WASHINGTON — It was 7 a.m., and on a bus traveling from Brooklyn to Washington, DC, passengers were already engaging in heated political discussions about the details of the Hamas-Israel war.
This bus — filled with members from a New York Reform synagogue and Orthodox synagogue — was one of hundreds like it that brought an unprecedented 290,000 to the March for Israel rally at the National Mall on Tuesday.
Congregants from the Orthodox synagogue said the morning shacharit prayers while Reform congregant Kim Rittberg held a sign made by her 8-year-old daughter that read, “Jewish things we love: Seinfeld, bagels, Einstein.”
This bus and its passengers were a microcosm of the many types of Jews drawn to the march, organized by The Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Once in DC, the full Jewish spectrum was on display: Orthodox and secular, right-wing, left-wing and apolitical, the crowd at the pro-Israel rally was striking in its diversity and in its strong show of unity in the wake of the October 7 Hamas attack and the five weeks of war that followed.
As people from across the country descended on the Mall, they joined a crowd waving Israeli flags and photos of the hostages in the direction of the Capitol. However, the participants’ motivations were as diverse as their backgrounds.
Ayelet Porzecanski, a cantor at a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn, said she wanted to go to the rally to counteract the feeling of helplessness she’s had since the Hamas attack.
“I can’t just pack up and go to Israel and be useful,” she told The Times of Israel — but she could reach DC, where she said it was important to show up as a “regular, moderate” voice in a divisive political landscape. “We don’t have to be hysterical about it. We can just engage in discussion and engage in dialogue.”
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of New York’s prominent reform Central Synagogue stood with a few of the 350 Central Synagogue congregants who had traveled to DC. She said they ranged in age from 10 to 92.
“I’m really stirred by the support,” Buchdahl said. “This represents a political spectrum that generally can be very divided but right now feels unified in solidarity.”
Attendees gathered in the sun around the Jumbotrons projecting the rally’s speeches. The speakers included Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Senate Majority Leader Democrat Chuck Schumer, the new House Speaker Republican Mike Johnson, Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, and the families of a few of the 240 hostages on their 39th day in captivity in Gaza. Israeli musicians Omer Adam and Ishay Ribo performed along with the Maccabeats, an a cappella group.
Rachel Goldberg, the mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin who has become one of the faces of the hostage crisis, advocated for her son’s release, saying, “Why is the world accepting that 240 human beings from almost 30 countries have been stolen and buried alive?”
Alana Zeitchik, the cousin of six hostages, also called for broader support for the return of the hostages. “You can call for peace and the immediate return of the innocent men, women and children who were violently taken from us. It doesn’t need to be political to share in my grief or in the anguish that the Israeli people are feeling.”
The event went off mostly without controversy with a few exceptions. About 900 attendees from Detroit got stuck at Dulles International Airport because their bus drivers refused to drive them to a pro-Israel rally. And some Liberal Zionist groups attending the rally were outraged to learn that one of the speakers was Pastor John Hagee, an evangelical Christian Zionist, who’s drawn condemnation for views his critics have called antisemitic and racist.
Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism for Israel, told The Times of Israel that he was surprised by Hagee’s inclusion and did not know who invited him to speak. He pointed out that URJ had been told no Jewish clergy would speak, so the inclusion of the controversial Christian pastor was particularly frustrating.
“He does not reflect the values of our movement, to put it mildly,” said Weinberg.
Still, the rabbi encouraged even those who opposed Hagee to join in the gathering. The priority was a public show of solidarity after the worst attack against Jews since the Holocaust.
Heidi Steinberg and Jon Shea from Tacoma, Maryland, held signs that said “Proud Jew of Color” and “Proud Jewish mama.” Shea said, “We’re here to stand with our brothers and sisters and hopefully bring the hostages home.” Steinberg added. “We’re here to make our voices heard, to make the world safer for our Jewish Asian toddler and for our people.”
Naomi Ravick, who works for the American Jewish Committee, came to the rally with her mom Terri.
“It’s important to support the kidnapped Jews. It’s important to support what Israel stands for, to make sure that it remains its own country,” said Terri as cheers of “Bring them home” erupted in the background.
She clarified, however, that supporting Israel should not take support away from Palestinian civilians: “One thing has nothing to do with the other.”
“We have to stand up to hatred in all forms and I think this is the most powerful way to do it,” said Ravick. She invoked a famous quote by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel after he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma. “As Rabbi Heschel said, ‘To pray with our feet.’”
Gaia Schneider, 14, proudly wore a mix of stickers: a peace sign, a rainbow Star of David, and the Israeli flag. “I want to share the message that I think that antisemitism has gone way too far. And the same with anti-Zionism. And just because you maybe don’t have the same belief system as me, it doesn’t mean that you should promote the violence that’s happening to Jews in Israel and all over the world,” said Schneider.
A group of teenagers from the modern Orthodox yeshiva North Shore Hebrew Academy on Long Island stood swaying to music by Omer Adam. “We can’t be there physically but we’re there spiritually” in Israel, said Natalie Aldad, 15.
Rabbi Viki Bedo, a Conservative rabbi originally from Hungary, said that US President Joe Biden’s response to the October 7 attack had inspired her to pursue American citizenship. She said she was affected by how deeply the attack had disturbed Biden and the obvious concern he had for the Jewish community, including his commitment to teaching his grandchildren the history of the Holocaust.
“What we’re witnessing now is part of the larger history of the Jewish people being written,” Bedo said.
Jonathan Kopp, the chair of the New York chapter of the Jewish American lobby J Street, noticed a broad coalition of support at the rally. But he also noted the many different interpretations of what being “pro-Israel” meant. While he was moved by the many signs calling for the return of the hostages, which he said was “a reminder of our humanity,” he was troubled by the signs that said “No ceasefire.”
“To me, whether you believe that the conditions are right yet for a ceasefire is separate from the question of whether we should aspire to a ceasefire,” he said. He hoped everyone in the crowd would “at least aspire to a time when the conditions are right when we can literally cease fire, and the bullets can stop firing and the bombs can stop dropping. And we can move from a military conflict which will never solve this problem to a political process which is inevitable.”
Miyu Cohen, an Israeli from Beersheba now living in New York, lamented how the war was playing out in the echo chamber of social media.
“A lot of people are asking to see pictures of horrific things that are happening. And I do have them but I don’t want to send them. The fact that people need to see a woman getting raped or babies getting killed to believe that horrific stuff is crazy. It’s a lot of denial and a lot of hate.” Cohen said being in a crowd of supporters gave her hope.
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