Twenty-five thousand people is really a lot of people.
They — to be more accurate, we — came from across the city, by subway and bus and on foot; from the suburbs, by train and bus and ferry and the PATH and vans and private cars; from Boston and Cleveland and D.C. and Philadelphia and Montreal and Toronto by the busload, and from other places individually or in small groups.
We flowed through the streets in downtown Manhattan, fast at first and then slower and slower, until we got clogged in Foley Square, the triangle of small park surrounded by the Victorian grandeur and mid-20th-century bland blocks of the many courthouses and government office buildings that loom over it.
It was cold; the sky was mainly bright winter blue but the buildings often blocked it, and then it got even colder. The wind bit. But as more and more people pushed into the park, hemmed in by barricades, as if we were going to a ride at Disney, all the bodies brought up the temperature.
We were well guarded, then and throughout the day, by the police officers we saw, every single one of them polite and kind; by the helicopters whose circles and sounds brought memories of September 11th to those of us who had been around then; and, at least according to rumors that passed through the crowd, of police snipers in the buildings around us.
We were there to protest anti-Semitism, fueled by the bookend atrocities in Jersey City, which ended with four people and two murderers dead, and the Saturday night of Chanukah assault in Monsey that led to one victim’s irreversible coma and other people’s injuries (and which was foiled by a Chanukah partygoer, Josef Gluck, who was able to stop the man who attacked with a machete by having the presence of mind to throw the first big-enough object that came to hand — a table — at him).
There have been many attacks, less murderous but still despicable, many of them against members of Brooklyn’s chasidic and charedi communities. The statistics show an increase in hate crimes against Jews. For the first time, some Jews have begun to feel afraid.
The march was organized in less than a week; most of the planning came from its main sponsors, UJA Federation of New York and one of its agencies, New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council. The Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the New York Board of Rabbis also supported the march, strongly enough so that their names were on most of the posters.
Many smaller, more local groups supported the march as well, and many of them sent delegations.
Synagogues from across Bergen, Hudson, and Rockland counties were well represented; of course, Jersey City is in Hudson and Monsey is in Rockland, so the need to show up was deeply personal. Representatives of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County were there too. Just about all segments of the community from the modern Orthodox through the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements to entirely secular Jews were there. We were joined by some Muslims and Christians, by Catholic bishops, and by politicians, including New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state’s two senators, Charles Schumer and Kristin Gillibrand. Both senators are Democrats, and Mr. Schumer is Jewish.
There were very few visibly charedi or chasidic Jews there, although some Chabad members did stand against the bridge’s pillars or against barricades, offering to help men lay tefillin. And as always, the Neturei Karta, the virulently anti-Zionist and anti-Israel breakaway Satmar group, sent some men who stood with their signs, which proclaimed such ideas as “Israel is not the solution to anti-Semitism.” (At least these men appeared to be actual chasidim. A few years ago, Neturei Karta sent a bunch of guys who dressed as chasidim but who somehow seemed not to be to protest Israel at a Celebrate Israel parade on Fifth Avenue; later it turned out that they were Hispanic day laborers, hired to absorb the anger usually beamed at their employers when they held their own signs.)
Although the issue around which the group had coalesced is a sad, even scary one, and although it was freezing and most of the day involved standing around or shuffling forward very, very slowly, the mood was upbeat. The feeling of fellowship was strong, the view was stunning, and the symbolism of the Brooklyn Bridge, an iconic and beautiful structure, was inspiring.
After we waited for a long time (and it seemed even longer, but in truth it was hours), we were allowed to walk toward and then over the bridge. We were sent on the walkway, which is between the two roadbeds of the upper level, wide enough for a few people to walk comfortably abreast and more to be shoved in together. (Bicycles had been banned during the walk — it would have been a nightmare had they not been — but car traffic was allowed. We did not walk on the road.) Once we finally got over and then off the bridge, we walked another few blocks (and past a row of Porta-Potties, the first toilets available for hours; the lines were massive) into Cadman Plaza, where the speeches went on for hours.
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanuel of Closter, which is Conservative, went to the rally, he said, “because it became clear very quickly that this was going to be a watershed moment for the Jewish community. I don’t know if it will be at the same level of importance as the marches for Soviet Jewry, but it was at least close to that level.”
He encouraged members of his community — which is large — to go, and “I think that we were over 90 people.” But because so many of them are active members of more than one community, many had a choice to make. “There were groups from Camp Ramah and Young Judea, from the Heschel School and from the National Council of Jewish Women and the federation. All concentric circles, all marching.”
His own family showed that complexity of interbelonging. His wife, “Dori, is a member of Hadassah, our daughter, Evie, goes to Heschel” — that’s the Abraham Jacob Heschel School in Manhattan, where she is in high school — “and she goes to camp at Young Judea. And we are all active in the federation.” Evie marched with Heschel, Rabbi Kirshner said, but Dori stayed with Emanu-El.
The march was “a really nice moment of unity,” he said, although he acknowledged that it wasn’t a moment. It was hours. “But there was no pushing, no shoving, no kvetching. There were a handful of people carrying signs that weren’t my views — some to my left, some to my right — but that is what a community march is. Some groups were condemning the Trump administration, some were lauding it, but both of those groups I think were fringe.
“There were two cars that honked when they went by and the people in them yelled ‘Long live Hamas! Long live Palestine!’ but there were at least 200 cars where they honked and the people said ‘We’re with you!’ So do you think about two cars or 200?”
“It was powerful,” Rabbi Kirshner concluded.
Rabbi Yosef Adler, who leads Congregation Rinat Yisrael and is the rosh yeshiva of the Torah Academy of Bergen County, both in Teaneck, could not go to the march. He had to officiate at a wedding, he said.
But Rabbi Adler felt very strongly that anybody who could go should go; he knew that many members of his Orthodox shul should go — but there was a problem. To ease the problem, he did something entirely unusual.
Rinat had been planning a siyum on Sunday to honor two groups of people. It was meant for everyone who had finished learning the entire Talmud, and it also was to celebrate the accomplishments of the 214 members who had taken on the challenge of studying at least one page of Talmud. “We were able to complete 14 tractates in a couple of weeks,” Rabbi Adler said.
But no one who went to siyum could go to the march.
Problem? No problem. Rabbi Adler changed the time of the siyum from Sunday morning to Shabbat morning, right after Shacharit. “Everyone who was going to come on Sunday came on Shabbat, and there was no second-guessing,” he said.
Why did he do it? Why did he feel so strongly about encouraging people to go to the march? “I think that the broader mainstream Jewish community” — the part of the community to which he and his shul belongs, he clarified — “had decided to unite for this rally. The events leading up to it are significant. People had been injured or killed simply for the fact that they were Jewish.
“Because the organized Jewish community, including our local federation and various other mainstream community all encouraged people to go, we decided to support it.”
Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky of Congregation Beth Sholom of Teaneck said that about 15 to 20 members of his Conservative shul went to the march, but they did not go together because the logistics seemed too challenging.
“I went because I thought it was important to make a statement, and to stand as a united community,” he said. “That’s why I urged the synagogue to go as well.
“I think that the Jewish community comes together far too infrequently. I think that we should do it far more often, in good times and in bad times. I found that seeing all those people there was inspiring.
“I felt inspired to be in a community that cares so deeply about bigger issues, and cares about all the members of our community, even those who are different from us, whether in religious or sociological or political ways, and who are really bearing the brunt of what is going on now.”
He, like many others, mentioned noticing something that disturbed him. “I personally didn’t see a lot of non-Jewish groups or ultra-Orthodox groups,” he said. It was very crowded, he added, so until you got to Cadman Plaza you only got to see the people right around you, so it’s possible that those groups were there, just elsewhere. “So it might be just that I didn’t see them,” he concluded. “And I was deeply inspired by what I did see.”
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg heads the United Synagogue of Hoboken; his small, prosperous city is surrounded either by the Hudson — it has a great waterfront — or by Jersey City, which is much larger and much more mixed. When the Jewish community of Jersey city was attacked, the Jewish community of Hoboken took it personally.
About 30 to 35 of his Conservative community went to the rally, Rabbi Scheinberg estimated. “I went because I felt a sense of responsibility,” he said. “If I find the idea of anti-Semitic violence to be reprehensible — and particularly living in such close proximity to Jersey City — then it is my responsibility to go.
“This has been an all-consuming issue for our entire community, and our entire region; obviously not as much as for those in the community that has been directly targeted, but still, it is a responsibility for the quote-unquote mainstream Jewish organizations who sponsored the rally to stand by those who have been the victims and the targets.
“They’re the ones who are most visibly identifiable as Jews.”
But it’s not that easy. You don’t need a black hat, a black coat, or peyes to look Jewish.
“I also know that when I walk around the New York area, or wherever else I walk around, I also am visibly identifiable because I wear a kippah in all public areas. I have almost never felt uncomfortable, throughout my entire adult life.”
Will he make any changes to his own behavior? The short answer is no.
“I haven’t made any changes regarding where I go or what I do,” he said. He does not plan to stop wearing a kippah. But the shul he leads has changed, and in fact must change. “We have been especially focused on security issues for the last five years or more,” he said. “We just finished implementing some security upgrades; about 50 percent of it was funded by a Homeland Security grant that we applied for something close to three years or so ago. So this is something that we have been thinking about for a long time, and also clearly have been especially focused on in recent weeks.
“So in terms of our synagogue policy, clearly there is some security tightening. But in terms of my own personal decision-making, I have not made any changes and I do not plan to make any changes. But it is very very painful to know that what comes so naturally to me, and is so innocuous, because it simply is my expression of who I am, is so threatening to others.
“It is a terrible thing that it has become a source of victimization.”
Rabbi Scheinberg is glad he went to the march, but he’s a bit disconcerted by the need for it. “It is always a special feeling to come together with large numbers of people who are united by a common purpose,” he said. “But in the previous times in my life when I’ve done this, it has been for other people, particularly for Israel in times of crisis. In my childhood, the first several rallies and protests that I ever went to were for Soviet Jewry. So it is astounding to me that I am attending such a rally, but a rally that is so directly connected to problems in the American Jewish community. That is so directly connected to me.”
He’s been struck by an irony. “My daughter is studying in Israel this year, and she was asked to go to a rally in Jerusalem. To stand in solidarity with the Jewish people in New York.”
That’s turning our world topsy-turvy. It used to be the other way around. “This is not something that I ever expected to see in my lifetime,” Rabbi Scheinberg said.
Dr. Ora Horn Prouser of Franklin Lakes is the CEO and academic dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers. She got to see the march from an unusual vantage point; she was one of the New York-based rabbis and Jewish academics who read two tehillim — psalms — at the end of the program at Cadman Plaza. Because she was speaking, she was asked to walk at the front of the march, in the VIP section. That means that she got to see the entire walk, hear the whole program, and learn a little bit about how the offstage staff, working at full speed just barely ahead of the program as it unfolded, was organized.
“It was an incredibly moving day,” Dr. Prouser said. “I found myself repeatedly choking up, right from the beginning, when we started walking toward Foley Plaza.
“I was with my two sons, Ayal and Eitan; we were walking down the street, and we passed a group getting out of a bus. I heard them say that they came down from Boston.
“I just went over to them, and said ‘Thank you so much for coming to be with us.’ And I got all emotional. And this was before anything started, and I was already choked up.
“What was so moving to me was that in just about a week, they” — that’s the organizers, mainly UJA Federation — “already brought together not just the logistics but 25,000 people. That is a lot of people.
“And that means that those people felt the responsibility and the need to be there.
“I see those two as separate things, responsibility and need. The responsibility is to our community, and the need is internal. So many of us felt the need to speak out, to have a place to speak out and to be together as a community. There were 25,000 people who felt that responsibility and that need.”
Dr. Horn echoed Rabbi Scheinberg’s amazement at the tristate community’s need for the rally. “A few days ago, we had a conversation with AJR students as a community,” she said; the far-flung group sometimes learns and talks together by videoconference. That’s what they did that day. “A woman from North Carolina said, ‘Here I am in North Carolina, and I am fine, but I worry about you guys in New York. And I was so thrown by that comment, because I expect the opposite.
“That comment was so startling and so painful. So when people from all those cities came to support us, it speaks to me about who we are as Jews, and what the Jewish community means.”
She was struck as well by the diversity of the speakers, and she was heartened by it.
She also found it particularly aligned with her religiously unaffiliated post-denominational school and its mission. “At AJR, we live and preach and breathe pluralism,” Dr. Prouser said. “That was another important element of the day for me. We really could be together and know that we have differences of opinion, but that wasn’t the point. And that was great.
“We were marching together, we were singing together, we were listening together. We were one community. I know that it’s not going to be like that all the time, I do get that, but it is so good when we can make that happen.”
Like many others at the march, Dr. Prouser noticed that there weren’t many chasidim or charedim there, although she did note that there was a chasidic rabbi who spoke early in the program. And of course she and her family noticed that the few chasidim who were there were trying to talk men into laying tefillin. But two of her nephews, Avi and Raffi Mark, who grew up in Wayne, joined her and her sons. “Avi said that when he was walking over the bridge and saw the men trying to get him to lay tefillin, he thought that if that was the way that they could feel good about coming here — if that was the reason why they were able to come — then that was great,” Avi’s proud aunt said.
Another point that Dr. Prouser made, and that just about everyone else mentioned as well, was their gratitude to the police. “I was really impressed by their professionalism,” she said. “I was so grateful to them. I felt embraced by the police, embraced by the community, embraced by the city.
“It was an enormous day.”
Gary Siepser is the CEO of the Rockland Jewish Federation and Foundation. “I got there early; I was there at 9:30 looking for the Toronto delegation,” he said. He’d worked in Toronto, years ago, but he’d kept up with some people there. “They picked a corner to meet at; they couldn’t have found a more frozen place to be,” he said; all the tall buildings around cast shadows there, and the sun was still weak. “I found them, we visited, and then walked over to Foley Square. I started looking for our gang.” He found a few people from Rockland — Evan and Greg Karzhevsky, Andrea Winograd of the Rockland Holocaust Museum and Center for Tolerance and Education, and Cantor Barry Kanarek, the director of the Rockland Jewish Initiative for the Jewish Federation of Rockland County. “But I never found the main body of our group.” It was very crowded; if you found somebody you were looking for, it was luck; if you ran into someone you knew, it was purest serendipity.
Although he isn’t sure how many synagogues from his region sent delegations, he thinks that everyone from traditional and on left did. “There are Facebook pictures from all over Protest Land,” he said.
There was a very good reason for people from Rockland to go to the march, he added. “The tragedy and the violence that happened here really personalized it for a lot of people. In the last couple of years we have been reading about assaults on Jews in Europe. And then, about a month or so ago, there was an attack on an individual.” That unnamed man, a visibly Orthodox Jew, was stabbed viciously and almost fatally outside a synagogue in Ramapo in November; there is speculation now that the Chanukah party machete-wielder was responsible for this stabbing too.
“The police investigations into this stabbing seem to have gone nowhere,” Mr. Siepser said. “They could get nothing.
“But then there was this horrible attack, and thank God, within an hour or so they made an arrest. They got the license plate, and he had blood on him, so we could breathe a little bit.” The would-be murderer was not still at large.
“But still, this personalized it,” Mr. Siepser said. “I could go to a friend’s house, I could be walking to my car, and some guy could come out of nowhere and knife me. And not just me. It could be my friend. Or my wife. Or you. This changes the equation for everybody.”
The federation held a big meeting about the stabbing the Monday evening after it happened. “It was still a holiday, still before New Year’s, and a lot of people were away, yet 800 people came that night.
“There is a huge need for people to stand up and say that this is unacceptable. We are not afraid. We are not just going to hide. That is not who we are. We are proud. We are confident. We have a level of security.”
And this is not Nazi Germany, Mr. Siepser said. “When we have a meeting and the county executive is sitting in the front row, and the Clarkstown town supervisor is sitting next to him; when all the local police chiefs and town supervisors are there, when they all are calling us and asking what we need — this is not Nazi Germany.
“When I walk in here,” to the federation offices, which are housed in Rockland’s JCC, “and I see a police car there, I know that they have our back. I know that our society is very different from Nazi Germany.
“I know that people like to make historical references, but it doesn’t help when they throw them around.”
Instead, he said, he appreciates the police’s help enormously, and he wants to make that gratitude clear. “Both I and the federation are incredibly appreciative of the outpouring of support from public safety and elected officials, and of the very concrete steps they have taken to fight bigotry, hatred, and anti-Jewish hate,” he said.
He knows that the hate is still virulent, and that it has not gone away; in fact, it often surfaces in “hideous social media posts,” as it did last week.
The reasons for that hatred are not complicated, he said. “People think that where they live is never going to change. They live in a place that is growing by leaps and bounds, in a region that is the economic engine not just of this country but of this world. I understand that nobody likes this to change — but they change.
“If you could look at the skyline of New York in the 2000s and 2010s, you’d see that it is very different now. There have been something like 30 super-tall buildings built. Things change.
“And it’s not just New York. Look at the gold coast from Fort Lee to West New York. It went from being an industrial wasteland, with more Superfund sites that you could shake a stick at, to condos and shopping malls. The world changes. And Rockland County changes too. I am sorry that the people who have lived in Rockland all their lives aren’t comfortable with it — but things change.”
The march took hours; by the time the talks in Cadman Plaza were over, the crowds had dwindled and the sun was far down in the sky. The garbage cans were stuffed with discarded posters, and the subways were filled with homeward-bound marchers. But it seems safe to say that overwhelmingly most of them went home more confident and more buoyed by the strength and size and diversity and resilience of the community than they had been when the day started in Foley Square.