Tashlich focuses interfaith community on justice


Under an autumn sky — heavily clouded and gray — a group gathered for a centuries-old tradition.

Tashlich, the Jewish ritual of atonement held during the High Holy Days, is a time to reflect on the previous year’s transgressions. One is to meditate on their sins over small objects like rice or pebbles, toss them into a body of water, and to start anew.

A small crowd made up of Jews, Muslims and Christians arrived ready for a new beginning at Delafield Pond off West 246th Street on Oct. 6.

Dina Najman, of the Orthodox Jewish congregation Kehilah of Riverdale, read from the book of Exodus, directing the Hebrews not to oppress the stranger because even they’d been strangers in Egypt. Rabea Ali, head of Manhattan College’s Muslim Student Association, read the account of Ignacio Villatoro — a Guatemalan man whose family was separated at the U.S. border and are now scattered through two countries and three states — including his youngest, a 2-year-old, detained in New York.

Marti Michael, past director of The Riverdale Y, talked about her trips to the Mexico border to aid asylum seekers. She and other volunteers fed immigrants who’d not had a hot meal in weeks. They clothed people wearing little more than rags. They translated for people bewildered by the new country they spent weeks traveling to. They brought food and supplies to thousands of refugees living in crowded conditions just beyond the border, waiting months for an asylum hearing.

Rabbi Katie Greenberg invited those assembled to take a few smooth pebbles. She urged them to think about what they can do to help, and then throw the pebbles into the pond.

This Tashlich was meant for each person to pause and reflect on the families who have been separated, detained and imprisoned at the nation’s southern border. Rather than simply the personal and daily sins everyone commits, participants also contemplated their responsibility to refugees who fled violence and death, just to be condemned in camps while awaiting asylum.

Members of the Interfaith Clergy Conference — representing houses of worship in Riverdale, Kingsbridge, Spuyten Duyvil and Marble Hill — and Bend the Arc Riverdale task force sponsored the event. Organizers wanted to mobilize the community, to enliven them to begin this new year with renewed dedication to helping the downtrodden.

“We wanted to tie in our beliefs, as far as Judaism, and our feelings about helping immigrants,” said Aviva Schwab, a Bend the Arc member. “And we felt that this part of Rosh Hashana made sense because it’s a very hands-on observance, and we thought it would be a helpful way for people to express what they feel about what’s happening to immigrants in our country.”

Traditionally, the period between Rosh Hanana and Yom Kippur is one of reflection on “where we’ve been and where we want to go in the future,” said Leah Furster. Being part of a religion that’s been persecuted for thousands of years means Jews especially understand the societal rejection immigrants face from people they live alongside.

Tashlich is an opportunity to set an intention of what the individuals will do personally in the coming year to change the outcome.

“We have always been strangers in a strange land, and in being that, we understand what it is,” Furster said. “In the Jewish community, we know what it’s like to be asked to leave, and that has been something that has resonated from generation to generation.”

Bend the Arc is a national progressive Jewish organization with a mission to address attacks on poor communities, minorities, Muslims and immigrants. Schwab, Furster, Madeline Ritter and Sue Dodell are members of the local task force that, in the past, rallied to support children of undocumented immigrants and supported state social justice legislation.

During the High Holy Days, the national group called on its members to bring attention to the plight of refugees seeking asylum. The local chapter approached the community Interfaith Clergy Conference headed by Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn of Congregation Tehillah.

The group, made up of Jewish, Muslim and Christian clergy, joined Bend the Arc in August to plan the Tashlich. Rather than the politically charged rhetoric that surrounds the current immigration debate, it was hoped to be an opportunity inspiring participants to ask how they can help instead of assuming someone else was searching for a solution.

While the challenges facing people coming to the United States from Central and South America seemingly doesn’t affect everyone, it may affect coworkers, classmates, friends and extended family, said Gina Caputo with the Yonkers Sanctuary Movement.

“This should be important to everyone,” she said, “because you never know who might be impacted by it in your life.”