I’ve reached an age when, upon hearing or reading of someone having done or about to do something special or unusual, I’ll often say (or think) “been there, done that.” And that was my initial reaction when I first read about the preparations for the recent March for Israel rally in Washington D.C.
I remembered attending the December 1987 Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jews on the Mall, which, with its 200,000 attendees, was regarded at that time as the largest Jewish rally ever held in Washington. So I thought I already had my experience. But on a second, and wiser, thought, I realized the opposite was true, and that some things are important enough to do again. I thus changed my reaction to “been there, done that — and I need to do it again.”
And so, just a little more than a week ago, my wife, Sharon, and I woke up at 5 a.m., packed our knapsacks with essentials, checked the D.C. weather (it turned out to be a glorious fall day, perfect for a rally), and made our way to Keter Torah to begin our four-hour bus journey.
Our shul’s two buses, which were lined up with seven others, were among the dozens leaving Bergen County that morning to join the thousands coming from cities as near as Baltimore and as far as Toronto. In fact, one of those Toronto buses included my daughter Raquel and two of my grandchildren, Ezra and Aviva, whose total door-to-door 35-hour round trip (including the break for the rally) made us appreciate our relatively short excursion.
Our bus was a very convivial one. Many of us knew each other, and the bus was stocked with piles of communal food to keep us well-nourished — Krispy Kream donuts brought by Seth, who was commemorating his mother’s yahrzeit, and Costco muffins and cheese danish, water bottles, and overflowing boxes of snacks too numerous to list provided by Congregation Rinat Yisrael’s terrific shul president and bus captain, Erik, and our amazing executive director, Elissa. And our spirits and minds were nourished as well when Rabbi Chaim Strauchler, our rabbi, underlined the serious nature of the occasion by teaching a class on the bus analyzing the blessing found in the Talmud (Brachot 58a) that is recited upon seeing a gathering of multitudes of Jews.
And then we arrived in Washington.
By the time you read this, you’ve undoubtedly seen numerous videos and pictures or read descriptions in the Jewish Standard and elsewhere of what happened at the massive, almost 300,000-person gathering on the Mall, between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. No need for me to repeat it here. Moreover, we weren’t there for the official program; indeed, for that I could have risen at a more reasonable hour and watched the livestream. Rather, what was important to me, and I daresay to most attendees, was the sense of being there, of massing together with hundreds of thousands of others from all over the country and beyond, united in our tripartite cause: supporting Israel in its time of crisis, demanding freedom for the hostages, and combating antisemitism here and abroad.
I do, however, have some personal reflections relating to the two causes beyond the rally’s core value of supporting Israel. As I heard Natan Sharansky speak last week, I remembered hearing a younger Natan address the 1987 crowd. That former refusenik and recently released Russian prisoner of conscience – for whose freedom we had prayed, marched, and demonstrated for almost a decade — mesmerized us then, as he demanded freedom for his Russian brothers and sisters. And now, 36 years later (I’m a confirmed rationalist, but two times chai can’t merely be a coincidence), he electrified us as he repeated this still relevant and necessary demand, now for freedom for the hostages, by echoing Moses’s ultimatum to Pharoah – let my people go (Exodus, 10:3).
How special it was to hear both his younger and older selves deliver that same essential and eternal message.
I also felt a surge of pride as I heard Deborah Lipstadt, the United States special envoy for combating antisemitism, give a rousing address decrying the recent increase of antisemitism, or, as she more accurately described it, Jew hatred. She assured us, as President Biden’s representative, that George Washington’s 230-year-old promise to the Jews of Newport – that the then new country was one “which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” – was still the watchword of our now older country. I felt this pride about Deborah in particular because we’ve been friends for more than 70 years, dating back to elementary school. And while her classmates couldn’t exactly predict her trajectory in life, we clearly recognized that we had a star among us, and that she would go far. So it felt deeply personal watching her, with her flaming red hair that I remember so well, inspire hundreds of thousands with her stirring words.
And then there was family. In addition to Raquel, another two of my daughters, Micole and Daniele, came on a Bnai Akiva bus from Bergen County; my daughter Gabrielle came on an Abraham Joshua Heschel School bus from Manhattan. And notwithstanding the myriad of people crowding more than 100 acres and the very poor phone connectivity on the Mall, we all met in person, without a planned rendezvous location. Sadly, we couldn’t do that with our Toronto family because of Raquel’s chaperoning obligations, but we were together in spirit with them as well. Later, once we left the Mall, we were able to connect by phone.
As I thought about the rally all week, I puzzled over several related questions that boil down to “why?” I wasn’t, of course, questioning the why of the three causes splashed across the many placards held high by participants. And it wasn’t the question raised by some on the political left and the religious right — why should we rally with some whom we disagree with on important matters. I understand that if you try to rally only with those with whom you agree with on everything, you end up standing alone.
My question was more basic. Why were we gathering at all? What is the purpose of multitudes of American Jewry assembling in one location for a few hours at enormous communal expense? Is the rally anything more than a gargantuan photo op that will garner a few minutes of television time, bunches of Facebook posts (sorry, that’s the only social media my 76-year-old self can handle), and several front-page pictures and inside headlines, after which it may quickly be forgotten?
I read several thoughtful analyses of these questions, including Facebook posts by Yehuda Kurtzer and Ethan Tucker, some of which argue that these rallies are important to get the political support needed for the success of the causes we champion. We freed Soviet Jewry through years of rallies and demonstrations, the argument goes, and we can be successful here as well.
Perhaps that argument is right, but I wonder. As someone who marched in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s for Soviet Jewry — first with my girlfriend and then with my wife (same person), and later pushing umbrella strollers and finally holding children’s hands — I’m not convinced that Brezhnev freed a single Soviet Jew because we chanted at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza and enthusiastically sang Am Yisrael Chai, which was written especially for those rallies. (No, it’s not a “traditional” Jewish melody.) I’m no foreign policy expert and I certainly may be wrong, but my sense is that geopolitical forces and historical events far beyond rallies, prayer, and Tehillim gatherings, and leaders chaining themselves to iron fences were the more essential keys that unlocked the iron door.
But even if I’m right, that doesn’t mean that rallies of this type are not important. They are, for two critical reasons: community and support.
We marched then for Soviet Jewry and now for Israel and the hostages and against antisemitism in large part for community; to help us form a stronger, broader, more closely connected Jewish community that believes in and fights for these causes. While the speakers’ words were ostensibly addressed to Hamas and the antisemites and even the politicians whose support we need, we were the real audience. Hearing those moving pleas while standing cheek to jowl with thousands of our co-religionists has a synergistic effect far above each of us reading a dispassionate article about these issues or even hearing a passionate sermon discussing them. A massive rally transforms the many individuals present into a single, determined, united community; gathering in multitudes intensifies that community’s commitment and resolve.
Meeting and demonstrating with our daughters deepened our sense of belonging and gave us confidence in the future of our people; communal prayer – tefillah be-tzibur – strengthens the bonds within local communities and reinforces their values. Mass rallies have a similar impact on a wider scale.
The second reason — support — was not only of Israel but also of individual Israelis. I saw many Facebook posts from Israelis in the days after the rally with the same terse yet heartwarming message: a simple thank you directed to American Jewry. Many Israelis feel isolated and alone. They are increasingly puzzled and hurt that too many good people don’t comprehend the trauma all Israelis endured on that Black Sabbath and are continuing to endure because the hostages remain inaccessible captives in a hell on earth; that too many don’t understand what’s at stake in this war; that too many don’t recognize the existential threat that Hamas poses if it’s not defeated.
To these Israelis, our gathering was a clear declaration that a large number of their family 6,000 miles away care and think about them, grieve and mourn with them, pray and advocate for them, and support and understand them; that 300,000 mainly non-Israelis left their homes, jobs, communities, responsibilities, and private lives to march for Israel, demonstrate to free the hostages, and loudly advocate against antisemitism. It was our way of giving a metaphorical loving hug to those we deeply care for and hold in our hearts, and my sense is that the hug was felt and appreciated.
I pray that the day will come when rallies will no longer be necessary; when we can all sing along with that great American troubadour, Phil Ochs, albeit in a different vein, that “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” But until that day comes (speedily we pray), though I might have been there and done that, if my people are rallying for a cause we cherish, I too shall go once more unto the breach.