The sanctuary at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope was hushed.
Cantor Josh Breitzer was at the bima rehearsing with two B’nei mitzvah students. Breitzer, who surely has one of the greatest voices singing in the country’s synagogues today, was helping them to find their portions in the actual Torah scroll they’ll be chanting from.
CBE Senior Rabbi Rachel Timoner and I stepped into the sanctuary for a few minutes. The five of us were a far cry from the over 1,200 people who have been regularly packing CBE’s sanctuary since last November.
Tuesday, November 15, 2016, to be exact. That was when the first Get Organized BK gathering took place — one week after Donald Trump won the electoral college of the Presidential election. Four months, later, Get Organized BK has grown in size and interest, and has launched at least 15 working groups. It now has so many members that the CBE sanctuary could be filled many times over with those who have joined the mailing list and Facebook group.
How The Community ‘Got Up’
Rabbi Rachel Timoner was the first to address those who attended that memorable meeting.
She began by saying that it had been seven days since Trump was elected, equating that to the Jewish tradition of “sitting shiva,” the ritual of mourning the death of a loved one.
“What Jews do at the end of shiva is get up,” said Rabbi Timoner. “It’s time to get up and leave our house of mourning.”
Timoner asked everyone in attendance to introduce themselves to those who sat next to them. During that moment, two women standing next to each other in the back of the sanctuary shook hands. “I feel frozen. Absolutely frozen,” said one. The other woman touched her shoulder gently. “We have no choice but to be here. It’s either activism or fascism,” she said.
Since November, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Brooklynites of all faiths, individuals, activists, organizations, and elected officials have been working together — as Council Member Brad Lander says — “to resist Trump regime policies of injustice, corruption, and hate.”
While the Resist Movement began as a means in which to reject, protest, and fight the Trump administration’s policies, Timoner senses that something on a larger scale is taking place.
“I feel like what’s happening is that people are more awake now than ever – they really are ready to get up,” she said in a recent interview with Brooklyn Pulp. “It’s an eloquent response to this moment — to join with others to give whatever it is that we have to give to make our society reflect our deepest values.”
Early last month, Rabbi Timoner, along with other members of the rabbinical group T’ruah, was arrested during a protest on February 6 for blocking an intersection at the Trump International Hotel and Tower, located at Columbus Circle in Manhattan.
“We remember our history, and we remember that the borders of this country closed to us in 1924 with very catastrophic consequences during the Holocaust,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah. “We know that some of the language that’s being used now to stop Muslims from coming in is the same language that was used to stop Jewish refugees from coming.”
Rabbi Timoner’s involvement in this protest should not come as a surprise.
Timoner spoke about the importance of blending activism with spirituality when we first met during the summer of 2015. “I want to take our social justice work to the next level, by creating a full spectrum of opportunities for people to be involved in social change, from one-time acts of kindness to long-term community organizing that repairs the root causes of injustice in our city and country,” she said.
And yet, she understands the challenges an individual or community may experience when there are so many issues — or injustices — in play at the same time.
“It’s easy to feel so small and for the problems to feel so big. There are times when we really doubt if we matter,” she explained. “It is actually a leap of faith to believe what I do and what I say makes a difference. You just have to believe there is a ripple effect and this touches people beyond what you can see.”
The Rabbi Mom
While Timoner is engaged in the intensity of resistance, she’s also able to find the humor in it all.
Before her two sons left for school, Timoner told them about her plans to be arrested.
“I spoke with them before school to let them know,” she explained. “They weren’t very impressed.”
Timoner mimicked a “Big deal, Mom” face while relaying the story.
On Protest Burnout
Social media is more challenging now than ever, especially with the myriad lists of phone numbers explaining how to call political representatives, what to say, and how to go about saying it. Action plans change almost on a daily basis.
How does the community negotiate all that goes along with activism while attending to their personal lives, jobs, and families?
“When we got started, I expected the energy to die off quickly,” said Timoner. “People are going to get tired. I think that we have to attend to our long-term sustainability. We have to ask ourselves, ‘How can I sustain my engagement so I don’t burn out?’ Collectively, how do we pace ourselves, reinvigorate ourselves, refresh ourselves with joy, with love?”
According to Timoner, spirituality is one part of the answer. “We come together for every Shabbat to sing, pray, laugh, and remember all the good things we are thankful for. And that is the fuel.”
New York As A Model For Our Entire Country
Timoner knows that making what seems like countless phone calls to politicians can be exhausting.
“It’s really important that we continue to reassess our strategies,” she says. “We’ve received a grant with Get Organized BK to target efforts to work as strategically as possible. We are always thinking about the best ways we can target all of this energy.”
Timoner believes that the country’s eyes are on New York. “We are looking to each other for examples. When I got arrested, I can’t tell you how many thousands of people wrote to me and said they believed they were able to take a stand, too,” she said. “There are specific things we can do in all of New York that can be a model for our entire country.”
Timoner believes there are already examples that we can use to inspire. “I understand the question that we ask ourselves: ‘Is this really working?’ Look at these town hall meetings that are happening all over,” she explains. “Keep calling. Don’t give up. Keep calling. Please do not let up.”
Listening And Speaking With Humility
While she knows there is a lot to do in the immediate future, she also believes in thinking about long-term goals. “We have to listen and engage with people who don’t agree with us. And we have to listen to them with real humility,” she said.
And the challenge is that engagement is very personal.
“If I am an LGBTQ person and I need to explain my vulnerability, how can we speak to people who are enabling this climate of hate? If I say to them, ‘this is my story and this is why you are hurting me,’ it may be the first possible step to change hearts and minds.”
Raise The Age New York
Sometimes, the most pressing issues aren’t in the national headlines.
New York and North Carolina are one of the only two states in the United States which prosecute 16- and 17-year olds as adults when they are accused of committing a crime.
This may not have been a talking point for Trump, however, Rabbi Timoner has been spending time addressing what she considers to be a huge injustice.
Timoner has been actively involved in the Raise the Age New York campaign, which would raise the age of criminal liability in New York State to 18 years old. The bill is being sponsored by State Assembly Member Joseph Lentol and State Senator Velmanette Montgomery.
And while Governor Andrew Cuomo has expressed support for Raise The Age, Timoner sees the bill as a huge call to action. “If these children are put in Rikers, there’s just no way back from that,” she says.
A Great Awakening
Through our conversation, the rabbi makes it clear how much work there is to be done. Her hopefulness, however, is infectious.
Timoner inspires because she is able to both contextualize spirituality within social activism as well as contextualize social activism within spirituality.
“I wonder if this isn’t the great awakening of our century,” she says, “where we articulate the country that we’re building together based on the human rights of each person, based on an embrace of the other, and with a plan for economic well-being for all.”