It’s only fitting that Ted Comet, the veteran Jewish professional who turned 90 this week, will be a marshall at the Celebrate Israel parade this Sunday. He is credited with founding the event, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. And he can attest to the fact that it has always had its share of controversy; this year it has been over the participation of three left-wing Jewish groups.
“It was very difficult at the beginning,” Comet recalled this week. “Committed Jews said, ‘a parade? It’s not our culture.’” And others were less than interested in coming out to march for Israel.
But Comet prevailed. At the time he was director of the American Zionist Youth Federation (now defunct) and seeking ways to express support for the Jewish state “in a big way,” proportional to New York, with its major Jewish population. His work involved dealing with Zionist youth movements and Jewish schools, “so I had the troops,” he said. But he needed a venue and support for his idea of expanding what had been until then modest Yom Ha’Atzmaut festivities in Central Park.
Comet, who later was a key official of the Council of Jewish Federations (the precursor of the Jewish Federations of North America) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and is still active, realized, “You can’t have a parade without marching bands.”
But there weren’t any among Jewish schools — there still aren’t — so he recruited several Catholic schools and managed to raise the money to pay their bands’ expenses. A fuss was raised, though, by some Jewish groups when they learned that the bands had the sign of the cross on their big bass drums. Comet, who chaired the first three annual parades, raised enough money to buy new skins for the drums, and the bands were in.
The first Israel Day parade was small-scale, only five blocks long, he recalled. The turning point came in 1967; the event happened to take place at a dramatic moment when it seemed certain that Arab forces were about to attack Israel. Comet and others decided to make it a solidarity demonstration rather than a parade, and an estimated 250,000 people turned out for the march up Riverside Drive. (The Six-Day War began a week later.)
“The feeling in the crowd was electric,” said Comet. “That was the turning point [for the parade],” which became a fixture in the Jewish calendar and attracted wide, enthusiastic support.
A few years later Rabbi Meir Kahane insisted that he and his militant Jewish Defense League supporters be allowed to march in the parade. “They were contentious, they threatened,” said Comet. After the group agreed not to march with rifles, he allowed them to take part. But he was upset when they broke ranks and attacked a group of about 40 pro-Arab protesters; the melee received major attention in The New York Times the next day.
Comet has been to almost every one of the annual Israel Day programs, missing only when he was out of the country on assignment. “It’s moving to see that something you started has staying power,” he said.
Look for him at the head of this year’s 50th anniversary parade.