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Standing With Israel: My Experience at a Solidarity Rally

Standing With Israel: My Experience at a Solidarity Rally

The gathering in 1986 in Dag Hammaarskjold Plaza is still firmly etched in my memory. Hundreds of thousands of people had marched down Fifth Avenue cheering, shouting, singing and weeping on behalf of the Jews of the Soviet Union before rallying in the Plaza where, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the then-recently-released Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky electrified an emotionally charged crowd with his comments and thanks. The buildings in Manhattan on that Sunday afternoon reverberated with the sound of "Hatikvah," Israel's national anthem, as Jews everywhere expressed solidarity and hope for all of their Jewish brethren.

Yesterday's rally was different, and yet it was somehow the same. Solidarity and hope were in the air.

A hot sun was beating down on Dag Hammaarskjold Plaza yesterday, just as it was on that Sunday in May of 1986.

Thousands of Jews were there. Many walked, ambled or strolled to the rally – but all came with a sense of purpose and focus. All believed in the importance of supporting the State of Israel.

When I arrived, just before the 12:30pm starting time, I was amazed at the sight of the thousands who were there. There was no march – just individuals, families, and campers walking, ambling, or strolling to the rally with one sense of purpose and focus: solidarity with Israel.

At first, I knew no one – and then I realized I knew everyone, because as a Jewish people, we are one.

The signs that were being held may have said it all: "Israel forever," "I stand with Israel," "Hummus yes, Hamas no," "NY stands with Israel," and "We are all Israel."

There were speeches that were sometimes muffled and sometimes drowned out by the constant murmurs and cheers and singing.

Who was there?

I saw the old, the young and all of the ages in between; Yeshiva students, college students, high school students, and elementary school students; businessmen and businesswomen expressing solidarity with Israel on their lunch hours. I saw black hats, baseball caps, yarmulkes, and bare heads; I saw beards, moustaches, and clean-shaven faces. I saw long skirts that covered ankles and short shorts that barely covered anything.

I recognized professors from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, staff members from the Union for Reform Judaism, members of Reform congregations I've visited over the years, teenage members of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), and so many others.

I heard people who spoke English, Hebrew, Russian and many languages I didn’t recognize. I spotted American flags, Israel flags, and flags from other countries, including the Ukraine. I saw individuals carrying signs from synagogues all over the metropolitan area. I was surrounded by Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and secular Jews - and everyone in between.

Headed home to Stony Brook, N.Y., on the Long Island Railroad, I had time to reflect on everything I had seen and heard, and to remember everything I learned during the struggles for Soviet Jewry and Ethiopian Jewry in the 1970s and '80s. I tried to answer the questions “Why did I go?” and “Why did I feel compelled to go?”.

Simply put, Judaism is a religion of action, and numbers count. As Natan Sharansky so aptly stated just after his release, “All the resources of a superpower [are] not enough to isolate a Jew who hears the voice of solidarity with his people."

To paraphrase the Rabbi in John Hersey’s The Wall, "My love for Israel is in the nerve endings of my fingertips. It is in the corpuscles behind my eyes. It is in my entire fiber and being.

And to paraphrase the medieval Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi, “Libi B’mizrach": I may be in the West, but my heart is definitely in the East. 

I went to the rally to stand with Israel because I am Israel. As the sign said: We are all Israel!

Stephen Weitzman is a member of the North American Board of the Union for Reform Judaism. He chairs the URJ Special Needs Camping Committee and is a member of the URJ Press Editorial Board. He was the president of the URJ Greater New York Council and has served as president of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, N.Y., on three separate occasions.

Stephen Weitzman
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