A Jewish Ritual to Process the Capitol Insurrection, One Year Later

As a rabbi I know that we’ll be better served on January 6, 2022 by doing something instead of just feeling uneasy.

I don’t remember what I was doing on the morning of January 6, 2021. My calendar (thank you, iPhone, for remembering everything I’ve ever scheduled) tells me that I had some calls with congregants, a meeting with my cantor and a session with other new pulpit rabbis in the Reconstructionist movement.

I do remember learning, sometime between calls, about what was happening in Washington, D.C. I remember looking at my calendar and seeing that I was supposed to have two Zoom shiva minyans and an Executive Committee meeting that evening. I remember calling my synagogue president and saying, “We have to have a gathering tonight to grieve what’s happening.”

Quickly, we planned. Rabbis aren’t supposed to be partisan, but I knew that what was happening in our nation’s capital went far beyond politics as usual. I knew that for our Jewish community, seeing the racist and antisemitic hate signs and symbols that populated the mob would birth fear and unease.

We canceled the committee meeting, I spoke with my congregants in mourning about shiva timing, and I sent a vulnerable email to the community acknowledging that “what’s happening in Washington, DC right now is an attempted coup” and that it was “not a time to mince words or to hold back.” I encouraged folks to gather with my synagogue that night in prayer “not in the hopes of a God who will intervene but with the knowledge that the force that makes for salvation can be found in each of us.”

That night, we sang songs of comfort, made space for congregants to share their feelings and read words of our sages. We created a ritual because we had to — because the moment demanded an immediate response. This, the ability to make meaning of life’s ups and downs, is one of the greatest gifts the Jewish community can offer.

If you look at the Jewish calendar, you’ll find a mix of holidays and commemorations. Many fall into the general category/Jewish joke of, “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” But there are others that mark somber occasions when our people did not emerge victorious — at least not for a long time. Each year on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, we mark the horrifying murder of 6 million Jews less than a century ago. On Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av in the summer months, we mark the fall of the Temples nearly two millennia ago and a number of other calamities that we as a people faced in the same season. While what happened on January 6, 2021 is nothing compared to these tragedies, we can learn from how our tradition treats difficult moments and bring healing ritual to this first anniversary.

Of course, this anniversary arrives in the middle of an unfolding story. It’s hard to know how to mark the January 6 insurrection when many of its supporters are still our elected officials, when new information about who knew what when seems to be hitting the airwaves weekly, and when numerous insurrectionists are still standing trial. While the insurrectionists went home on January 6, the votes were certified and President Biden took office, the people who stormed the Capitol have continued to speak and act out. I imagine that many of you, like me, continue to feel uneasy not only about what happened on that day but what is continuing to happen in smaller ways all around the United States.

And yet. A year is a year. Time continues, however much it may feel that this has all been one long, drawn out March, 2020. As a rabbi I know that we’ll be better served on January 6, 2022 by doing something instead of just feeling uneasy. So, here is a humble suggestion for a brief ritual to mark the first anniversary of the Capitol Insurrection:

  1. Gather your materials. You’ll need a candle, a match or lighter, a piece of paper and something to write with, a sink or bowl of water large enough to wash your hands in, and a glass or mug. Go somewhere where you can have a bit of privacy.
  2. Light your candle and take three slow, deep breaths. Close your eyes if you’d like. You can also take this time, if it’s helpful, to read or listen to a review of what happened on January 6, 2021.
  3. Think back to last year. What can you remember about your day? Were you home? At school? Traveling? Were you working out of your office or remotely, or were you unemployed? When and how did you hear about the insurrection? Did you speak to anyone about it? If your phone still has your calendar from last year, look at it. What did you have scheduled for January 6, 2021? Do you remember if you kept your schedule?
  4. Open your eyes if they’re closed and take your piece of paper. Write a three-sentence story about January 6, explaining your experience of what happened in Washington D.C. on that day as simply and as honestly as possible. Don’t overthink it. When you’re done, read the story out loud and let any feelings you have take up as much space as they need within you.
  5. Hold out your hands in front of yourself, palms facing toward you. Take a deep breath and blow into your hands the feelings that you’re holding. The uncertainty. The fear. The rage. The disdain. The grief. Anything. Go to your sink or bowl of water. Fill the glass with water and slowly pour the water over your hands, letting your feelings be washed from you into the sink or bowl. Take three slow, deep breaths.
  6. Go back over to your candle. Gaze into the light and quietly name three good things, big or small, that you’ve experienced since last January 6 despite all the difficulty that we have and are continuing to go through.
  7. Blow the candle out.

Rituals cannot remedy all that causes us harm. Ritual can, however, center us, offer us moments of individual and collective respite, and help us to make sense of what we or our ancestors have experienced. I hope that this ritual is meaningful for you.

Rabbi Emily Cohen

Rabbi Emily Cohen is a rabble-rousing rabbi and artist. She's usually found in Brooklyn with her partner, cat, and lots of coffee. You can keep up with her latest at www.rabbiemilycohen.com.

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