Like many of the people who marched from Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn Sunday, Michael L. Brenner has been involved with the Jewish community for years. But posting on Facebook a day later, the Long Island attorney said he couldn’t recall “anything like the march in recent memory.”
Organized by the UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the march drew an estimated 25,000 people to protest the rising number of anti-Semitic hate crimes in the city and nearby locations, to express their solidarity with the traditionally observant Jews who have come under attack and to say that they won’t be cowed or intimidated by the scourge.
Those crimes have included a vicious machete attack in upstate Monsey, which injured five; a brazen attack on a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, which killed two chasidim, a policeman and an employee of the business; and a rash of assaults against chasidic Jews in Crown Heights and other Brooklyn neighborhoods.
Asking 25,000 people to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge in the middle of winter, a journey of at least an hour, is asking a great deal, said Brenner, 40, a resident of Woodmere, L.I. But the fact that they did so — and on such short notice — indicates the urgency with which they viewed the problem.
Others expressed similar amazement, both during the march and afterward, noting that the event also brought together segments of the Jewish community that are often at odds with each other and rarely share the same space: people from the left, right and center, as well as those from all religious streams of Judaism.
“It’s very chill,” said Zachary Braiterman of the Upper West Side, as he walked toward the bridge from Foley Square, where the march began. “You got your Trumpers; you got your anti-Trumpers; you got your Zionists; you got your anti-Zionists; you got your ‘normals,’” he said. Braiterman, a professor of Jewish studies at Syracuse University, said he came to the event with fellow members of Congregation Ansche Chesed in Manhattan, one of hundreds of participating groups and institutions.
After gathering at Foley Square and crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, the marchers ended their trek with a rally in Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza, where they heard more than a dozen speakers, including politicians, writers, activists and leaders representing the major denominations.
Speaking to The Jewish Week after the event, UJA-Federation CEO Eric Goldstein said his organization and the JCRC began organizing the march within hours after the Monsey attack. “People needed an outlet. People are feeling very concerned; they’re feeling anxiety; and they’re feeling anger,” he said.
The two organizations received assistance from the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the New York Board of Rabbis, Goldstein said.
Hindy Poupko, the federation’s deputy chief planning officer, said she and her colleagues “had begun talking about doing something like this for a whole year.” Their objective was “to tell the traditional Orthodox community that we’re aware and deeply concerned about what’s been going on.” But things became much more urgent after the Monsey attack, when it became clear that “this was the time for large-scale mobilization effort.”
Poupko said organizers wanted to ensure sure that participants wouldn’t just hear speakers, but also walk across the bridge, “demonstrating with their own two feet that our community is proud, unafraid and fed up” with the violence and hatred. Bringing the marchers into Brooklyn, she said, would further express solidarity with the two populations that have been targeted in most of the attacks — the Chabad and Satmar chasidic movements, both based in the borough.
Cheryl Fishbein, president of the JCRC, said organizers also “made a conscious effort not to politicize” the event and “to make sure that everybody felt represented.” They felt strongly that the march and rally should be a community-based, grassroots event, she said.
The event drew steam last week with an editorial in The New York Times, which called on New Yorkers, Jewish and non-Jewish, to join the march. Among those leading the march were most of the state’s senior politicians, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, who is Jewish.
“What has happened in Brooklyn, what has happened in Monsey, N.Y., was an attack on every New Yorker, and every New Yorker has felt the pain,” Cuomo told reporters ahead of the march. He vowed to introduce a law that would define anti-Semitism as domestic terrorism and to increase the ranks of the state police force and the state Hate Crimes Task Force. Meanwhile, Gillibrand told JTA that she plans “to work very hard” to increase federal funding for security at houses of worship.
The marchers themselves showed a similar resolve.
“We have made a point of standing up for other communities when they’ve been victimized or treated unfairly,” said Cara Kantrowitz, who participated in the event with her husband and two children, ages 2 and 6, and with other members of B’ShERT, a Reform congregation in Brooklyn. “It’s only right that we stand up for our community” when it is being victimized.
Another participant, Rabbi Avram Mlotek of Bais Hillel, led a small contingent from his group in Jewish song as they crossed the bridge.
With a megaphone in hand, the rabbi said the only way to fight anti-Semitism is through love, a sentiment he attributed to Rabbi Avraham Kook, Israel’s first chief rabbi. “So that’s what we’re doing today. We’re singing and praying for the city we love.”
Other marchers included Yitz Jordan, a rap musician also known by his stage name, Y-Love.
Jordan spoke of the unique dilemma faced by Jews of color like himself whenever tensions heighten between Jews and their black and Latino neighbors, saying they are often “caught in the middle. I’ve been asked [by different people] on social media, ‘Why am I silent about anti-Semitism but vocal about racism?’ and “Why am I silent about racism but vocal about anti-Semitism?’”
“People from both groups expect you to pick a side – that one should take precedent over the other,” Jordan said. “But that’s just not a dichotomy. I’m just as much black as Jewish.”
Jordan also said “there’s no black anti-Semitism. There’s just anti-Semitism. There may be black perpetrators of anti-Semitism.”
One marcher with a walker looked as if he was having particular trouble getting across the bridge. But the marcher, Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer of Young Israel of West Hempstead, displayed high spirits when he told a reporter that he felt uplifted by being with “such good people.
“I’m on clouds of glory,” said the rabbi, who was hit by a truck several years ago.
Speakers at the rally included members of the black, Latino, Christian and Muslim communities, as well as leaders representing the Orthodox communities in Crown Heights, Williamsburg and Jersey City. Bari Weiss, the New York Times opinion editor and author of the recently published book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” offered defiant remarks, and Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu performed.
Devorah Halberstam, whose son Ari was murdered on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994 by a Lebanese-born terrrorist, began her speech by exulting, “We all walked across the Brooklyn Bridge.”
“This is not just a march,” she told the crowd. “We are hear to send a clear message. We are proud of who we are. We will never take our yarmulkes off our heads. We are here today in strength and courage.”
Doug Chandler is a contributing writer.