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Sunday, February 23, 2020

The call by the UJA-Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council of New York to rally against anti-Semitism on Sunday, January 5, touched a nerve that made thousands of people respond. A crowd estimated at between 20,000 and 25,000, many who arrived on organized buses from as far away as Cleveland, Ohio, gathered at Foley Square in downtown New York City and then walked across the Brooklyn Bridge—to the sound of many driving by honking horns in support—to hear speeches by activists, Jewish and non-Jewish clergy, community leaders, politicians and government officials. The slogan for the rally was “No Hate. No Fear,” although groups and individuals carried signs with their own messages. Jews from throughout the religious and political spectrum participated, with only a small undertone of political positioning; most stayed committed to protesting the rising incidence of hate crimes against Jews and a concurrent incremental normalizing of anti-Semitic speech and harassment.

Devorah Halberstam, whose son was killed in 1994 by a Lebanese immigrant who ambushed the van her son was riding in on the Brooklyn Bridge because he wanted to kill Jews, called out acts of harassment against visible symbols of Judaism as well as violent acts that create a climate of fear. “We will never take our yarmulkes off our heads,” she said. “We will not tolerate being attacked in our homes, in our schools. Placing a swastika on a shul is not benign, throwing a brick at someone’s head is not benign and killing someone because they are a Jew is not benign. There must be zero tolerance of hate crimes of any kind. There must be accountability or no one will be safe in this city.” She ended with a resounding appreciation for the U.S: “God bless America, the land of the brave, home of the free.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, communicated a message many have longed to hear from him: Call out anti-Semitism wherever it is. “We’ve got to acknowledge anti-Semitism, even when it happens on ‘our own side,’” he said. “As someone who worked in the Obama White House, I can tell you we have a problem with anti-Semitism on parts of the left. The demonization of the Jewish state leads to demonization of the Jewish people, and whether it’s intentional or not, it’s got to stop.” He exhorted people in non-Jewish communities as well to overwhelm the voices of hate. “While there are only a small number of people committing these crimes, we need large numbers of people to say dayenu. Enough.” He introduced Pastor Gil Monrose whom he called his friend and “true partner against hate and violence across New York City.”

Pastor Monrose, who is black, works for better understanding and communication between communities. “We are better together,” he said, using a phrase he frequently invokes. “We agree that hate will not win. We are bound by our history. We are bound by our present. And we are bound by our future. We are better together.” He is calling for 100 dinners across the city “so that we can talk about our culture, who we are and what we do, and why we are different.” He also said he would soon be travelling with a group to Israel.

Andrew Harary, who organized the bus trip from Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah, said he stepped up to the plate when the rebbeim began the planning for participation in the rally but were unable to attend. “I knew this was something we all needed to do,” he said. “I wanted to go and make sure we had a good showing.” Harary said he had many conversations with people who expressed reservations about going to the march and rally. “There were rumors that the march would be hijacked by those seeking to leverage it as a political hatefest—leaving many potential participants apprehensive about attending. Every person had a reason not to be there but people still came out. They didn’t want to miss this opportunity to show love for their fellow Jews.”

Harary thinks the rally broke ground in calling out anti-Semitism wherever it rears its head. “We saw people speaking about hate coming from the left and the right. ADL never used to speak about issues on the left, only the clear and present danger on the right. Today I finally saw that narrative breaking down.”

Harary said the highlight of the event for him was walking with thousands of Jews as well as and “philo-Semitic” friends who wanted to show support. As a result of what he learned and saw at the rally, he hopes to begin working on ways in which Englewood’s diverse communities can engage in more dialogue.

A marketing company executive who specializes in digital printing, Harary made signs for the Ahavath Torah group to carry with a message he feels is particularly important now: “Strength in Unity,” on a backdrop of a heart shape with a U.S. flag and Jewish star. “This sign was my personal call to action for Am Yisrael,” he said. “One nation, one voice. Especially during an existential crisis.”

Participants in the rally felt that it was both an outlet for their anger about increasing violent acts of anti-Semitism and a positive experience to be with Jews and non-Jews who understand the consequences of hate. “The number of people who attended this rally shows the world how we all support each other in times of need,” said Englewood resident Karen Reiner. “Every branch of Judaism was represented, and non-Jews of various backgrounds were represented as well. The message is clear that we will not tolerate hatred and we will fight to live in a safe world.”

Dr. Lisa Wisotsky of Englewood found the experience uplifting. “The march and rally were meaningful in their inclusiveness and in bringing together Jews and their allies from across denominations and backgrounds,” she said. “Following the fear these last few weeks and months, the solidarity shown was inspirational and left me with hope and optimism.”

One group of Jews, however, was noticeably missing. While the rally was triggered by recent attacks against haredi Jews, few were in attendance. Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America said in an email statement, “First and foremost, we deeply appreciate the outpouring of support for the Orthodox Jewish community, members of which have been the victims of the recent local attacks. That our fellow Jews came out to stand up for our safety is something we treasure. As to the rally itself, its program was not constructed in a way that we could feel comfortable being part of. And while we appreciate the need the organizers saw to include as broad a co-sponsorship of the event as possible, the fact that the co-sponsors included a group like Yaffed, whose raison d’etre is to assail Jewish educational institutions in the very communities of the victims of the recent violence, was disconcerting to us.” [Yaffed is an acronym for Young Advocates For Fair Education, a group started by haredi Jews to advocate for increased secular education in their elementary and high schools.]

All in all, however, rally organizers believed their goal of coming together to fight anti-Semitism was largely met. “Today we do not simply walk over a bridge, we begin building better bridges between all denominations of Jews, and between Jews and non-Jews,” said Eric S. Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York. “Building bridges means putting aside our differences, religious and political, and calling out anti-Semitism and all forms of hate wherever we see it. The purpose of today’s march is to loudly and publicly proclaim that an attack on a visibly Orthodox Jew is an attack on every Jew, an attack on every New Yorker, and an attack on every person of good will.”

By Bracha Schwartz