For more than a century, New York Jews have marched and demonstrated about everything from the Dreyfus Trial to Darfur, from civil rights to women’s rights, for Jews in Germany, Ethiopia, Israel and the Soviet Union.
Now, New York’s Jews are the ones in trouble, feeling wounded and alone.
In recent years, local Jews, almost entirely Orthodox, have been bruised, bloodied, left brain dead, even murdered, incidents accelerating by the month, it seems. Around the region, neo-Nazi flyers have been dropped in Jewish neighborjhoods, swastikas scrawled on suburban synagogue doors, anti-Jewish invective is being shared widely on the web. Last Sunday, Jews of every denomination and inclination took to the streets, marching — 25,000 strong — from Manhattan, over the Brooklyn Bridge, to a rally in Cadman Plaza.
Eight early arriving Chabadniks raced across the Cadman grass, waving golden “Moshiach” flags. “What can be more messianic,” said an onlooker, “every kind of Jew is here, united,” if only for a winter’s day.
There were no illusions. Surely, another vulnerable Jew would be taunted or beaten in Brooklyn, but in the park, for a few hours at least, there was hope, as there always is when Jews are united.
People smiled at the sight of old friends, unseen for too long. A Satmar rav thanked the diverse crowd for coming; several liberal rabbis recited Psalms; bearded Yidden led the crowd in Shema; Matisyahu sang his reggae-rap; the Maccabeats did their Ortho-a cappella; and a Muslim director of Holocaust Studies at a Catholic college offered love to Josef Neumann, a Jew who remains in a coma after Chanukah’s machete attack in Monsey.
Michael Miller of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, one of the primary organizers along with UJA-Federation, did the classic rally “I can’t hear you” cheer from the stage, prompting the crowd to a call-and-response: “What do we want? No hate! What do we show? No fear!”
No fear? “Easy for him to say,” said an older man, visibly Orthodox, who looked nervous about returning to the mean streets when the sun went down.
One walker across the Brooklyn Bridge said she kept thinking of Reb Nachman’s adage, “The world is a narrow bridge; the trick is not to be afraid.”
Of course, there was every reason to fear, said people in the crowd, who feared not only their attackers, but the perception of weakness in the community. Why was this rally so long, even late, in coming? Why for all of the community’s alleged political muscle was it unable to stop new political reforms such as the Discovery for Justice Reform Act, which allows anti-Semitic attackers to discover personal information about a Jewish victim who files a complaint, or bail reform that takes away a judge’s discretion to detain someone arrested for a misdemeanor. (Two weeks ago, a black woman was arrested after a physical assault against three Jewish women, only to be released and arrested the very next day after attacking another Jew.)
There were numerous chasidic and yeshivish Jews from every sector of the community, though with everyone bundled up it was often impossible to tell secular from Orthodox. Ezra Friedlander, a public policy consultant and the scion of the Liska chasidic dynasty, told us he was sorry that there weren’t even more chasidim in the park, “because at the end of the day, we were the recipient of the attacks. We were singled out. So now that the greater Jewish community is identifying with us, we should be here, thanking everyone for participating.”
Was there enough publicity in the chasidic communities?
Friedlander noted that Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation, appeared the week before on “Talkline with Zev Brenner,” probably the most listened-to radio program in Orthodox Brooklyn. “Between social media and Zev Brenner, no one has any excuse for not showing up,” said Friedlander.
Brenner, standing nearby, said of the event, “I love this! Kudos to UJA-Federation, the JCRC and all the organizers for putting together an old-fashioned solidarity rally. I told Eric Goldstein, we should have ‘Solidarity Sunday’ annually,” as was done during the Soviet Jewry movement, “bringing together Jews of every background, like today.”
But, Brenner added, “sometimes the mountain has to go to Muhammed. Bring these demonstration to Borough Park, where you have every Orthodox group. The people there should not just hear about this march but should see 25,000 Jews, all kinds of Jews. Our going to their neighborhood would send a powerful message,” not just to the Borough Park Jews but to those who might be thinking of attacking the Borough Park Jews.
Said another person backstage, “We should have gone to the victims. When you make a shiva call, you go to the mourner.”
Many speakers and onlookers stressed that the Brooklyn Orthodox have been reeling from criticism from other Jews about everything from the quality of their yeshivas to accusations of being insular. “Even this location is arm’s length from the frum [Orthodox] neighborhoods,” said one chasid.
UJA-Federation’s Goldstein urged the crowd, “We must be vigilant to ensure against the vilification of traditionally Orthodox Jews.”
Rabbi David Niederman, a spokesman for the Satmar community, planned to attend but couldn’t because of a personal issue. He sent a video, blessing “all assembled here,” but noted how “stereotyping and demonizing any community leads to terrible results. I hope that this march is the beginning of a new resolve to reflect on the positives in each of us… We all deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.”
Chaskel Bennett, an Orthodox activist from Flatbush, told the crowd, “Until today we have not seen nearly enough sympathy or understanding for this sad reality, even from some of our own.” Orthodox voices have been “mostly silenced and marginalized… the product and outcome of years of unchecked bias, prejudice and misunderstanding.”
Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL, added, “These are members of my family. … We are all the Jewish people!”