The 44th annual Salute to Israel Parade to mark Israel’s 60th birthday was the largest ever and was apparently a victim of its own success.
The event drew so many marchers last Sunday — organizers estimate a record of more than 100,000 — that many groups had to wait up to two hours before they could join the line to march up Fifth Avenue.
“Groups that weren’t even registered showed up,” said Jay Lunzer, the parade president. “Groups that had told us they would have 100 marchers came with 200. And we heard that there was increased police security. They did more checking of equipment than they normally do, which delayed the groups behind them.”
In those cases, he said, other groups assembled on other streets were moved onto the parade route. In some cases, Lunzer said, floats ended up moving onto Fifth Avenue before their groups and so had to wait along the side of the road for their groups.
He said that police estimated the number of spectators at 500,000.
Dina Leader, the parade’s executive director, said communities that had never before participated in the parade sent marchers.
“Everyone kept calling to say they wanted to march on Fifth Avenue,” she said. “Six weeks before the parade we had to stop taking reservations from groups. By then we had over 300 groups [registered].”
Despite the problems, Lunzer said, “there wasn’t a single person who didn’t say it was a wonderful parade. … At the end of the day, the kids marched and heard the crowd applauding them and cheering them on and that is what they will remember.”
Michael Cohen, a volunteer who was assigned to helping groups assemble at their proper locations, is not so sure. He said the long wait under sunny skies in 80-degree-plus temperatures was compounded by the fact that marchers had no food or water because, for security reasons, they were told not to bring backpacks.
“Children, seniors, pregnant marchers were sweltering,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Jewish Week.
(Parade organizers, however, did drive around in golf carts handing out bottles of water to some marchers.)
Cohen added that he had to enlist the help of police when some marchers “threatened to storm their way onto Fifth Avenue.”
Nevertheless, at least one group from Merrick-Bellmore, L.I., that had never marched before decided to join the line of marchers after waiting more than an hour for a signal.
“By the time we crossed the plaza at 59th Street, the gloom had turned into exhilaration, with high-fives and shouts of, ‘We did it,’” said Jeff Bienenfeld, one of the group’s members.
Although saying he would not “minimize the delays,” Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said the “parade itself was exceptional, and that has been the reaction I have been getting.”
“The issue was the volume of marchers,” he said. “There were more marchers, more groups, more floats, more vehicles, more billboards, and it was a lengthier parade. That speaks to the regrettable delays.”
Sima Broza, director of communications at the Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford, Conn., said the two-hour wait in getting her 120 students to march meant that several of the youngsters “peeled away” to fulfill other commitments before they had a chance to march.
“We were scheduled to march by 12:45 and to be on the buses by 2:30,” she said.
Broza said that because the three buses they rented had a scheduled engagement later in the day, two of them left before the youngsters even stepped onto Fifth Avenue. As a result, after they marched, youngsters who were there without their parents boarded the remaining bus while the other participants took the train home.
But Broza stressed that throughout the wait “parents and staff and students remained in the best of spirits and tried to make the best of it.”
The parade started at 57th Street, marched up Fifth Avenue and ended at 79th Street. Lunzer said it started at about 11:20 a.m. with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York Gov. David Patterson and New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, at the head of the march.
It ended at 5 p.m.
“It was thrilling,” said Debbie Biederman of Dix Hills, L.I., who said this was the first time she had attended the parade. “I’ve seen it on TV, but I was amazed at the number of people participating and the crowds on the street. I was also impressed with the responsiveness of the crowds as we passed.”
Biederman marveled as well at the fact that one of the grand marshals, actress Valerie Harper, remained in the reviewing stand the entire day after traveling the parade route seated on the back of an open convertible.
“I’m a longtime supporter of the State of Israel,” Harper told The Jewish Week. “Jews are safer everywhere in the world because of the State of Israel.”
Harper, best known for playing Rhoda Morgenstern on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spinoff “Rhoda,” said she learned a lot about Israel while studying for the role of Golda Meir on stage and in the film, “Golda’s Balcony.”
She said she was privileged to be selected as a grand marshal and was caught up in the excitement of the day.
“The Big Apple is saying happy birthday to the Land of Milk and Honey,” she gushed.
Leader, the parade’s executive director, said, “Israelis came out” this year despite complaints about their poor attendance in prior years.
Among them was Nitza Bouyan, a native Israeli who now lives in Plainview, L.I. She watched the parade at 59th Street as vendors hawked cardboard eyeglasses adorned with Stars of David and a large 60.
“I read in the paper that no Israelis come to the parade, but all I hear around me are Israelis,” she said.
Also watching the parade was Wendy Wagenheim of Detroit, who said she was in the city to attend a meeting of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
“It’s the first time I’m seeing the parade,” she said. “It’s exciting to see this energy, and it’s nice to see so many young people. It’s terrific.”
Among the marchers was Myrna Hirsch of New City, who said all of the synagogues in Rockland County were marching together.
“I last marched 30 years ago and decided to march again because of Israel’s 60th birthday,” she said. “I’m 70 and I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do this.”