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By Julia Gergely

(New York Jewish Week) – On Saturday morning, Izzy led a crowd of dozens through Brooklyn with a ukulele slung over her chest, singing a few Jewish songs, and then calling out: “What do we want?”

The crowd’s answer: “Ceasefire!

“When do we want it?”


The scene was reminiscent of a range of Jewish-led pro-Palestinian protests that have taken place across the city in the six months since Oct. 7. But there was one key difference: Izzy is 6 years old.

Izzy and the other children, who ranged in age from infancy to 6, were gathered at Fort Greene Park for a Tot Shabbat for Ceasefire. The mini Shabbat service and ceasefire march geared towards families with young children was organized by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a progressive advocacy group. Saturday’s event was the fourth such Tot Shabbat so far, with the others taking place in different parks in Brooklyn.

Before the call-and-response, Izzy and the other 40 or so participants sang “Bim Bam,” a classic children’s Shabbat song, and “Shalom Aleichem.” Following the chant, Izzy stood near her father, who helped her pick which ceasefire song she wanted to lead next.

The hour-and-a-half-long event was an example of how the city’s pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist Jews, who have organized marches and sit-ins since Oct. 7, are also creating their own ritual spaces imbued with activism.

Those spaces are often separate from the mostly pro-Israel synagogues across the five boroughs, which have also hosted Israel-focused programs for kids — from a Sunday school where kids “discover the wonders of Israel” to a “Purim in Israel” party on the Lower East Side. Saturday’s Tot Shabbat offered an alternative.

“It’s important to me to bring a balanced perspective and not to support this war. Yiddishkeit and Jewish spaces are really important to me. I’m raising my child in that space,” Izzy’s father, Avi, said, adding that he found JFREJ valuable because “there aren’t really that many progressive Jewish organizations, where the call for a progressive agenda is informed by secular Jewish values.”

After a brunch of bagels, juice and coffee, the group — which, in addition to parents and kids, also included grandparents and several dogs — gathered on picnic blankets to sing prayers and say the Shema together.

The participants also read the picture book “Like the Moon Loves the Sky” by Muslim author Hena Khan, about a mother proclaiming her love for her child. Discussing what Shabbat is, they drew a connection between the Jewish day of rest and calls for a ceasefire in the war between Israel and Gaza.

“Today is an extra special Shabbat because we’re going to be saying loud and proud that we want a permanent ceasefire,” Rebecca Katz, one of the organizer’s of Saturday’s event, said to the group. “A ceasefire starts with a pause and a moment to recover. To stop the world as it horribly so often is and get a chance to build towards the world we want it to be. Just like we get to pause and be together today, we want all of the children and the families in Gaza to pause and to rest.”

JFREJ, along with other staunchly left-wing Jewish groups, have been calling for a ceasefire since the early days of the war and have accused Israel of “genocide.” Israel vehemently rejects that charge and, with U.S. support, has been indirectly negotiating with Hamas over the terms of a temporary ceasefire that would see Israeli hostages and Palestinian security prisoners be released, along with an influx of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

The invitation to Saturday’s event called for a “permanent ceasefire” and an exchange of all remaining Israeli hostages — more than 130 of whom are still held captive — and the release of the thousands of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel for security offenses. The invitation also called for “an end to Israeli apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and the occupation of the Palestinian people.”

Parents at the Shabbat program acknowledged that, given their tender age, their children likely don’t understand much about the war, the region or what “ceasefire now” means — even if they do like to chant the words at the Tot Shabbats and at rallies.

“As a child, my parents brought me to protests about the issues that were important to them. I understood very early on that part of being Jewish was going to protests and advocating for what you believe in,” Katz said. “I want [my son] to really understand that he’s part of that type of Jewish community, even just by hearing his friends sing ‘ceasefire now’ or reading books by Palestinian authors.”

She added, “I don’t know what he’ll consciously understand at his age, but it’s important for me that he’s a part of it.”

To Izzy, a ceasefire means simply “Stop blowing things up.” It makes sense for it to happen on Shabbat, she said, because Shabbat is “a day of rest” and “a day of pause.”

The gathering segued from singing and storytime into a protest march meant for little ones. Soon after the singing ended, the group made its way through Fort Greene Park singing and chanting “ceasefire Now,” “we call for a ceasefire,” and “no more war.” Other denizens of the park, many of whom were visiting the local greenmarket or hosting their own picnics, looked on.

The march’s destination was just two blocks away: the office of Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic House minority leader.

“I think very consciously about how to give [my son] what I so appreciate about Judaism, which is growing up deeply connected to my Jewish identity, to my Jewish community and to learning a sense that what it means to be Jewish is engaging in this justice work,” Katz said. “It is just as valid to advocate to your elected representative as it is to go to shul.”

For Liat Olenick, a parent of a 2-year-old, attending the JFREJ Tot Shabbat offered a moment of connection with like-minded Jewish parents. She said she started attending more of the organization’s events in October as she began wrestling with her own upbringing and relationship with Israel. It was important for her to be able to do that in a Jewish space.

“As a parent, I want to raise my son embracing Jewish culture, but in a community that shares my values,” she said. “My heart breaks for families in Gaza and the volume of suffering. It’s past time for Democratic leadership to support a permanent ceasefire.”

She added, “Doing this with JFREJ exposes him to different ways of being Jewish.”

Olenick and Katz said the Tot Shabbat programs are especially appealing because they combine activism with quality time with their kids.

“Most of the actions that I’ve been to are in the evening, after he’s gone to bed,” Katz said. “This is something for him to be a part of — he’s a young kid, but here he can start to have a sense of our responsibility.”

Izzy says that she has come to at least two “ceasefire now” Tot Shabbats with her family and that they talk about the war “a bunch.”

Her favorite part? “Probably all the singing.”

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