Updated: Nov 17
The story of the March for Israel that will be told to the world at large will be a story largely told with numbers and pictures. Those numbers and pictures will likely describe a pro-Israel gathering in our nations capital, with nearly 300,000 North American Jews and allies in attendance. But that story will miss the nuance, and the finer points of what made this gathering so important.
The story of the March for Israel that I want the world to know is a story of peoplehood, of shared purpose, and a newly sharpened ability to see who our brothers and sisters are. In my lifetime, I can't remember a broader coalition of American Jews, across a spectrum of religious and political belief coming together around a shared message.
As many have remarked, with such a broad coalition, we came to this event knowing we would not agree with every word spoken nor with every sign held high. There were speakers who I wished had not been given a platform, and as Shakespeare wrote, ““Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” The past month has been a truly miserable time for the Jewish people. To stand amidst this crowd, hearing Hebrew spoken and sung, sharing smiles and hugs with friends, colleagues, and members of our extended Jewish family was a balm. The event was moving even as it was imperfect. The experience of singing Hatikvah with 300,000 people led by Israeli pop star Omer Adam was moving, and I missed hearing the melodic voices of women, a choice made by organizers to avoid the issue of kol isha for the Orthodox community. This gathering, organized by JFNA and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations was a remarkable attempt at bringing together the widest swath of the North American Jewish community possible. Even across lines of political and ideological difference, the call to show up was powerful. The core messages of love and care for Israel, the call for the release of hostages and a public rejection of antisemitism were the foundational messages that allowed us all to be there across the vast sea of identities. I was especially moved by the leadership of organizations like Americans for Peace Now and T’ruah, who encouraged people to attend the rally as part of a coalition of Progressive Israel organizations, with signs that “make our values clear--return the hostages, protect the lives of Israelis & Palestinians, work for peace & political solution”
The experience of traveling to Washington DC as part of a joint delegation organized between our own Jewish Federation of the Berkshires and the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York was one that I won’t soon forget. The march was being held on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, the start of the Hebrew month in which we celebrate Chanukah, and strive to add light to our world. There is a custom of reciting Hallel (psalms of praise and gratitude) on Rosh Chodesh, and as I remarked to my traveling companions on Tuesday morning, our footsteps at this march would be our Hallel. Each step we took, an offering of gratitude for our First Amendment rights to gather and proudly affirm our love and care for Israel, demand the release of hostages, and denounce the rising tide of antisemitism at home and abroad.
I want to share a few moments that stood out for me from the March for Israel:
Hearing teenagers and college students speak about this moment as part of a special “pre-show” gathering which featured speakers from Young Judaea, USY, Tzofim of North America, Students Supporting Israel, North American Day Schools and Jewish Summer Camps, NFTY, NCSY, MaccabiUSA, JNF-USA’s Alexander Muss High School in Israel, Hillel, Hashomer Hatzair, Habonim Dror, Club Z, Bnei Akiva, BBYO, AMHSI and more
Hearing Natan Sharansky begin his remarks to the crowd by saying “"dear dear family". As the former chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel and Soviet dissident, his remarks were poignantly grounded in his personal experiences helping to free Soviet Jewry over 30 years ago.
Hearing a large group of Yeshiva and Kollel students loudly applaud Arielle Mokjtarzideh, an Iranian Jewish woman who works for the Milken institute, as she paid tribute to the American Jewish dream afforded to her and her family after their escape from Iran.
Hearing President of Israel, Isaac Herzog describe a beautiful vision of Israel for the future, in which he said “Children will one day play again in the streets of Beeri and Sderot”. Halevai.
Learning from Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt- who reminded us of the promise of America, as described 230 years ago by President Washington who promised the Jews of Newport that here, bigotry would have no sanction. Lipstadt affirmed that today, on behalf of the President and the entire US government, this government stands shoulder to shoulder with us against Jew hatred. Her powerful remarks ended with the words: "Do not cower. Do not allow them to make you afraid."
It came as no surprise for me that the most powerful moments of the day were when the families of hostages spoke. The opportunity to bear witness to the pain and call to action offered by the families of hostages was remarkable. As we mark 40 days of their captivity today, I am haunted by the leonine power of Hersh Goldberg-Polin’s mother, Rachel Goldberg. Her voice rang out in pain and power when she said "we have lived the last 39 days in an endless torment. We have third degree burns on our souls. Our hearts are bruised and seeping with misery". The crowd's chant of “Bring them home now” was meditative, inspiring, and heartbreaking. The strength of these families to hold their pain and hold space for the pain of others is humbling.
As Daniella Gefen, an Israeli educator who taught a session for Hevreh last week remarked, the path forward to peace will be one paved by an ability to hold the center together, a path of moderation. There is so much work to be done. There is so much suffering, and suffering does not distinguish sides of a border.
My deepest hope and prayer is that the story that will be told of November 14th, 2023 is that it was a day of unity and bravery; a day when American Jews were able to gather peacefully to sound a clarion call for the return of the hostages, affirming our love and support for Israel, and denouncing the scourge of antisemitism. I hope that it will be remembered as a day when our family in Israel felt strengthened and held by the North American Jewish community and allies, during a time when they have been isolated by the global community writ large. This gathering was but one important step: a step of strength and comfort for our people, a sign to the world that the Jewish people will not be silenced.