Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011
Six Rabbis Pray in Jail
by Lawrence Kushner
I remember my arrest. It was May of 1972 and Nixon had just mined Haiphong Harbor. The year before, I had accepted a pulpit in Sudbury, Massachusetts, a bucolic, Yankee exurb west of Boston and had helped form a small, rabbinic study hevra (group). Each weekly session, however, it seemed, began with a new and more infuriating news item about the escalation of the war. The government claimed possession of secret information it could not reveal. We felt powerless, ineffectual. All our sermons were preaching to the choir.
My own moment of decision was hardly the result of some evolved moral calculus. Whenever I would meet a German, I found myself wanting to ask what he had done while the Nazis had murdered my people. It dawned on me that, if I could ask this of a German, then, I should be prepared to answer the same question from a Vietnamese person. What would I say?
My answer came at a Massachusetts Board of Rabbis meeting. A group of Jewish student activists were going to stage an anti-war protest in front of the JFK Federal Building in Boston and wanted rabbis to join them for protection. In 1972 even nonviolent demonstrations could turn ugly and dangerous, very fast. The Kent State massacre was two years before. About twenty rabbis decided to join the protest.
A week later, we found ourselves sitting on the plaza singing Hebrew peace songs. But nothing happened. After an hour or so, it dawned on us: the last thing the feds wanted was another group of religious crazies being led off to the slammer on the six o'clock news. Rabbi Dan Polish turned to me and said, "Kushner, if we want to get arrested, we're going to have to go inside the building." And so, a group of us stood up and walked through the revolving door. Suddenly the bright lights of TV cameras and police were everywhere. Behind us, we could hear screaming and saw some students being dragged along the pavement. Rabbi Herman Blumberg and I were the first to be arrested. (One policeman got both Herman and me with one hand!) "We'll go peacefully," we squeaked. The officer led us around the back of the lobby to a large freight elevator. In it was a short, muscular man with a badly pockmarked face and wearing a black leather jacket. It was just the three of us. He opened his coat and slowly moved his right hand around his belt, revealing a holster. He removed its gun, released the safety latch and pointed it at Herman and me: "You are under arrest," he said. "If you try to leave this elevator, I will shoot you." I can still hear his voice. Within minutes, policemen brought more students. As soon as the elevator was full, they took us all down the basement to a waiting line of police vans. We were driven to the federal lockup and put into the bull pen with other street criminals. The cell stank of urine.
There were six of us rabbonim: myself, Herman Blumberg, Dan Polish, Herman Pollack, z"l, Ben Rudavsky, and Cary Yales z"l. I am told that we were the first organized (organized, ha!) group of rabbis to be arrested protesting the war. We did, at least, have the foresight to bring our prayerbooks. Soon it was time to daven mincha (recite afternoon prayers). Dan Levinson, z"l, from the ACLU, came running down the hall with good news. "I've got you an arraignment with Judge Willy Davis -- c'mon," he called. We were then up to the Aleinu. Herman Blumberg turned to Dan and calmly said, "We're already seeing The Judge; tell Davis he can wait!"
I was quoted in the Boston Globe as saying, "We don't expect our action to bring the troops home but we want to remind people that there is still conscience in our land."
In retrospect, I learned that it usually comes down to someone else asking you a simple question. "Shall we do something to put ourselves against the war?" "Will you join our demonstration to protect us?" "Shall we go inside the building?" "Should we daven mincha?" Small decisions, all. Of themselves, of little consequence. But, taken together, they begin to describe a simple life path: one foot in front of the other.
Lawrence Kushner is the Emanu-El Scholar at Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco. He is the author of several books including, I'm God; You're Not: Observations on Organized Religion and Other Disguises of the Ego (Jewish Lights).
His articles in Tikkun include "Trout Fishing," July/August 1995.
Source Citation: Kushner, Lawrence. 2011. Six Rabbis Pray in Jail. Tikkun 26(1): 54