NEW YORK and JERUSALEM – As she marched along the Brooklyn Bridge with thousands of others on Sunday who had come to protest anti-Semitism in New York, New Jersey native Sherry told Haaretz she just “had to be here.”
“As a Jew, with the increased anti-Semitism, I had to be here to show the world that Jews matter and that we can’t just sit idly by while hate crimes are committed against us,” said Sherry, holding a “No Hate in New York State” sign. (She asked that her surname not be published.)
About 25,000 people participated in the rally under the banner “No Hate. No Fear,” beginning in downtown Manhattan Sunday morning. Participants assembled at Foley Square before marching on the Brooklyn Bridge and attending a rally at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn.
The event was organized following the recent wave of incidents targeting Jews in the New York City area, including a stabbing attack in Monsey late last month that injured five people. The march was sponsored or promoted by several Jewish organizations from different sides of the political spectrum.
Public figures and civic leaders also took part, as well as faith-based organizations from various communities. A long list of elected officials attended the march, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
“Politics is irrelevant,” Sherry said while crossing the bridge. “Being Jewish and loving one another, and loving those who are not Jewish, is the most important thing.”
Another Jewish man walking on the bridge with a sign reading “Discrimination is not kosher” told Haaretz he decided to join the event because he “understands the need for protest.”
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“Without protest there is silence. And with silence, people fill in their own stories of what is truth,” the man said, asking that his name not be published.
“We teach children and we tell them things, and it doesn't always mean they are going to remember all of it – but it means they’ll remember some of it. So maybe if we stress unity enough, it won’t always be valuable, it won’t always be true, but it will sometimes occur – and this is a time we need unity,” he added.
Anti-Semitic incidents, and particularly assaults, have been on the rise in the New York area over the past few years. More than half of the hate crimes reported to the New York Police Department in 2019 were committed against Jews.
December was a particularly difficult month for Jews in the New York and New Jersey area: A shooting in a Kosher supermarket in Jersey City left three people dead on December 10. There were also dozens of incidents against Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, including some after five people were stabbed in the attack on a rabbi’s house in Monsey on December 28 during a Hanukkah celebration.
Sunday’s march had also won the endorsement of The New York Times in an editorial that described the event as “a chance for people of all faiths and backgrounds to show critical support for New York’s Jewish communities.”
People of all ages marched in the event. Some came from cities across the United States to participate in the protest, but very few visibly Orthodox Jews were in attendance.
Since the event was announced last week, many on social media raised concerns that Orthodox Jews were not being included in the shows of solidarity that arose after the attack in Monsey, despite being most affected by the wave of anti-Semitism.
“Why did the organizers of the march not want to bring thousands of people to the communities where the attacks are happening?” Avraham Berkowitz, a Chabad rabbi in New York, asked Haaretz on Saturday. “The marchers should really be coming to the communities of visibly observant Jews who are being attacked, shop at their stores, eat in their restaurants, patronize their businesses, visit families there.”
Berkowitz said the march was “an amazing opportunity to actually have the masses show true solidarity with those who are visibly Jewish,” and felt it was a missed opportunity.
“Solidarity that is real is coming to the communities that most never visit and hearing from them,” he said. “This march should go from Rodney Street in Williamsburg in the heart of the Satmar community to 770 Eastern Parkway, the central synagogue of Chabad.”
According to him, organizers should have also “invested effort to invite and welcome the non-Jewish population that live together with the Hasidic Jews to stand against the hate that is happening to their neighbors.”
Among the few Orthodox Jewish participants was Brooklyn native Chani (who wished for her last name to remain anonymous for this story), who attended with her husband and young children.
“I feel like a big part of what we are here to do is send a message for our children, and we are here to demonstrate that America is a place that is safe for our children and that there is no place for this type of [anti-Semitic] mind-set,” she told Haaretz, standing at the rally in Cadman Plaza.
Chani, a Chabad emissary living in the Manhattan Beach section of Brooklyn, grew up in Crown Heights during the 1990s and remembers vividly the Crown Heights riots from 1991.
She said it was important for her to “do anything” she can “to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“It’s a shame to see this happening, when sometimes there are people who are perpetuating anti-Semitism who themselves have been victims of discrimination – and it just shouldn’t be that way,” she said. “So I just want to do my part to make sure that I raise my kids to know that that’s wrong, and to stand up when necessary.”
Chani’s children attend school in Crown Heights, one of the epicenters of attacks against Jews in recent years.
“My mind-set is that we are very confident and proud of who we are,” she said. “Even more so, we feel that actually by going in the street dressed [visibly as Jews], we are making a statement that we are here, we are not changing and we actually demonstrate no fear.”
Solidarity in Jerusalem
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, several hundred people crowded in front of the Jewish Agency offices in solidarity, with Israeli officials from organizations involved in connecting to the Jewish Diaspora proclaiming their support for their brethren abroad.
After watching live-streamed video from the New York event, Israeli officials spoke to the protesters.
“We are here to identify, support and, of course, condemn the horrific rise in hatred of Jews in New York,” said Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog. “From Jerusalem, we call on the world to stand strong against this awful phenomenon. … Jews should be free to practice their Judaism, and walk freely on the street wearing a Magen David, a kippa or a streimel without fear.”
The crowd included a number of young protesters – among them American and other international students participating in overseas programs.
Sammy Balsam, an 18-year-old from New York studying in the Jewish Agency gap-year program Kol Ami, said it felt unusual to be in Israel supporting his family and friends in times of difficulty back home, instead of the other way around.
“In New York, I’m used to taking part in the Israel Day Parade, where we stand in New York showing solidarity. And now we are here worried about a rise in anti-Semitism,” he said.
Rabbi Naamah Kelman, dean of Hebrew Union College, stood beside other Israeli Reform rabbis and said they had come to “express our strong solidarity with those who have supported us during our times of insecurity, fear and war. Sadly, it is now our turn to hug, embrace, and reinforce our brothers and sisters. We believe in a vibrant, ongoing Jewish life in North America, and we are partners in our past, present and future.”
Rebecca Caspi, director general of the Jewish Federations of North America's Israel office, pointed to the Jewish Agency building behind her.
“These stones have seen loss and wars and how Jews fought together united. … Today, in New York Jews are being attacked just for being Jews, shopping in their grocery stores or praying in their synagogues – and we stand with them. When they cry there, we cry here. ... In the cold of January, our solidarity warms us,” she said.
Rachel Azaria, the former Israeli lawmaker and deputy mayor of Jerusalem, remembered how, during a wave of attacks in the city, the Jewish Federation of New York funded security guards outside the city’s preschools and kindergartens.
American Jews, she said, “have always been there for us. Now we have to be there for them.”