If You Want Jews to Attend Your Events, Maybe Don’t Schedule Them On Our Holidays?

Just a thought!

It keeps happening.

Someone will either send me information about an event, or I’ll see one pop up courtesy of Facebook’s algorithm. It could be anything: a book discussion, film screening, candidate forum, protest, rally, or organizing meeting. There will be some general messaging about “accessibility.” It will look like something I want to attend. And then I will see the date and time:

“Friday at 7 p.m.”

“Saturday at 11 a.m.”

So, you know, during Shabbat.

In 2017, I was volunteering for a congressional campaign and the candidate sent me information about the Michigan Federation of College Democrats Fall Gala, being hosted at Grand Valley State University. It was going to be a major event since many prominent candidates would be speaking, including Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Gretchen Whitmer, and Abdul El-Sayed.

There was just one small problem: The gala was on September 30 through October 1.

So, you know, during Yom Kippur.

The Day of Atonement, the day of fasting from food and water and avoiding bathing, applying lotion and cosmetics, wearing leather, and sexual intercourse, the pinnacle of the season of teshuvah that started during the month of Elul.

You know, the day, along with Rosh Hashanah, that many Jewish people who do not regularly attend services make sure to attend.

I was incredibly annoyed, to put it lightly. I called the phone number listed for the College Dems and had an extremely frank exchange of ideas with whoever answered the phone. He ended the conversation by making a lukewarm commitment to be more mindful of the Jewish fall holiday schedule in the future.

But I continue to come up against this problem.

I recently learned about a scheduled symposium called “Social Work’s Response to Anti-Semitism in the United States” that is part of the programming for the 2020 Society of Social Work Research conference. I was originally excited to see a presentation devoted to addressing and fighting anti-Semitism, featuring a group of accomplished scholars, including an instructor at the University of Pittsburgh who is a member of Dor Hadash, one of the congregations that rents space in the Tree of Life synagogue.

Then I looked at the date and time:

Friday from 2:00 to 3:30 p.m.

This is prime “rush around and try to get everything done before Shabbat starts” time for those who adhere to a more traditional observance of Shabbat, which requires refraining from 39 categories of prohibited work, including working for a wage, spending money, using electronics, writing, and cooking. Why am I expected to drop $200 on my textbooks for my Social Work in a Multicultural Society course if the leading organization devoted to social work research can’t make a really interesting and much needed event devoted to anti-Semitism at a more accessible time, or provide any information about accommodations for observant Jews on their website?

When I reached out to a SSWR staffer with questions around the timing of this symposium, I was told the panel “was scheduled based upon the panelists’ request given our options for Friday and Saturday sessions” and that “SSWR doesn’t provide meals for attendees but the SSWR staff work closely with the conference hotel staff to ensure they’re equipped to make recommendations to accommodate any of the attendees’ dietary restrictions.”

I can say from personal experience that making these preparations when you are out of town at a major conference is even more complicated and time-consuming.

When I attended the Planned Parenthood Advocates Power of Pink conference in the summer of 2018, I had to deal with hurdle after hurdle: Most information about the schedule, rooms for breakout sessions, and real-time updates was going to be shared exclusively through the conference app, and I had to make a mad dash to the venue after checking into my hotel in order to grab one of the limited paper schedules. All throughout the Saturday sessions, I was having to explain why I couldn’t write down notes, or use my phone. I had chosen to still attend this conference because I’m sick and tired of authoritarian evangelicals and Catholics claiming to have a monopoly on discourse around religious freedom and abortion access.

But by havdalah on Saturday night, I was completely wiped out, despite having followed the “laws” of Shabbat rest.

Sarah Atkins, the Director of Advocacy at Torah Trumps Hate and candidate for Pennsylvania’s 17th District State Senate seat, mentioned this “concept of the Shabbos atmosphere” multiple times when she described the challenges she faces as an activist and a political candidate. Many campaign events and fundraisers are held on Shabbat, and while she can send staff to represent her, “if you’re not in the room, you’re not in the room” and she wishes organizations would “buy in” and work harder to include observant Jews.

Riva Atlas, a researcher and mom in New York City, described attending marches as “in the spirit of the day for us,” but also discussed how Orthodox and Conservative members in her community did extensive research on the route of the 2017 Women’s March to determine how much of the route was covered by an eruv.

There are many rich variations and interpretations around ritual observance. I completely understand why some folks, including Jews, have no issue with events on Shabbat. But I want non-Jewish organizers to understand that this isn’t a competition between “Jews who care more about social justice vs. Jews who only care about following all the rules.” These events and spaces will benefit tremendously when all Jews can participate and there is greater understanding and curiosity about why traditional practices are not negotiable for many Jews, including many Jews who are not Orthodox.

Back in 2018, there was extensive criticism when the March for Racial Justice scheduled their event on Yom Kippur. They responded with a detailed and sincere apology, and scheduled sister marches and events the day after Yom Kippur so Jewish people could participate while also bringing attention to the anniversary of the Elaine Massacre. I wish that this kind of sensitivity and humility was the norm in activist spaces, and not the exception.

Image by Anass Bachar/Eye Em 

Elena Gormley

Elena Gormley is a religious school teacher, semi-professional beehive kicker, and Masters of Social Work candidate at the University of Illinois-Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work. She is a big fan of cats, destroying systems of oppression, and klezmer mariachi music.

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