Forty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. declared, at the National Mall in Washington, that he had a dream. On Sunday, Rabbi David Saperstein declared at the same mall that he had a nightmare.
"I have a nightmare today that, because of the world’s apathy and indifference, more villages will be scorched, more wells poisoned, and 100,000 more Darfurians will be murdered," the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs told a crowd at more than 15,000 people. "Will you let that happen?"
"No!" came the resounding response from the protestors gathered on the mall for the Rally to End Genocide.
Organized by the multi-faith Save Darfur Coalition, the rally drew people from all over the East Coast and from dozens of Jewish organizations to urge President Bush to take definitive action to end the strife in the Darfur region of the Sudan. A large portion of the protestors came from Hillel chapters, Young Judaea, Hadassah, Jewish federations, the Reform Movement, and the like.
The UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey sent 15 busloads people from area synagogues, day schools, and other community groups, and hundreds more drove to Washington on their own. In all, about 1,000 people attended the rally from northern New Jersey, according to Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which spearheaded the federation’s Darfur activities.
"Clearly the Jewish community was present in full force," said Kurland. "I think the message was clear. Never again."
Northern New Jersey’s contingent made up approximately 6 percent of the gathering, according to Miriam Allenson, UJA-NNJ’s director of media relations.
"The Jewish community is definitely invested in this," Allenson said.
"On a day like today, when tens of thousands of people are mobilizing around the country, it’s about numbers," said Ted Greenwood of Teaneck, who traveled to D.C. on one of the UJA-NNJ buses. "That’s the time when you can make a bigger difference and I wanted to be one of those numbers."
Some protestors carried signs with such slogans as "Never again, again!" alluding to the Holocaust and a subtext that many Jews were drawn to the rally and to the Darfurian cause by the Jews’ long history as an afflicted people.
"I went because I felt compelled to go," explained Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus. "The historical experience of the Jewish people and the lack of people willing to save the Jews of Europe makes it incumbent upon us to speak out and march and do what we can when others are facing catastrophe."
"I feel we cannot remain silent any longer," said Linda Gould of Paramus. "The speakers called for action. I really hope it’s not all words, and that something does evolve from this. I don’t know how many more thousands have to be killed or displaced before something is done. It’s a very critical issue. As a Jew you cannot help but compare it to what happened during the Holocaust."
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the national umbrella group of all JCRCs, will discuss what step it should take next at a meeting in New York on Tuesday. Kurland will attend the meeting.
"My hope is that mass gathering of people who were there and the diversity of the crowd will have an impact on our elected officials," said Weiner. " It’s a gamble, but we hope that this kind of activism will have some impact. I was very proud to see the Jewish community disproportionately in a positive sense represented."
Although the rally’s lineup of speakers included imams, Darfurians, political heavy-hitters like Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif., Dist. 8) and Sen. Barack Obama, (D-Ill.), and actor/activist George Clooney, it also included Jewish communal leaders. Ruth Messinger, executive director of the American Jewish World Service in New York, one of the rally’s main sponsors, implored the crowd to take action.
"Keep speaking out, keep organizing, continue your commitment to move toward the world that should be a world without genocide, a world where rape is not a weapon of war, a world where people are not left to starve, a world that makes real the promise: Never again."
Last Friday, before the rally, Messinger and JCPA Executive Director Rabbi Steve Gutow were part of a contingent of politicians and activists who were arrested outside the Sudanese embassy. The scheduled arrest was one of many smaller pre-rally events.
Other notable Jewish speakers included Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel, Foundation for Ethnic Understanding president Rabbi Marc Schneier, and Nesse Godin, a survivor of the Shauliai, Lithuania Ghetto, Stutthof Concentration Camp, four labor camps, and a death march.
The Washington rally wasn’t the only such event on Sunday, though it was by far the largest. Other rallies were staged in Portland and Eugene, Ore.; St. Paul, Minn.; Austin, Texas; Tucson, Ariz.; Boca Raton, Fla.; San Francisco; Seattle; Somerville, N.J.; Toronto; and Boulder, Colo.
In San Francisco, the nation’s second-largest Darfur rally kicked off in the morning with at least ‘,000 people linking hands at a silent vigil on the Golden Gate Bridge. That was followed by an afternoon rally at the Presidio and a concert and fund-raiser at San Fransisco’s Temple Emanu-El. More than 30 Bay area Jewish congregations sent groups to the Presidio rally, representing every Jewish stream as well as several college Hillel chapters and Chabad of Stanford University. Major sponsors included the AJWS, the local JCRC, and the Holocaust Center of Northern California.
In her invocation at that rally, Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Temple Emanu-el said, "Give us the chutzpah to shake up our world" and to ask the Bush administration not just to speak out on Darfur, "but to do something."
Back in Washington, the JCPA’s Gutow put the situation into a biblical perspective.
"There is a pharaoh in Sudan who is crueler than any pharaoh ever mentioned in the Bible," Gutow said. "We are children of God and we want to say to everyone who can hear our cries: Enough is enough."
Sue Fishkoff of JTA contributed to this story.