So very many people! So very much energy! So many Israeli flags! So much passion that it sizzled!
Those are the overwhelming impressions from the Israel solidarity rally organized by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey in Englewood last week.
The 1,370-seat bergenPAC theater was, well, packed; so were overflow rooms inside the theater, and unlucky seatless latecomers milled about in the street. Dr. Zvi Marans, the federation’s president, estimated the crowd at about 2,000. The crowd’s size was even more impressive given the short time in which it was pulled together – the rally had been organized in just two days.
Security was formidable – police officers with dogs checked out the area, beginning well before the rally, and visitors’ bags were opened and bodies were wanded as we went in. As the rally opened, the federation’s CEO, Jason Shames, warned us that it was not impossible that there might be some attempts made to disrupt it. If someone started shouting, we were to remain quiet as security dealt with the problem.
As it turned out, the security worked and the warning was unnecessary. The rally was upbeat, somehow, despite the dire news from Israel. The feeling of togetherness, of shared mission – and of being on the right side – predominated.
There were many local elected officials at the rally, including, among many others, State Senator Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck, former U.S. Representative Steven Rothman of Englewood, and Englewood’s Mayor Frank Huttle. There were representatives of other religions (that’s the “interfaith community” in rally-speak), and many rabbis. The crowd was a notably diverse cross-section of the Jewish world; this issue has brought us together as few others have, at least recently.
The list of speakers was long and star-studded. From the local Jewish world, Dr. Marans and Mr. Shames were joined by terrorism expert Dr. Leonard Cole, who is a former federation president, and Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El of Closter. The larger Jewish world was represented by Ido Aharoni, the consul general for Israel in New York; Jerry Silverman, who is president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America (and also lives in Bergen County), and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. From the outside world, the Rev. Donald Sheehan, retired pastor of Saint Matthew R.C. Church in Ridgefield, an ardent Zionist, spoke. So did U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, who had rushed up from a vote in Washington and arrived, panting, to give a stirring talk. Mr. Menendez was instrumental in ensuring that Israel got the funding it needed for Iron Dome; his talk, like the others, avoided politics, but clearly if there had been an election for anything that night, he would have won it, hands down.
Much of the talk had to do with Israel’s right to defend itself, and the imbalance between Hamas’s hatred and Israel’s love for life. The speakers all said that they grieved for all the innocent dead, but they all reviled Hamas’s human-shield policy, which makes them martyrs.
With all the talk of defense and rockets and blood, though, one of the most frequently repeated words that evening perhaps was “hugs.” That what Israelis crave most, we are told, hugs, and all that embrace means. They need money, of course, and they need our political backing. Even more than that, they need love, they need understanding, they need succor. They need to know that we are behind them.
The evening began as Natalie Janowski, a preternaturally self-possessed student at the Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford, who has a lovely voice and great stage presence, led the audience in the “Star-Spangled Banner.” It ended as she led us in “Hatikvah.” All that blinking going on around was tears being held back.
It was that kind of evening.