'This event is a testimony to our people'

Matisyahu, Idan Raichel headline MIT concert for post-October 7 Jewish unity and joy

Top Israeli and US artists including Five for Fighting flock to May 16’s ‘We Will Dance Again,’ attended by nearly 1,500 in a show of resilience amid widespread adversity

Reporter at The Times of Israel

DJ Daniel Vaknin at the 'We Will Dance Again' concert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, May 16, 2024. (Courtesy of Leora Kimmel Greene)
DJ Daniel Vaknin at the 'We Will Dance Again' concert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, May 16, 2024. (Courtesy of Leora Kimmel Greene)

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — It had already been an emotional night for Talia Khan.

A PhD student in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the president of a pro-Israel campus organization, Khan had conceived an idea for a concert to uplift Jewish joy not long after the October 7 Hamas onslaught. Seven-plus months later, on May 16, the concert was finally happening. Some of the top American and Israeli talent had been billed, including Matisyahu, Idan Raichel and John Ondrasik, also known by his stage name Five for Fighting, for an estimated audience of almost 1,500 on the MIT campus.

In addition to being an organizer, Khan, who is also a jazz fellow at MIT, was one of the performers — including for collaborations on the Israeli and United States national anthems. Shortly after the “Star-Spangled Banner,” she was back on stage addressing the audience.

“We are celebrating the Jewish joy and unity of our people… We are strong, we are resilient and we are one,” she said.

“I see all you nerds, and I love you,” Ondrasik said during his act, noting that he is the son of an astrophysicist, and was an applied math major in college. Today, he is known for the hits “Superman” and “100 Years,” both of which he performed — doing a duet with Khan on the latter. He also performed a more recent piece — “OK,” meant to show solidarity with Israel in the wake of October 7.

“I am not Jewish,” he said. “One does not have to be Jewish to condemn the evil that is Hamas.” He recalled the atmosphere of performing in Hostages Square in Tel Aviv last month, two hours before Iran launched an attack on Israel, and gave a salute to Israelis: “You’re brave, you’re courageous and you’re a little bit crazy.”

The event was titled “We Will Dance Again,” a reference to Mia Schem, a French Israeli who was taken hostage during the Nova music festival massacre. Almost two months after the attacks, which saw thousands of Hamas-led terrorists butcher some 1,200 people in southern Israel and abduct 252 more to the Gaza Strip as hostages, Schem was among over 100 captives released in a deal with Hamas. She subsequently got a tattoo bearing the inspirational phrase.

Artists and organizers at the ‘We Will Dance Again’ concert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, May 16, 2024. (Courtesy: Leora Kimmel Greene)

Khan noted that the Supernova music festival victims were the same age as herself and other Jewish college and graduate students.

“People at the Nova music festival would have wanted people to be joyfully remembering their lives in a positive light,” she told The Times of Israel. “They were fun-loving kids at a music festival.”

Khan joined forces with Leora Kimmel Greene and Marika Feuerstein-Karas to get the event off the ground. Kimmel Greene runs an event-planning company and Feuerstein-Karas helped with fundraising, marketing and some of the logistics.

The MIT show took place on campus in a tent, with police and security present. The diverse crowd included Americans and Israelis, Orthodox and secular, Jews and non-Jews, college students and senior citizens, parents and kids — even a few pets. The audience noshed on schnitzel, shawarma and Bamba from vendors inside, or had stuffed sopapillas from a Latin American food truck outside.

Shaylyn Senier, who is studying to be a physician’s assistant, learned about the event from one of the physicians she works with.

“I am not Jewish myself, but I do stand for Israel, and I always support my fellow Jewish friends,” Senier said, calling the Bamba — a peanutty puffed corn snack popular among Israelis — “fabulous.”

Idan Raichel works the crowd at the ‘We Will Dance Again’ concert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, May 16, 2024. (Courtesy of Leora Kimmel Greene)

A show of support

The three organizers of last Thursday’s event all had to balance their extensive personal lives with putting the event together. Feuerstein-Karas had a baby several months ago, Kimmel Greene is a working mom and Khan is studying for finals. In the lead-up to showtime, there was some extra good news: Raichel was a ‘go’ to perform.

“I think it says a lot that top artists of today… dropped everything to come to Boston,” Feuerstein-Karas said. “There was not a lot of time to plan. They saw the importance of coming here to show their support for the students against extreme antisemitism on campus.”

At MIT, like many campuses, there have been protests criticizing Israel for its post-October 7 war in the Gaza Strip, which has reportedly killed upwards of 35,000 Palestinians, according to unverified figures released by Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry. As was the case at numerous campuses elsewhere, pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel students at MIT set up an encampment that was eventually cleared.

Matisyahu performs at the ‘We Will Dance Again’ concert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, May 16, 2024. (Courtesy: Leora Kimmel Greene)

In some cases, protesters have criticized Israel’s broader treatment of Palestinians or Israel’s right to exist. Some in the Jewish community have expressed concerns over the extent of anti-Zionist campus activism. There were no reported protests at last Thursday’s event.

One concert-goer, Elaine Birnbaum, was a recent graduate of Northeastern University in Boston. A self-described Zionist, she wore a graduation cap in the colors of the Israeli flag on commencement day, with the accompanying message, “Let My People Go.” She said that the student cohort in her relatively small academic program tended to be pro-Palestinian.

Asked about the overall climate on campus, she replied, “It hasn’t been great, it hasn’t been awful. That’s the best way to put it.”

As Birnbaum spoke with The Times of Israel, Matisyahu recited the Shema prayer onstage and audience members waved flags. Birnbaum’s fellow Northeastern alumna, Shayna Mandelbaum, showed her joint support for the US and Israel with a portmanteau of both nations’ flags. She began making such flags in 2020 and selling them online.

Yale University junior Shlomi Helfgot hadn’t expected to be at MIT last Thursday. However, he learned about the event from a listserv of fellow Orthodox Jews, then found out that students at the Maimonides Jewish day school in Brookline — where he is a fellow — were going as well.

Asked about what campus life has been like for Orthodox Jewish students since October 7, Helfgot replied, “Most Orthodox Jews go proudly on campus with all of the religious paraphernalia and trappings, and everything is fine.” The son of a Times of Israel blogger and the brother of a fellow Yalie, Helfgot added that outside of one questionable incident, “I have not experienced anything. My brother [experienced] a bit of stuff off-campus.”

Shortly afterward, Raichel closed his set with the Israeli national anthem “Hatikva,” noting that it was always played at the movie theaters in his boyhood home of Kfar Saba.

These days, Raichel said, “A lot is going on… Join me for ‘Hatikva.’ It would be an honor.”

The last act for the night featured Daniel Vaknin, a DJ and a survivor of the Supernova festival. Vaknin, 29, spoke about attending the festival with his girlfriend. He also greeted the audience earlier in the show, before Raichel came on stage.

The collective star power left organizers amazed. And whether or not there’s a sequel, the event left attendees with some good vibes.

“I’m still on a high,” Feuerstein-Karas said the next day. “I could not see the end of the crowd, there were so many people there.”

A new movement

David Keisar, a Haifa native and an MIT postdoc in renewable energy, came with his 7-year-old Labrador retriever, Tai. He described Tai as an anchor and something pure. Keisar said that October 7 and its aftermath have been difficult: One of his students was killed, and his sister had to relocate from southern Israel.

“It’s been hard and stressful,” said Keisar, who returned home a few weeks ago before coming back to the US. In the Greater Boston area, he said, “I feel like a stranger, like I don’t belong.” What helps him is an Israeli support group that meets at least twice a week — not to mention the concert: “This is why I came here, to be part of a bigger community.”

That would have warmed the hearts of the event’s organizers.

“I just think last night’s event is a testimony to our people and to the unity and the beauty, what it means to connect and lead with positivity,” Kimmel Greene told The Times of Israel the following day.

Audience members at the ‘We Will Dance Again’ concert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, May 16, 2024. (Courtesy of Leora Kimmel Greene)

It’s also a testimony to getting things done quickly. Everything came together in two and a half to three weeks, aided by a GoFundMe, an anonymous major donor and multiple organizations — a collective surge that took care of the artists’ time, accommodation and travel.

The organizers were asked about the possibility of this becoming a touring event.

“We would love to,” Khan said. “Of course, it takes a lot of effort — mostly a lot of funding.”

If it does continue, Kimmel Greene has some thoughts on wording.

“I don’t want to call it a tour,” she said. “I believe this sort of thing is a movement — traveling to bring joyful Judaism on the road.”

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