Last Passover, as Jeffrey Rubin and his son Benjamin were heading for early morning prayers at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, they discussed how to help Israel as the Palestinian attacks against the nation increased.
Benjamin, then a 15-year-old junior at Long Island’s Hebrew Academy for the Five Towns and Rockaway, came up with the idea to unite American yeshiva teens to show support. With the help of fellow student Baruch Danziger, they formed the National Council of Yeshivot in Support of Israel.
Soon they were joined by Maital Friedman, 17, and Caryn Friedman, 18, seniors at the Westchester Hebrew High School.
The teens conceived the idea for a student rally for Israel with the help of Westchester Day juniors Josh Rubin and Ben Zion Jaffe.
On Tuesday, under cloudy skies and cool temperatures, their dedication and hard work culminated as students led and produced a 90-minute rally in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, in the shadow of the United Nations. Nearly 5,000 grade schoolers to high schoolers from 40 yeshivas and day schools in the metropolitan area participated.
The students prayed and spoke about the effect on them of suicide bombings that have killed Israeli teens, and the need for American Jewish teens to continue to find ways to publicly show support for Israel.
“Happy, bright and peace-loving teenagers were murdered in cold blood by terrorists who do not appreciate the meaning and value of life,” Friedman told the crowd. “On the streets of Jerusalem, in coffeehouses and restaurants, in yeshivas and at bus stops, they were victimized in cold blood. We have gathered here today … to proclaim loudly: ‘Enough is enough!’
“By coming out today,” said Benjamin Rubin, “each one of us has become a relative to two extended families: one here in America and one reaching over oceans, am Yisrael” [the nation of Israel].”
“This has been a full-time job for him,” said Rubin’s beaming father, a Woodmere businessman and one of two dozen parents who attended the rally. The schools arranged for buses to bring the students; some made the trip mandatory.
While students did most of the talking, several adults were given roles.
Anti-terrorist crusader Stephen Flatow, whose daughter Alisa was killed in Israel in a terrorist attack, said he was proud of the students for their peaceful gathering, contrasting it with “others your age halfway around the world.”
“You are not shouting for blood. You are not shouting cries of revenge,” Flatow said. “Instead you are lifting your voices in prayer and song protesting against terrorism.”
Ester Fuchs, representing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said she was brought to tears by the student effort.
“It’s you the students who are the leaders in this process,” she said. “As we stand here in front of the United Nations, you must show us the way.”
Not all the students were engaged, however, as a poor sound system and a dearth of interactive events created two rallies.
Near the stage, an attentive audience of several hundred listened to the speakers. But beginning about 20 yards back, hundreds of teens were seen talking on cell phones, socializing or wandering around bored.
“We can’t hear, there’s no clear message to protest about, and it’s dissolved into a social scene, which teenagers would like to do anyway,” observed one Manhattan yeshiva student.
Some students were glad to be able to show support in some fashion.
“I’ve felt very helpless,” said Michelle Marcus, 15, from the Ramaz Day School in Manhattan. “It’s really nice everyone showed up.”
“We came to show our support for Israel, not for any specific policy, but our deep abiding belief in Israel’s legitimacy,” said Samuel Flaks, 17, a senior at the Manhattan Talmudic Academy.
Meanwhile, despite delays, adults are planning to launch their own solidarity campaign starting next week.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is planning a nationwide show of support for Israel in cities across the country on March 24, according to executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein.
While a site for the indoor gathering was not finalized by press time, Hoenlein said the rally is part of a four-pronged “unity” plan approved last week by the conference, an umbrella group of 65 American Jewish organizations.
The plan also calls for a statement of solidarity, an ad in The New York Times calling on Americans to visit Israel for Passover, and special synagogue prayers to be recited at Yizkor services on the last day of the holiday.
Hoenlein said the campaign is in conjunction with United Jewish Communities and local Jewish federations across the country.
Presidents Conference chairman Mortimer Zuckerman said the group has tried in recent months to show solidarity with Israel in several ways, including trips with New York Gov. George Pataki and “the largest mission we’ve ever had.”
The purpose for the March 24 gatherings, Zuckerman said, is to provide those who have been unable to get to Israel “with the opportunity to express their own concerns and anxieties about what’s going on here and communicating it back to Israel.”
“You want to be realistic about what you can and can’t do here,” he said. “We are determined to demonstrate the solidarity of the Jewish community, so that those in Israel will know there is another person in the foxhole.”
Zuckerman acknowledged Israel’s dire situation.
“Once you have people willing to commit suicide, there’s no defense,” he said. “The only thing to do is go on offense. When deterrence doesn’t work, you have to go to pre-emption.”
Asked about crafting a Presidents Conference statement that can be approved by the liberal and conservative groups in the conference, Hoenlein said, “We’re not getting into the ideological or political issues. I think now there’s a greater sense of unity than in a long time, and we want to give expression to it.”
Hoenlein said he had consulted with many members of the conference about the unity campaign.
Reform movement president Rabbi Eric Yoffie said he had not been consulted. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said he participated in a conference call last week to discuss the plan.
- Benjamin Rubin
- Ester Fuchs
- Mortimer Zuckerman
- Josh Rubin
- Caryn Friedman
- Baruch Danziger
- Stephen Flatow
- Jeffrey Rubin
- Maital Friedman
- Ben Zion Jaffe
- Dag Hammarskjold Plaza
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Malcolm Hoenlein
- New York
- Social Issues
- Staff Writer
- United Nations
- Western Wall