The Difficult Work of the Erev Rav

The Israelites finally make their way out of Egypt in this week’s Torah portion of Beshallach. Having been freed by Pharaoh, the people make their way to the shore of the Red Sea. After Pharaoh dispatches his army after the freed slaves, the Israelites cry out to be saved from a seemingly impossible situation. Moses raises his staff, the waters part, and the Israelites pass through to safety. This stage of the Exodus is complete.

In describing the Israelite exodus from Egypt, the text notes that when they left, “a mixed multitude (erev rav) went up with them.” The mixed multitude was, according to commentaries, made up of Egyptians who joined with the Israelites in their leaving–former oppressors who had renounced their association with an oppressive regime and found common cause with the oppressed.

The population that went out of Egypt, according to the text, therefore was diverse, multicultural and multinational. Perhaps, we can posit, that liberation such as this is only possible with a diverse coalition of people who are willing to make the journey, with a mixed group of the oppressed and their allies.

It could not have been easy, this erev rav. Being in a diverse coalition such as this involves difficult work, confronting that which you at best disagree with or at worst dislike. Movements of liberation built on coalitions will bring together those who are united on some causes but not on others, and it is up to all of those present to be honest and open as to where the differences are, and when is it necessary to put them aside to be focused on the task at hand.

It is not comfortable to be in that position, but sometimes necessary.

This weekend is the Women’s March, and we are confronted with such a situation. With accusations of anti-Semitism leveled at some of the leaders of the national march—primarily because of various associations of some of the leaders—the Jewish community has been forced into difficult conversations both within itself and with its partners. Is it possible to be in partnership with those who share common cause yet who also associate with others we would find anathema?

Some answer “no” and distance themselves. Others answer “yes” and take the difficult seat at the table. At that table is an opportunity to share one’s own truth, and hear others’ truths. And this is where real relationship and change is forged.

We have seen change at the national level in the Women’s March as the organizers sat down with Jewish leaders, released a statement specifically condemning anti-Semitism, and most recently added Jewish women—including Jews of Color—to the organizing committee. Progress like this needed to be made because fighting forces of hatred in this country, which are being given official sanction by elected leaders, is too important at this moment in time.

We as Jews do need to call out anti-Semitism when we see it. And we also must remember, the anti-Semitism that killed 11 in Pittsburgh came from the right and not the left.

In movements of social change, we need to be in dialogue with those we do not agree with. Looking back, that was the failure of the Olympia Food Co-op a decade ago when they instituted their boycott of Israeli products. Not the boycott itself, but the failure to engage in the hard conversation of talking with their neighbors, understanding the spectrum of Jewish experience and opinion. Rather the leadership chose the easy path of listening to only those they agree with, and not only that, using those opinions to serve as representative of a whole (i.e., talking to some Jews, but not all Jews) thus pitting a minority community against itself.

We have the opportunity to do things differently. Our current political situation gives us the opportunity to forge new alliances and relationships, if only we embrace the discomfort. If only we show up. If only we do the work.

It is work that will continue. For we know that while it is easy to point out other’s perceived biases, it is much harder to see them in oneself. While it is easy to tell others who they can and can not associate with, we get much more resistant when the same charge is leveled at us. But we need to be both strong and humble in our convictions and identities.

I know that within the Jewish community there are those I need to be in relationship and dialogue with at times for the sake of the greater Jewish community. I will engage with Chabad even though I find their Orthodox practice and ideology, especially around gender, to be far from my own. I will dialogue with StandWithUs even though I disagree with their politics on Israel and their assault on free speech. There are times we can be in coalition, and sometimes we can’t. But we must maintain the relationship, difficult and uncomfortable as it may be at times. The same is true in interfaith work, when I work on issues with those faiths whose theologies are antithetical to mine.

I do plan to spend part of my Shabbat this weekend participating in the Women’s March in Olympia. (For those who are tracking, the Washington Women’s March organization actually broke with the national organization over some of the issues referenced and is independent.) The times demand we show up, and I’m prepared to do the difficult work that entails, and I trust my partners are willing to do the same.

And I believe that standing there at the Temple of Justice on the Capitol Campus will be the closest we can come today to being a part of the erev rav, the diverse coalition that confronted oppression and joined together in the march to liberation.

 

Why I Created a Petition to Change the (Future) Dates of Olympia Arts Walk

Last week it felt like two simultaneous preparations were happening. People were prepping for Passover, getting boxes of matzo, choosing recipes, sending and accepting invitations to Seder. And people were prepping for Olympia Spring Arts Walk, hanging art in downtown businesses, tuning up instruments, putting last minute preparations into Procession of the Species costumes.

And with the simultaneous preparations came from some corners grumblings or disappointment at the confluence of the two. Because this year, the beloved institution of Arts Walk—always on the last weekend in April—fell on the first night of the important festival of Passover—always on the 15 of Nissan but variable according to the Gregorian calendar.

This is not the first time something like this happened. Two years ago Fall Arts Walk, which occurs on the first weekend in October, coincided with Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of our calendar. And when this happens, we in the Jewish community are one, reminded how our calendar and sacred celebrations are not normative, and two, forced with the need to either make choices or accommodations as to how we wish to participate in either our Jewish traditions or community celebrations (or both). It is a conflict I wrote about recently when the Democratic caucuses fell on Shabbat morning.

So to channel expressed frustration and to raise awareness, I created a petition on change.org. While I’ve signed petitions before from this site, I’ve never made one, and gave the technology a whirl. I created a petition and shared it on social media. Unbeknownst to me it was also passed along to the Olympian, which ran a story about it.

The gist of petition is that while the Jewish holidays are variable in relation the Gregorian calendar, they are not random. We know when the holidays will fall in perpetuity. Now we can just look up on line, but one of my prize possessions is a book of a perpetual Jewish calendar that tells the corresponding Jewish date for the years 1900 to 2100. (My dad first got it before the advent of the Internet to track the date of his mother’s, my grandmother’s, yahrtzeit). I keep it open on my desk.

calendar

So in other words, we know when the holidays and Arts Walk will conflict again. And we know far in advance. On a whim I looked it up, and found that in 2027 Fall Arts Walk will conflict with Rosh Hashanah, in 2041 Fall Arts Walk will conflict with Yom Kippur and in 2043 Spring Arts Walk will fall on Passover. The “ask” of the petition is that the city officials in charge of making those scheduling decisions take into account those conflicts and consider rescheduling Fall and Spring Arts Walk in those years. The petition is active, and as of this posting there are over 160 signatures.

I’m not sure what will come of it, though I do intend to pass it along to city leadership and maybe open up a conversation. For again, it wasn’t meant to be adversarial. And I don’t know if it will be successful in its stated goals of changing the event in 25 years. But, it was meant as a reminder that we live in a diverse community, diversity is difficult, and we need to be continually thinking through and evaluating how we can embrace evolving inclusivity.

I was torn in creating and promoting the petition. I recognize that our secular calendar is based around a Christian flow of time, and part of me just accepts that. At the same time, it is important to remember that not everyone fits, and that we as Jews are governed by two calendars that conflict at times (having to take off school or work for the High Holidays is another issue). I know too that it shouldn’t be my place to have to continually educate, that general knowledge of world religions should be standard. And at the same time, I know that we must advocate for ourselves, share our experiences and point out when we feel challenged and excluded.

Through the petition I hope to express personal concerns and widen the experience of the Jewish community so that others feel empowered to express the same (whether one identifies with Judaism religiously, culturally, ethnically or a combination, this issue with the calendar conflict served as a reminder of “otherness.”) And it gives others in the greater community to show their support and reminds us in the Jewish community to lend our support to others who feel similarly challenged and excluded.

So in some ways, while I started it on a lark, the petition is already successful, for the goal was not necessarily accommodation, but mindfulness. And mindfulness is the first stage of any movement of liberation.

Tonight ushers in the 7th day of Passover, our festival of liberation. It was the 7th day that tradition teaches was the day of the crossing of the Red Sea. In the story of the Exodus in the Torah we are told that it wasn’t just the Israelites who left Egypt, but the group that left was an erev rav, a “mixed multitude,” a group of people that represented a variety of backgrounds and communities. Israelites, yes, but also Egyptians who found common cause with them.

Thus from the very beginning a liberated community is defined by diversity. When we create community, there will be people with different attitudes, ideas, mores and narratives that we need to take into consideration. We can go on thinking and pretending we are all the same, or we can say, wait a minute, something else is going on here that we need to think about. And the challenge, then, is to navigate this diversity to truly create a society that welcomes and celebrates all.

And if you are up for the challenge, please sign.