Earth Etude for Elul 6 – Bringing Truth to Power on Yom Kippur

by Hattie Nestel

To bring truth to power on any day is always rewarding, but to bring truth to power on Yom Kippur acquires even deeper meaning.

The first I time I spoke truth to power sufficiently to be arrested was on Yom Kippur, 1983, at the invitation of Scott Schaeffer-Duffy and the Atlantic Life Community, ALC, a mixture of Jewish and Catholic activists from the East Coast founded by Philip Berrigan and his wife Liz McAlister.

After meeting Philip Berrigan in 1982, my two sons and I went to ALC retreats in Washington, DC. ALC activists encouraged me to join them in blocking a Trident nuclear submarine in Connecticut on Yom Kippur 1983 during a non-violent direct. My two sons, Kenny, 17, and Gad, 9, enthusiastic joined me.

A Trident launch on Yom Kippur enhanced its meaning to our little family. Perhaps twenty of us, including Kenny and me, decided to risk arrest by going under police barricades to block the entrance to the launch. Police arrested us, and Gad blew the shofar continuously until police released us.

To have taken the step of being arrested shocked and liberated me. “Beating swords to plowshares and spears into pruning hooks” from Isaiah 2:4 informed many ALC actions I participated in.

I was born in 1939 in a mostly gentile suburb of Philadelphia to Conservative Jewish parents. I lived my first six years in a household dominated with the knowledge and fear of what was happening to Jews in Nazi Germany and Europe.

From the earliest age, I remember the confusion and fear of waking up at night to the sound of American air raid sirens during World War II. My parents drew down all the blackout shades until we heard the all clear sirens.

Fear welled in me when we went to the neighborhood movie theatre where there were newsreels about the war. We watched clips of Hitler with saluting flag waving, cheering mobs of thousands. I knew that Hitler and his Nazis hated Jews and although I do not remember being told I was a Jew, I just knew it. I have never forgotten those images.

I often overheard my parents whispering about buying guns for Jews in Nazi occupied countries. They worked in their own way to stop Jewish death and destruction.

During the war, my father planted a backyard Victory garden with a small strawberry patch he gave me at the end of the yard to water and pick. Unfortunately, the strawberry patch abutted our backyard neighbor’s house where the children knew we were Jewish. While I picked strawberries, they threw stones at me and called me a Jesus killer. Again, being Jewish made me fearful.

As I lived through young adulthood, I began to understand more deeply what happened during the Holocaust. My mother remembered and often retold her experience of being in Cuba in 1939 when Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis ship were not allowed to dock.

My mother gave me the book, Blessed Is the Match, about Hannah Senesh, who resisted the Nazis and was eventually executed for attempting to liberate Hungarian Jews. From then on, I avidly read everything about the Holocaust. I read story after story, history after history of Jewish persecution. Those stories are like cells in my body. They are never far from my mind.

For the past year, activism has led me to work with many others to stop a fracked gas pipeline proposed to traverse Massachusetts.

I see the pipeline as a destroyer of life, another instrument of climate destruction. I resolved to tell the stories of those whose lands would be destroyed by the pipeline. I took a course and slowly learned to use a video camera and edit footage. I have completed thirty-seven interviews airing on thirty community cable access stations in Massachusetts. I am resolved that families and land will not be destroyed without a fight. I will not be a bystander. This is my current way of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

I do not know where I will put my body on Yom Kippur this year, but I know it will be somewhere on the pipeline route praying that it can be stopped

Hattie and Scott

Hattie and Scott


Earth Etudes for Elul are a project of Ma’yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope.

Hattie Nestal is an activist living in Athol, MA.

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