The spirit of tikkun olam was awake early Jan. 5, even if those carrying it were still half-asleep.
Three buses left the Philadelphia area around 8 a.m. carrying 150 members of the local Jewish community ready to march in response to recent attacks on Jewish residents of Jersey City, New Jersey; Monsey, New York; and Brooklyn.
On the bus departing from 21st and Arch streets in Center City, greetings of “boker tov” could be heard as people boarded. Some carried homemade signs, while others wore clothing bearing Hebrew lettering. More than a few of the men wore kippot.
“No Hate, No Fear” was to be the march’s rallying cry; “No Sanction to Bigotry,” read signs stacked on the front seat. What bus passengers noticed first, though, was that there was no coffee. After a voluntary unit was dispatched to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts to ensure all who desired were sufficiently caffeinated for the long day of marching and chanting ahead, the Philly contingent, including representatives from Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, was Manhattan-bound.
They’d be joined at the march’s starting point, in lower Manhattan’s Foley Square, by Jewish communities from across New York, city and state, from Boston and Washington, D.C., New Jersey and Connecticut, and as far away as Toronto and Cleveland.
In all, an estimated 25,000 people, including New York’s most senior lawmakers — Gov. Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer — marched from Foley Square across the Brooklyn Bridge to Cadman Square.
Speaking before the march, Cuomo vowed to introduce a law that would define anti-Semitism as domestic terrorism, as well as increase the ranks of the state police force and the state Hate Crimes Task Force. Speaking to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Gillibrand pointed to congressional efforts to increase funding for security at houses of worship, as well as a parallel federal bill on domestic terrorism.
“I’m going to work very hard to increase our funding for the not-for-profit security grants both for rural and urban areas,” Gillibrand said. “We’re going to try to exponentially increase the amount of resources we have to protect this city.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said that defining anti-Semitism as domestic terror would allow for the government to bring to bear the full brunt of its force. He called out elected leaders in both major parties for having “given permission for people to use prejudice.”
On the Brooklyn side of the bridge, a roster of speakers, from city officials to community leaders to clerics of several different faiths, awaited, as did music from Chasidic rap-reggae fusionist Matisyahu and the Maccabeats, an a cappella group from Yeshiva University.
They addressed a crowd that descended upon the rallying point in waves — walkers at some points of the march’s route were so tightly packed together that several pedestrian bottlenecks formed; at times, there was a good deal more heavy-footed shuffling than walking.
Yet the mood was light. Given the circumstances, anxiety could’ve been high and complaints of temporary discomfort numerous; it wasn’t, and they weren’t. Amid sporadic chanting, singing in Hebrew and waving signs that said things like “Discrimination Is Not Kosher,” walkers’ conversations were mostly casual and lighthearted — several marchers were plotting out where they’d eat lunch or grab a slice of Brooklyn cheesecake.
Moods might’ve been relaxed, but motivations and messages were serious, from speakers and marchers alike.
At Cadman Square, community leaders called not just for solidarity but for action against the recent wave of anti-Semitic violence and the political rhetoric, from both the right and the left, that they believe incited it.
“Too many people are pointing fingers at the other, at the other community, the other political party,” said Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, one of many Jewish groups that lent its name to the event, along with the local Jewish Community Relations Council, the ADL and a host of others. “We need to call out inappropriate conduct in our own communities, in our own parties.”
Philadelphia-area marchers voiced less concern over inflammatory political rhetoric and more about closing ranks within the Jewish community and presenting a resolute, united front against anti-Semitism.
“Whatever our political views, whatever our religious perspectives, we are one community,” said Rabbi Batya Glazer, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. “We need to send a clear message that hate is corrosive on society. It is not normal and can’t be normalized. But we’re here. We’re not standing silent. We need the leaders of society to understand — and we need to make it clear to everyone in our society — that hate is not acceptable.”
Shmulik Levi and David Weiss, both of whom work year-round for Camp Galil, a Jewish summer camp in Bucks County, viewed the solidarity march as an important opportunity to support the Orthodox communities most recently affected.
“As a Jewish person, with my Jewish and Zionist identity, I want to be here and stand with all of our brothers and sisters in the Jewish world,” said Levi, an Israeli living in Philadelphia.
Weiss expressed doubt about whether it’s possible to change the hearts and minds of anti-Semites, though that was of secondary importance to him.
“If (being here) doesn’t change the minds of people who are perpetrating these acts, at least people are not going to feel alone and isolated,” he said. “And that’s what’s happening — a lot of people are afraid to publicly acknowledge their Judaism, and that’s who we’re here for.”
Among the rally’s speakers, a common refrain was, “Anti-Semitism isn’t a Jewish problem; it’s a non-Jewish problem.”
But much of the Philly contingent, including Susanna Lachs Adler, board chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, saw in the day a teaching moment for Jewish people.
“I think that gathering Jews of different religious denominations, as well as those who aren’t affiliated, allows us to understand each other better,” she said. “Too often, it’s in a crisis where we’re given the opportunity to do that, and we’d like for that not to be the case. But this is an opportunity to build bridges and have greater understanding.”