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Women’s Convention in Detroit included a strong Jewish presence

The Jewish News
October 31, 2017

Robyn Canvasser spent three days eagerly soaking up the advice and the wisdom of women engaged in social and economic justice issues ranging from clean water legislation to education parity to gun control to reproductive rights.

Her takeaway from the first Women’s Convention, which brought more than 4,000 women to Cobo Center in Detroit last weekend: People of color are subjected to stressors every day that white people either ignore or inadvertently foster, and real political change starts in one’s backyard.

“I found it invigorating,” says Canvasser, 53, of West Bloomfield. “It was empowering to meet women from all over the country who are just as interested as I am in saving our democracy.”

The 170-plus panel discussions and workshops focused on hyperlocal organizing to get-out-the-vote strategies to running for local office to using social media to grow networks of like-minded voters. The sense of purpose was palpable in the packed conference rooms and halls of Cobo.

National Council of Jewish Women had a place at the table, as did Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish advocacy organization, and Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, whose director, Audrey Sasson, led a workshop on anti-Semitism and white supremacy. Stosh Cotler of Bend the Arc spoke about intersectionality — how each of us has a diversity of identities that affects how we see and are seen.

Detroit was selected as the site of the convention because of its history of growing grassroots activists — and because the issues that are most acute in the nation are “starkly visible in Detroit and its surrounding areas: economic inequality, environmental injustice, de facto segregation, ICE raids, violent policing, and overall unequal access and opportunity,” says Sophie Ellman-Golan, deputy director of communications and outreach for Women’s March and an activist in progressive Jewish causes.

The event started Friday morning with jolting speeches by the convention’s national co-chairs, including Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian Muslim who has raised hackles because of her anti-Zionist statements on social media and her support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.

In fact, some Jewish women stayed away precisely because of Sarsour’s involvement.

Debra Zivian of Farmington Hills did not attend the convention because the organizers of the Women’s March in January — Sarsour among them — excluded anti-abortion activists (who participated but were not granted partnership status). And, she says that Sarsour, as a feminist, should Sarsour has, in fact, come out against the practice. In a Tweet she posted in April, she called female genital mutilation “barbaric” and said it is “NOT an Islamic practice.”

“For them to hold a convention in Detroit where there’s such a large Arab population and for her to be silent, I find that disturbing,” said Zivian, 55. “My biggest problem with this group is that unless you agree with their entire agenda, you are not considered a good feminist; it feels like they are railing against men and oppressiveness by men, but I think they’re being oppressive to women.”

Canvasser, a nursery school assistant at Temple Israel, said she found Sarsour’s past comments about Zionism’s incompatibility with feminism offensive, but “this is bigger than that. We have to protect our children, our reproductive rights, our health care and more. It’s so much bigger than ourselves.”

Diane Orley of Bloomfield Hills, who attended the first day of the convention, agreed.

“In the back of my mind, I know that she did support BDS. But you know, there is a much bigger picture going on. That’s a different subject, a different place. This woman has apparently done a lot of great things. I wasn’t going to not go because of that,” she said.

What bothered Orley more was the high ticket price — $300 for three days — which limited the number of people who could attend (Ellman-Golan said a third of the attendees qualified for a scholarship that reduced the cost of the event).

“It left me with a bad taste,” Orley said. “It wasn’t inclusive because of the ticket price.”

Nor was the convention “earth shattering,” she added.

“I think it’s preaching to the choir. Everyone seemed very passionate in there, but what did they walk away with? That’s what I’m interested in; what did we walk away with that will make a difference in the midterm elections? I didn’t walk out with any tools I could use personally to influence the outcome of the midterms,” said Orley, 57, a supporter of Planned Parenthood.

Carole Caplan of Ann Arbor, who joined Orley for a session run by the Natural Resource Defense Council, offered a philosophical view of things.

“In a time of deep isolation and fear, the easy thing to do is draw inward. This event is about looking outward,” she said.

Caplan, who operates an organic farm, said she liked Sarsour’s call for “unity, not uniformity,” because, “We may not agree on every issue but we as a group know things need to change.”

Nina Robb and Miriam Halprin, both of Bloomfield Township, spent three days at the convention. They were at the Women’s March in Washington a day after Donald Trump’s inauguration.

“We didn’t want it to be a one-day thing,” said Robb, a former emergency room doctor who recently opened a medical marijuana certification clinic in Southfield called Integrity Medicine. “There’s a groundswell of activism, of women’s voices” over issues that are interconnected — women’s reproductive choices, affordable health care and funding for children’s health programs — “all of which are under attack by the current administration.”

Added Halprin, a social worker, “I need to be empowered. I need to know that women are being empowered. I need for my sons to know there is a world for them.”

Sue Simon, chairperson of the Courts Matter — Michigan project for the National Council of Jewish Women, Greater Detroit section, helped to run a workshop at the convention on influencing appointments to federal judgeships.

“If you look at the headlines about immigration and you see what’s happening in our Chaldean community, you realize how important judgeships are to maintaining civil liberties in our country,” said Simon, a retired teacher from West Bloomfield.

Photographer Joan (Altman) Roth, 75, came to Michigan from New York a few days before the convention to see Hillary Clinton in Ann Arbor. Roth grew up in Detroit in the 1940s and 1950s, noticing very little outside of her “bubble,” she said. She graduated from Mumford High.

She said the Women’s Convention was a “real move forward for a new generation. I need to learn from them.”

Roth attended a Kabbalat Shabbat service led by Rabbi Alana Alpert of Congregation T’chiyah in Oak Park and Rabbi Barat Ellman, a biblical theology professor at Fordham University in New York City and the mother of Sophie Ellman-Golan.

The room turned out to be too small to comfortably accommodate everyone who wanted to join, but for those who found a seat and those who stood, the chanting and the drumming were soothing after a full day of rousing calls to action.

A few minutes into the service, Sarsour walked in. A siddur was handed to her and she, like everyone, fell quiet.

The kosher meals on a table in the back? Ellman-Golan said Sarsour had them ordered in case anyone needed one.