleaning the park. Surrounded by concentric circles of protesters locked arm-in-arm, Sieradski planned to stay inside the sukkah praying when police arrived, insisting that they remove him and take down the sukkah themselves if they wanted it to come down. “If the Jewish mayor of New York wants to send his thugs to pull a Jew out of his sukkah in a 20% Jewish city on a Jewish holiday, let him be my guest,” Sieradski said.

The need for a showdown was obviated when thousands of supporters joined the occupiers in Zuccotti Park early Friday morning, including Rabbi Ellen Lippmann and congregants of Brooklyn congregation Kolot Chayeinu, who joined Sieradski and JFREJ in defending their sukkah. The city soon announced it was indefinitely postponing the cleaning of the park.

On Thursday night, 10 protesters participating in Occupy Seattle were arrested after building a sukkah to celebrate the holiday, while also trying to leverage the sukkah as a means to establish precedent for the erection of structures in Westlake Park. The protesters, who had locked arms in and around the sukkah, were broken up and hauled off by police while protesters chanted, “Happy Sukkot! Let my people go!” Raw video footage of the arrests and the Seattle police department’s destruction of the sukkah is available online here. (Seattle Times story here. Seattle Post Intelligencer photos here.) Organizers of Occupy Sukkot Seattle say they intend to reestablish their sukkah Saturday, October 15 at 4:30PM PT.

On Friday night, Occupy Judaism NYC took down their Popup Sukkah which had been ravaged by the inclement weather in New York City, intending to replace it Sunday with a more durable structure. In the interim, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice chose to erect a temporary shelter that was nonhalakhic (meaning, not formally recognized under Jewish law), where they held a Shabbat celebration and potluck dinner. A dozen officers from the NYPD intervened and forced JFREJ to take the shelter down saying that a sukkah had to “be open to the sky.” Daniel Sieradski asked the officers, “Why do non-Orthodox Jews need to observe an Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law?” The police could not provide a sufficient answer and forced the structure to come down anyway, leaving Sieradski to wonder, “Since when is the NYPD arbiter of what is and is not a kosher sukkah?” The incident was observed and documented by the National Lawyers Guild.

Sukkahs have been erected at occupations in nine cities as part of Occupy Sukkot, a celebration of the Jewish holiday by a decentralized network of Jewish supporters of the international Occupy movement known as Occupy Judaism. These Jewish activists believe in unifying their Jewish practice and social justice values with radical direct action. Read the movement’s official statement announcing Occupy Sukkot here.

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