"I’m really, really Jewish, and what’s happening in Darfur hurts me so, so much,” said Jessica Jacobs, a student at the Maimonides Jewish day school in Brookline, Mass., as she stood near the edge of the “Save Darfur” rally Sunday in Central Park.
Speaking with a teenager’s conviction, Jacobs, 15, spoke of “a beautiful people” — residents of the western Sudan — being killed “just like my ancestors were.” Jacobs’ maternal grandfather survived Auschwitz, while her maternal grandmother survived another death camp.
Organizers said Jacobs was typical of many of the Jewish participants at the rally, which drew more than 30,000 people, organizers said.
Members of the Jewish community, evident from the T-shirts and kipot they wore and the signs they carried, played a prominent role in the demonstration, just as they did in the April 30 “Save Darfur” rally in Washington. And, like Jacobs, many of them appeared to be younger this time around, coming from day schools, campus Hillel groups and youth movements. Many drew a direct link between the ethnic cleansing in Darfur and the Holocaust.
So, too, did Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and Irwin Cotler, a member of the Canadian parliament, both speakers at the rally and both identified with the Jewish community.
Rabbi Gutow told the crowd that he is a rabbi, adding that he reflects “the deep commitment of Jews … who have thrown our passionate hearts into this fight. We understand the intense pain and helplessness of people living through a genocide.”
He also connected the Jewish presence at the rally to Yom Kippur, a period of reflection, he said, in which Jews learn from the prophet Isaiah that they are fasting to make the world a better place. Today, he continued, “we promise to Isaiah, to ourselves and to the people of Darfur to keep the flames on our government and on the world. … We in the pews and on the streets are committed to keep on until the genocide stops.”
Cotler, a human-rights lawyer and former president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said the genocide of European Jews took place not only because of “the politics of hate,” but because of “the crimes of indifference and the conspiracies of silence.”
The Holocaust “was preventable, and we did not act — just as we are not acting today in Darfur,” said Cotler, who heads the Save Darfur Coalition in the Canadian parliament. “Let us resolve that we will never again be indifferent to evil. We will speak and act.”
Rabbi Gutow represented both his agency and the American Jewish World Service, both of which serve on the executive committee of the Save Darfur Coalition, the Washington-based group that organized the New York and Washington rallies. Ruth Messinger, president of AJWS, couldn’t attend the rally for personal reasons.
The Washington rally, which drew an estimated 75,000 people, and the much smaller New York rally differed in their objectives, with last spring’s protest aimed at pressuring the U.S. government to act with greater urgency on the issue. Meanwhile, last Sunday’s event was aimed at the United Nations. Like other speakers, Cotler and Rabbi Gutow called for the creation of an international peacekeeping force to replace the African Union soldiers now patrolling Darfur, a force that lacks the mandate, personnel and equipment to protect the region’s civilians. Cotler also called for a no-fly zone over the area.
Others on stage included former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Harlem), clerics and entertainers.
The crisis, now in its fourth year, has already killed as many as 400,000 civilians and displaced another 2.5 million, many of them living in refugee camps in Darfur and neighboring Chad. But observers say that attacks by the Sudanese government and government-backed militias are intensifying and that, unless steps are taken now, an even greater slaughter could take place.
Among those listening to the speakers were people like Manny Bekier, 59, of Valley Stream, N.Y., a volunteer for the Save Darfur Coalition whose parents were both Holocaust survivors from Poland.
Born in a displaced-persons camp in Germany, Bekier said his family history serves as a source of motivation. On behalf of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, he educates mostly high schools students about the Holocaust. He also teamed up in 1999 with the children of other Holocaust survivors to visit a refugee camp for Kosovar Muslims, where they delivered toys and helped counsel children.
Seven years later, Bekier said, another genocide is taking place in Darfur, and “there are still many lessons of the Holocaust that need to be taught.”
Others at the rally came with groups, some from as far as Boston, North Carolina, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.Jacobs traveled with 15 of her classmates from the Maimonides School, an institution founded by Rabbi Joseph S. Soloveitchik, the revered Orthodox thinker, aboard a bus chartered by Teens for Tzedek, a program of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Boston.
Rabbi Jack Paskoff led a busload of congregants from Temple Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, Pa., one of many Reform synagogues with a presence at the rally. The congregants, ranging from members of the synagogue’s youth group to parents and older adults, “felt that, as a Jewish community, they couldn’t ignore Darfur,” the rabbi said.
Locally, one of the largest contingents came from Yeshiva University, where the student-led Society for Social Justice organized about 200 students, said Sammy Shapiro, the group’s co-chairperson.
One of the contingent’s members, Tamar Klein, 19, said her peers are also concerned about Israel and that many were planning to attend a pro-Israel rally later in the week. But that concern shouldn’t sway their attention from Darfur, she said, adding that both compassion and common sense dictate that Jews should also be involved in other issues.
Another local contingent came from the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, which played a key role in promoting the rally among teens throughout New York City.
Jodie Gordon, director of teen programs at the JCC, said she and her colleagues “did as broad an outreach as you can imagine,” working with day schools, public and private schools, synagogues, and youth groups. She added that taking part in such an event gives teens hope that they can change things and be effective.