To be clear: I have been a big booster of the Celebrate Israel parade, personally and professionally, for many years, and once again felt a real sense of pride on Sunday afternoon watching the waves of youngsters carrying banners and singing Hebrew songs as they marched up Fifth Avenue. And I have the greatest respect for the staff and lay leaders of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York for the outstanding and essentially thankless job they do in planning, coordinating and raising more than a million dollars, with the support of UJA-Federation of New York, to produce the largest event of its kind for the State of Israel.
That said, it’s time for a serious communal conversation about the future of a parade that relies on the mandatory participation of thousands of day school and Hebrew school youngsters, and draws on their families as the core of the crowd. Without them the highly touted parade would be a modern-day display of the Emperor’s New Clothes: the naked fact is that the great majority of New York Jewry is nowhere to be found on the one day of the year we celebrate Israel together, even when the weather is as perfect as it was on Sunday (at least until the rains came in mid-afternoon).
Does this mean most of our community doesn’t back Israel? Of course not. But there’s a big difference between voicing support and physically showing up to express those sentiments at a large-scale event.
One would think that with the heightened tension, and attention, over Iran’s effort to produce the means to wipe Israel off the map, as pledged, there would be an outpouring of solidarity for Israel this year. But that was not the case.
Perhaps it tells us more than we care to know about the engaged pro-Israel community of New York when we look up and down Fifth Avenue and note the disproportionate involvement of Modern Orthodox Jewry and core activists, and wonder about the level of participation — or lack thereof — of the great majority of New York Jews. Is this a microcosm of the American Jewish relationship with Israel going forward?
I was saddened, but not surprised, to see many familiar faces from years past. Indeed, that’s the problem. It’s largely the same constituency, brimming with enthusiasm, that turns out each year. I saw parents and relatives of the youngsters who were marching, lots of kippot, and plenty of middle-aged and older faces in the crowd, which was particularly sparse between 60th and 65th streets.
I know that the Celebrate Israel parade, now in its 48th year, is an almost sacred institution in the eyes of many old-timers. If it were put on hiatus a howl would go up saying it’s a dangerous sign of erosion of support for Israel in the great city of New York. But maybe there are new ways to touch Jewish hearts.
What Would It Take?
Parade organizers, who worked hard much of the year to avoid an open rift within the community over the politics of the parade, will tell you privately how frustrated they feel during the run-up to the big event, wondering whether it’s all worth it, because Celebrate Israel has become a punching bag for the Jewish community rather than the great unifier it once was. A few individuals on the edges of the communal spectrum brought shame to their cause, seeking to disallow the participation of groups they are opposed to ideologically.
The organizers have managed to bring renewed funding and energy to the parade these last few years, widening its participation and securing live television coverage and Internet streaming to cover the proceedings. Channel 9’s two-hour coverage was crisp, and professional, and was stationed near the crowded reviewing stand, where the energy level was disproportionately high.
My gripe, then, is not with the parade; it’s with the missing majority of New York Jews. And I wonder what it would take, if anything, to bring them out.
Some ethnic parades have big-name celebrities who help draw large crowds. So yes, an Adam Sandler, Natalie Portman or Jon Stewart could probably create a buzz and bring the numbers up. But what’s the message we want to transmit here? Or to put it another way, how best could $1 million be spent to engage, educate, entertain and inspire large numbers of New York Jews regarding Israel, whose accomplishments in science, technology, medical research and other areas are the envy of much of the world?
The fact that more than 5,000 people took part in a related Celebrate Israel run through Central Park prior to the parade is particularly impressive, in part because it received relatively little attention. At a time when walk-a-thons and charity races are so popular, maybe that element could be expanded and funds raised for Israeli causes.
Perhaps the celebration should not be limited to a single day when the weather is a major factor. There could be a month of Israel-related cultural events, including concerts, films and theatrical productions, in different venues around New York. Live forums could offer leading thinkers in the U.S. and Israel the opportunity to discuss and debate the most important issues of the day affecting our two communities, with live streaming so that there could be participation from both continents.
It’s true that the day of the parade can create warm and lasting memories for the tens of thousands of marchers, especially the children. But I’d love to see more funding in our schools to teach Modern Zionism to those students over several years in a creative and inspiring way, instilling pride as well as knowledge.
Those are just a few ideas; I certainly don’t have all the answers and I welcome your thoughts and suggestions.
The Israel day parade has been an integral part of the New York Jewish experience for decades, but times change and so do our interests, customs and modes of communication. It would be a healthy exercise for us to consider alternative forms of expressing our love for Israel so that we could actively reach a much larger segment of our community — a new way to say “Am Yisrael Chai” (the People of Israel Live).