The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia planned the event in less than 24 hours. But when it arrived the evening of Oct. 9 at the Saligman Campus in Wynnewood, home of the Kaiserman JCC and Perelman Jewish Day School, more than 1,000 Jews filed through the full-body security checks and into the open field.
They wore solemn expressions and spoke in hushed tones. They held up Israel flags and Federation-crafted signs that read, “Philly Stands with Israel.” Kids played with each other as their parents watched.
“People are grieving and need to grieve together,” said Rabbi David Ackerman of Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley.
Two days earlier, area Jews woke up to the news that Israel had been attacked. Hamas, the Palestinian political organization that controls the Gaza Strip, launched rockets at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Then it invaded the Jewish state by “land, sea and air,” according to The New York Times.
Twenty-two Israeli towns and army bases were attacked. Civilians were taken hostage. More than 900 Israelis have been reported dead as of press time. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared war within hours of the attack. On Oct. 9, he said, “There are hard days ahead of us.”
Hamas’ military leader, Muhammad Deif, “cited Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, recent Israeli police raids on the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the detention of thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails,” according to The New York Times.
“I don’t have sufficient words to describe the horror of the past few days,” Jewish Federation President and CEO Michael Balaban said from the podium.
Neither did the Jews who came out to the Saligman Campus after the first day of the work week. They just wanted to stand with other Jews, said Larry Gross, a Manayunk resident and Congregation Rodeph Shalom member.
“Being part of the community and expressing fears about what’s going on,” Gross added.
Suzie McIlvain, also a Manayunk resident and Rodeph Shalom member, said, “It helps me feel like I’m doing something. Instead of sitting home watching TV.”
Gross recalled that he “wasn’t shocked right away” on Oct. 7 because he “didn’t appreciate what was happening until the next day.”
“And then I’ve just been so horrified I could barely talk about it,” he added.
Gross and McIlvain have family members and friends in Israel. They have not been able to get a hold of them.
“Some are just missing,” Gross said.
Dalia Nussbaum Bryant, a Broomall resident, came out to express her solidarity with other Jews.
“There’s a peace and energy and connection when you’re in that group,” she said.
She also wanted to “take a stand and show the world that this is something we believe in: Israel has a right to protect itself.” When she saw the news on Oct. 7, Nussbaum Bryant felt “devastation, profound sadness, frustration, helplessness.”
John and Yael Hungerford, who attend the Chabad of Delaware County, said, “It’s important to teach our children what we believe in.” As Yael Hungerford spoke, her two young children stood around her legs.
“It’s important when we’re in pain at home to be with other people because that’s all we’ve got right now,” she continued.
The mother of two was 18 on 9/11 when the United States was attacked by Al Qaeda.
“It feels like 9/11,” she said.
Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, who is Jewish and a longtime member of the Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, came to the event and spoke for 10 minutes. He called for moral clarity.
“I want to thank all of you for being here this evening,” Shapiro said to applause. “And I know that we are joined by thousands of Pennsylvanians rallying in cities and towns across this commonwealth this week.”
“We stand against terror, and we stand with Israel,” he continued to louder applause.
Shapiro called himself “a proud American Jew” as the crowd clapped and cheered again. Then he talked about how he “welcomed hundreds from the broader community to celebrate Sukkot in the first-ever sukkah built on the grounds of the governor’s residence (in Harrisburg).”
“I share that with you because this is a moment not to retreat from who we are, but to embrace who we are,” he said.
“We must condemn the horrific acts of war perpetrated by Hamas and their enablers,” the governor continued. “There is no moral equivalency between Hamas, a foreign terrorist organization as designated by the United States, and Israel, the only pluralistic, functioning democracy in the Middle East.”
“I know that many people here tonight feel helpless. But I hope you know that your presence here tonight helps,” he concluded. “It shows that our support will not wane in the coming days and weeks of war.”
The Jewish Federation’s emergency campaign to support Israel continues and has already raised $1.6 million. The money will go toward shelter, psychological support, medicine, diapers and training for emergency personnel who have replaced police officers and first responders killed or kidnapped, according to Jason Holtzman, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.