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‘The protest is a ritual’: How faith found a place in Palestine solidarity encampments

Over the past nine months, student-led Palestine solidarity encampments popped up at universities across the country. For many students, multi-religious programming at the encampments became unexpected sites for religious connection.

Jewish students lead a hand washing ritual during a multifaith service at Harvard University’s Palestine solidarity encampment on April 28, 2024, in Cambridge, Mass. Participants were covered with a prayer shawl and took turns washing one another’s hands, pressing oil into their palms and reciting prayers in Hebrew and English. (Photo courtesy of Fede Monterofe)

(RNS) — At the University of Rochester’s Palestine solidarity encampment, in the quiet of a spring sunset, a large circle of university staff, faculty and students focused on two professors leading a ritual in English and Hebrew. As prayers were said and small cups of grape juice were passed around, one of the celebrants jokingly assured the Christians in the circle, “This is grape juice, just grape juice, it’s not transforming into anything. There’s no magic happening.”

As a braided candle was lit, the other professor walked around the circle with spices, holding them out to each person to smell, part of an ancient ceremony marking the end of Shabbat called the Havdalah.

Hannah Witkin, a recent Rochester graduate, recalled the ceremony, which occurred in early May: “It felt very powerful. I never had any kind of communal Jewish life (at the school) that aligned with my values until these spaces arose in the last half a year. I was suddenly able to reconnect with this part of myself that I hadn’t tended to for the last three years.”

Over the past nine months, student-led protests at universities across the country became unexpected sites for religious connection for students of often drastically different faiths — and even among a healthy share of those of no faith at all.

Protest organizers anticipated that spirituality would be needed to navigate the physical challenges, as well as criticism that the encampments were religiously divisive. “If we didn’t address spiritual care, we would be missing a crucial part of the reasons why people were there,” said Witkin. The focus on multireligious care, she said, “felt like a rejection of that idea.”

In interviews with students and school leaders in the aftermath of the encampments, many said that in living, working and protesting together for weeks, if not months, on end, mutual spiritual care, multifaith ritual and political organizing became intertwined.

Jewish students lead a Shabbat at sundown, surrounded by Jewish and non-Jewish students, staff, faculty and community members at Harvard University’s Palestine solidarity encampment in Cambridge, Mass. (Photo courtesy of Shir Lovett-Graff)

“When you put up tents and you’re a group of students living together 24/7, the depth of friendships grows, along with the beginning of shared knowing across tradition,” said the Rev. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary of New York, whose students held a Eucharist service, a Passover Seder and other rituals for protesters at nearby Columbia University.

Shir Lovett-Graff, a graduate theology student at Harvard Divinity School, helped lead a multifaith service at the Harvard University encampment in April, where Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Indigenous and Jewish students offered blessings and rituals side by side. “It was a really incredible opportunity to redefine what multifaith gathering could look like,” Lovett-Graff said in a recent interview, “to share ritual traditions with people not from those traditions, and to re-create those traditions within a Palestine justice framework.”

At Harvard, the administration’s efforts to dismantle the camp and threats of suspension or expulsion led to students being effectively cut-off from institutional spiritual resources. Facing a lack of support from university chaplains, students took on chaplaincy roles themselves. For weeks at the entrance to Harvard’s camp, students from the university’s Divinity School took shifts sitting at a table behind a hand painted sign reading “Community Care: we are here to meet mental, physical, and spiritual needs,” offering spiritual counseling for peers.

The encampment rapidly became an alternative spiritual hub, with Friday Jum’ah prayers, Shabbats and Eucharist services interspersed with spontaneous rituals, including recitals of the Jewish mourner’s kaddish and Muslim students offering to apply henna for the North African Jewish ritual of Mimouna. Buddhist monks were on hand to lead guided meditation sessions. A sign held aloft at one protest read, “This protest is a ritual.”

“In Palestine justice work, so often people’s religious identities are being weaponized, targeted, utilized by Zionist forces. Because of that, there is an even deeper need for spiritual support,” Lovett-Graff explained.

Lovett-Graff said that connections were made between faiths, but also within them. Over the three weeks of the Harvard protests, which disbanded May 17, Lovett-Graff said three different types of Shabbat services were held — “One was traditional egalitarian, one more Reconstructionist renewal, a Kabbalat Shabbat.”

“I think what surprised me was that there was this deep hunger for creative and spiritually grounded Jewish practice within the encampment space. That hunger spanned tradition, it spanned denomination, it spanned practice,” Lovett-Graff added. “It felt really like we were creating a new Judaism.”

Rev. Serene Jones. Photo courtesy Union Theological Seminary

Terms such as “interfaith” and “multifaith” are frequently used interchangeably, but Taya Shere, assistant professor of organic multireligious ritual at Starr King School for the Ministry, a Universalist Unitarian seminary in Oakland, California, differentiates between them.

“Interfaith can often have an ‘encounter’ style approach” — for example, a Jewish community visiting a Muslim community to better understand their practice. On the other hand, Shere said, “in the multifaith ritual community, in my experience, there’s a real priority given to relationship building and deep honoring … more of one shared community.”

A ritual at Rochester, said Witkin, spurred a conversation about the role of religion in political advocacy. In leftist organizing circles, she said, the tone is often “not just secular, but specifically anti-religion,” and organized religion is frequently seen as “bad or corrupt.” Some protesters opposed any form of religious identity, belief or ritual expressed in protest spaces. “But in the encampment, that was definitely not the case,” she said.

Jones agreed, saying, “In this movement, the place of religious conviction was there from the beginning.”

Shere pointed to a history of faith leaders and secular progressives joining together in their activism, such as in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter protests. In the current moment, she noted, “there has been a brilliance in the way that the varied movements for cease-fire and (Palestinian) liberation have been incorporating multireligious ritual tools into their actions. It’s a new flavor to the scene, but in no way is it totally new.”

Among the campers, Jones found that “The vast majority of them have well articulated, deeply held convictions that are leading them to the stance that they are taking.”

Jones emphasized that interreligious ritual is one space where that dimension of their actions was acknowledged. “In moments like this, what brings you all together is not that you have the same view of God or not, but actually a shared commitment to a vision of justice, or to ending harm. That’s a really productive way to engage interreligious community.”

By Chloë-Arizona Fodor, Religion News Service