On Mourning & Public Confessions

During the 2020 Black-led uprisings, Yehudah Webster, a 28-year-old, Black and Jewish, Brooklyn-based community organizer, created a daily ritual action at Grand Army Plaza. In Yehudah’s words, this action, called 40 Days of Teshuvah, was designed to “bring the spiritual fight for racial justice to meet the physical.” Every day, participants were invited to step into a circle, to mourn the pain of systemic racism and make public confessions and new commitments to redress racialized harm. Hannah Roodman, a white and Jewish Brooklyn-based filmmaker, documented the action, and together, they developed the short documentary film 40 Days of Teshuva.

I saw the film at its virtual premiere on Tish’a B’av, hosted by the organization that produced the film, Inside Out Wisdom and Action. I felt deeply moved by Yehudah’s passionate refusal to separate faith from his powerful statement: that the fight for collective liberation is irrevocably tied to spiritual return, to the Jewish technologies that bring us closer to Hashem. As we approach Yom Kippur, the Jewish season of teshuva, I asked Yehudah and Hannah about their collaboration and the lessons of teshuva that the action and the film offer up. 

Nessa Norich: How did the two of you come to work on this film together? 

Hannah Roodman: Yehudah and I have been friends for 5 years, so we had already established a lot of trust with each other. When I first heard about the action, I had the instinct to show up with my camera. Though I had no idea what this “story” really was, I was compelled to keep showing up and filming because of my deep respect for Yehudah’s leadership, courage, and commitment. I filmed 25 of the 40 days. 

It wasn’t until after the action that Yehudah and I really came together to discuss the story we wanted to tell and to strategize how and where to get the resources to make the final film. We ultimately partnered with The Inside Out Wisdom and Action (IOWA) project who distributed the film in a community screening this summer on Tisha B’Av to an audience of roughly 1,000 viewers across the country, in partnership with 40 Jewish organizations. 

Yehudah Webster: Hannah and I came to work on this film together because of Hannah’s vision. I was solely focused on the action of 40 Days of Teshuva. And so once the 40 days were over and she had this footage, we started to dream together about how we could leverage it to continue pushing for our communities to bring Torah and the spiritual tools that are outlined there into our fight for Black lives, given that part of the 40 days was acknowledging that our own devices are not enough.

We took the time to name the ways in which we’ve participated or perpetuated, willingly or unwillingly, aspects of the racist system that is choking out the breath of Black and brown people.

NN: We are approaching the Jewish season of Teshuva. Could you speak to the ways that the action approached and integrated teshuva, the Jewish process of repentance? 

YW: We integrated teshuva in quite a number of ways. Zooming out and taking into account our tradition, one of our key elements of teshuva, of return, of repair that we agitated for, was in regards to returning to the heavens, in repairing our relationship with Hashem (a name for God or the Divine), the most high. Because for me—and I hope for others— repair is going to be pivotal, critical, in our ability to sustain in this work and in our ability to actually make the lasting change that we’ve been organizing for decades and centuries. And so, we integrated that element of teshuva by blowing the shofar, by crying out, by turning east every day and lifting up our voices. And so that was a key element, a key piece of the return: to cry out, as it says in Isaiah, to lift up your voice like a shofar and cry out.

The other element of teshuva, perhaps the more obvious element of return and repair, has to do with the ways in which we treat one another. Part of the daily practice of the 40 days was that, after gathering in a circle, we took the time to name the ways in which we’ve participated or perpetuated, willingly or unwillingly, aspects of this racist system that is choking out the breath of Black and brown people. We confessed. We made vidui. And we also committed to the ways in which we will change, so that when that moment comes again, we won’t miss the mark. We’ll make different choices.

NN: Are there examples of these kinds of actions in Jewish history that either of you are aware of?

YW: The actions that I’m most aware of are, in contemporary times, through JFREJ (Jews for Racial and Economic Justice), through Bend the Arc, through T’ruah. These are actions that I’ve learned from, participated in, helped to organize myself, [and] that really formed the basis for me to have a sense of how to go about organizing 40 Days of Teshuva. 

Beyond [the] contemporary, I think of Torah and our prophets of old— that’s what this was modeled after. One of the key texts of inspiration was in Shmot (Exodus) when it describes that a great cry went up from the people and Hashem heard and remembered. And you cut to the next chapter and the very next scene is setting up the conditions for the burning bush, where Hashem is calling from the bush to Moshe to go and free the people. 

I think about that cry. Was that just organic? Was that something that was organized? Were there people in the community who turned to their neighbors and said, “We should cry out to the heavens?” [T]hat was something we were trying to model, to model the example of our ancestors. 

NN: Hannah, as a documentarian, what were you showing up to capture? What guided your camera through these nightly events? 

HR: The daily action had a clear beginning, middle and end, so I was focused on capturing that. I tried to balance my focus on Yehudah and on the other participants. s people stepped into the circle to share their confessions or commitments, I would follow them as they shared fairly raw testimonials. Most people willingly participated, however my work as a documentarian is a constant dance of navigating how close I can get to people while respecting their boundaries.

NN: Hannah, what did this process teach you about documentary and its role in changing Jewish conscience and culture? 

HR: I felt called to document this action for all the people who could not be there and to honor Yehudah and all of the community members who showed up to hold/participate in this space. For me personally, this action profoundly expressed an authentic love for Torah and Jewish tradition with a call for deep introspection around one’s complicity with racism and white supremacy. 

I recently connected with someone who watched the film and had participated in the action. He told me that by watching the film, he felt that he finally understood the depth of the action. I think there are so many disaffiliated Jews who watch this film and are introduced to the idea that our tradition actually has powerful and relevant tools that compliment and elevate our progressive ideologies. For this group of people, I think the film productively agitates the viewer to re-evaluate Judaism’s relevance in their lives/identities.

More generally speaking, I think the greatest impact of the film is that it captures a spectacle of JOC (Jews of Color) spiritual leadership. The culture shift that is happening/needs to happen is for Jewish communities to truly embrace our multi-ethnic composition and be called into anti-racist solidarity work that  “Boomer Judaism” doesn’t prioritize.

NN: Yehudah, How do you see your role in continuing the work of integrating spirituality with social justice work? 

YW: I certainly plan on organizing more political actions that integrate Jewish spiritual practice in our organizing. For me, this is wholly critical and necessary for our ultimate liberation from this ongoing destruction and degradation of Black lives and ultimately for our spiritual redemption. I also see myself as a facilitator, a teacher that can share from my experiences, from what I’ve learned. I’m in no way an expert. But I hope that I can, with others, share and learn together and, as a community, continue to find those moments—whether in our Jewish calendar, based on the moment of our time or both—to bring Torah into our work and to ground ourselves in the tools and wisdom that is offered through our tradition. 

You can find more information on 40 Days of Teshuva, including how to screen the film in your community, at: https://www.insideoutwisdomandaction.org/40days.

Nessa Norich is a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary director, writer and performer who creates films, performances and rituals. Her work addresses the spiritual deficiency of Western culture by opening up sacred containers for deep joy and collective grief. She is co-Founder of the Well of Wills art collective, which uses transdisciplinary research to create hybrid non-fiction films. www.nessanorich.com

Film Stills by Ali Levin.