This is the note I sent out to the congregation and posted on Facebook.
This past Tuesday along with about a dozen people from our synagogue, I was in for the March for Israel at the National Mall in Washington. About 20 people from the Southern New Hampshire Jewish community were there in total, along with a student group from Dartmouth and perhaps some others I’m not aware of. Together we helped make up a crowd of 290,000 people, according to the highest count reported. If that number is anywhere near accurate, something like one out of every thirty American Jews was together for an afternoon! I took a group before and after the rally to meet with Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Representative Annie Kuster and their aides, and others met with staff in the office of Representative Chris Pappas.
I had about ten days’ notice about the rally, and I didn’t know at first that I would go. I am one of two working parents with a child at home, and even though I work for the Jewish community it’s not easy to take an impromptu midweek trip out of town. I don’t usually like mass events and the simplistic speeches. But it didn’t take me long to realize that I was going, or for Laurie and me to work out the details to make it possible.
I went first of all for you in our community who are Israeli, for my Israeli family and for yours, all our Israeli family and close friends. For people who have suffered losses, who know hostages held in Gaza, whose lives are in danger right now in the fighting. Your needs and their needs are important, and it was important to show you and the public that our community notices you and the people you are connected with. That I notice. One of the goals of the march was simply to show human solidarity in a hard time. Especially when Israeli grief and danger are being drowned out or denied entirely by so many.
I went for the hostages in Gaza and for their families, who have been screaming at all of us and at those in power to do something for the immediate release of about 240 people still being held, for 41 days as I write this. #BringThemHomeNow. The most powerful part of the day were the speeches of three family members, and you should take the eleven minutes to watch that (click here).
I went for our kids who are college and graduate students, including my own, who are suddenly living in environments of ongoing physical threat and danger across the country.
If you haven’t read a good news report on the rally and want to, look it up at the Times of Israel or the Jerusalem Post or Ynet or the Forward. Here I wanted to share my overall impressions and reflections, and then tell you about our meetings on Capitol Hill.
1. As I said above, the most intense moment of the rally program came when three family members of hostages spoke. Orna Neutra is the mother of Omer. She called out his name, and called on us to match Omer’s own compassionate being with our own compassion back to him and all the hostages. Alana Zeitchik has six family members being held, including small children – she began with love and ended with peace. Rachel Goldberg, mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, asked us present and asked the world in the name of each hostage, child and adult: Why are you letting them stay in the dark, buried in the earth’s crust.
The speakers challenged us to keep the more than 240 hostages in the consciousness of the public and our leaders every single day. They spoke about how inhuman it is subordinate the hostages’ lives to any political, military and diplomatic strategy. I don’t think any of us outside their circle know how to hold that perspective, other than to take action each day that keep the hostages’ lives front and center. (Small thing I did just now – a note to the White House, since the switchboard is closed today.)
2. Natan Sharansky spoke. He talked about what it meant to know he wasn’t alone when he was in prison in the Soviet Union, and how much the gathering in DC means to him and to Israelis now. I was a child and a teen when Sharansky was a refusenik, a household name among us, and I was in college when he was released. Almost thirty-six years ago was the massive march in DC for Soviet Jews, and now here he was in front of us. Just seeing him was a living hope, and he told his story to us with no anger, only reassurance.
3. The student speakers were amazing. Confident, proud, empowered. I hope they took some of the strength from us back home and back to campus with them.
4. This was not in any way an anti-Palestinian gathering. The enemy was defined over and over very specifically as Hamas. From the microphone I heard no gloating over deaths of Gazans in war. Some speakers mentioned peace and innocent Palestinians suffering. I don’t mean to say this was a peace rally, by any means, and there was no talk at all about what specifically will happen after the fighting ends.
Near me, one person was holding a sign calling all Gazans members or supporters of Hamas. Some people asked her to put down her sign, and in the end someone put up an Israeli flag to block the view of her sign, and when those arms were tired another bigger sign obscured hers, “LA Stands With Israel” I think.
The rally was sponsored only by two national umbrella Jewish organizations, so that no other organization would have to decide to endorse some specific other Jewish organization’s participation. As a result, the charedi Agudah movement was there with very secular Jewish groups; AIPAC and J Street were both there; the Zionist Organization of America, pretty right-wing on the Israel-Palestinian question, came and so did Americans for Peace Now.
5. It was remarkable that the one word I heard only a single time all day was: “Netanyahu.” The State of Israel was represented by President Isaac Herzog. (The president is not the head of government, but the head of state. He is elected every few years by the Knesset, the parliament, and functions like the British monarch minus the land and wealth.) Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. also spoke, Michael Herzog, and yes, the president is the ambassador’s young brother. This was all about solidarity with Israelis as a people. And because of Israeli Arabs and Druze, and because of so many visitors and foreign workers in the area outside Gaza on October 7, this was also about more than Jews and even more than Israelis. Near me was a sign for one of the Thai hostages, part of a set of posters you’ve probably seen for every single of the hostages.
6. The music was very special, songs I knew and songs in Hebrew I didn’t know but apparently every young person there did. (Generations present: When Debra Messing spoke, the college kids were trying to figure out who she was; one of them mentioned “Will and Grace” almost as though it was as old as “I Dream of Jeannie.”) At the end, Matisyahu sang his anthem “One Day”, and the Maccabeats joined him: All my life, I've been waitin' for/I've been prayin' for/for the people to say/That we don't wanna fight no more/There'll be no more wars, and our children will play”, and in the crowd that might have been the loudest song of all. We had sung “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Hatikvah” two hours before.
7. That actually wasn’t the end. There were some non-Jewish clergy who gave long sermons right after, but it was overtime and people left, including our group for a meeting on the Hill. Pastor John Hagee spoke, and this was the most controversial thing about the event. He is a prominent “Christian Zionist” with a history of hateful words and ideas, including anti-Semitic. It was absolutely correct to have the bipartisan leadership of the two Houses of Congress represented, even though everyone at the rally had someone among them whom they despise. Pastor Hagee wasn’t needed and his presence on the program was over the line. At least by then most people were leaving.
8. I stood on my feet stuffed in one place for at least four hours, having had only a small breakfast and some granola bars to nosh on. I didn’t have any water with me. I don’t get inspired by speech after speech saying much of the same thing, as was a lot of the program I haven’t mentioned. And yet, the time felt like nothing at all. I had a random talk with a man who was commuting to work on the train in from the airport at the start of the day, a man about my age with political opinions and life perspective, and we blessed each other. I was with hundreds of people I know who I didn’t get to see at all because who could find each other. And yet, something about the moment helped me feel connected, and when better days come we’ll tell more of our stories about Tuesday.
Before the rally six of us met with Representative Annie Kuster, and afterward with Senator Jeanne Shaheen. For me, this was an essential part of the day. Having something concrete to do, something more in my element. It grounded me.
Rep. Kuster and a senior member of her staff met us in the Capitol, in the members’ dining room. She told us how that morning, the House Foreign Affairs Committee had screened the video of Hamas atrocities for all House members who were willing to see it, and how many members were shocked beyond anything they had seen before. She talked about the efforts to move the supplementary appropriations for Israel’s military needs, which she supports. We thanked her for her personal support and outreach to our Jewish community, and her staff’s calls to me on a regular basis.
Much of our conversation was about increased anti-Semitism. Each of us in the group spoke about our own child’s experience on campus, and the physical and emotional danger to Jewish students that is accompanying certain slogans and accusations of genocide against Israel. The degree of all this was obviously surprising to Rep. Kuster.
We turned then to the matter of Rep. Rashida Tlaib and her use of phrases like “from the river to the sea”, “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide.” Rep. Kuster said she did not vote for the censure of Rep. Tlaib for a variety of reasons. She told us that she talks with Rep. Tlaib directly and within the Democratic caucus generally about why this language is unacceptable, and that she has made some public statements to that effect.
I am absolutely convinced that Rep. Kuster thinks and has done the things she told us. We pressed her to take more responsibility as a public official to be more specific about why specific characterizations of Israel are both false and physically dangerous to Jewish students in particular, to make her statements more frequent and audible, and to call on other public officials to stop making such characterizations. Already this week there is some evidence that she and her staff heard us. They asked for my help in drafting a statement about our meeting, and incorporated some of what I suggested. You can read her statement here.
I gave Rep. Kuster and her office a copy of a book I often recommend, Yossi Klein Halevi’s Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, which also includes letters back from Palestinians. She wrote me subsequently that she plans to read it and then pass it along.
After the rally we met with Senator Shaheen. We were actually expecting only to meet with a couple staff members, since Sen. Shaheen had talked with some of us just a couple weeks ago at the Jewish Federation.
Sen. Shaheen is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and the subcommittee for the Near East. She talked to us about a briefing she had been at concerning negotiations for the hostages’ release, which we of course emphasized. Sen. Shaheen too has been a longtime supporter of U.S. defense assistance to Israel.
We asked her about a letter she and other Senators had sent to President Biden asking him to raise certain concerns with Israel about humanitarian issues in the war in Gaza. Her public statement about that letter is here.
Both Sen. Shaheen and her staff were also very affected by what we told them about college campuses. Despite a lot of recent stories about how aides to Democratic members of Congress are at odds with their bosses about Israel, everyone we spoke with in both offices told us how engaged they are with the issues facing Israel and American Jews, even after our meetings formally broke up. It has been my experience that all the members of New Hampshire’s delegation in Washington have some of the best and most knowledgeable staff on all of Capitol Hill.
Some of you have asked what you could do in terms of advocacy around these issues. I would say in brief that over the next week or two, you could send notes to Sen. Shaheen and Rep. Kuster thanking them for meeting with us. Then you could thank them for their continued support of our community’s needs and Israel, urge them to press for the immediate release of all hostages, and ask them to take a strong and specific public stance whenever any public official. I can help you craft that if you'd like.
A couple final personal spiritual thoughts after this week.
I have a pretty wide Jewish definition of joy. Sometimes I stretch it so far that means something like “feeling purposeful.” But to be honest with you, I can’t say that on Tuesday I felt particularly joyful. Sometimes rallies like this are like camp reunions. This didn’t feel that way for me at all. There were small moments of joy for me: Finding our group in front of the Capitol, a building that takes my breath away. Running into someone I have known for a long time. Dinner after all of it with my nephew. I hooted at times and waved my sign, and sang along when I could, but it wasn’t out of joy overall. Still, I know I feel different after Tuesday than before.
I feel better; that I can say. Part of it comes from the analogy of mourning that a lot of people have been using over the past month. I am not right now an immediate mourner for October 7, but I have been part of an extended Jewish family in mourning. As I tell every family, no one mourns the same way or on the same schedule. Just for me, Tuesday in DC was a kind of shloshim occasion, like the traditional thirty-day mark. Not an end, by any stretch. I just feel a bit more ready to talk with more people in more dimensions about what is going on, and a bit more ready to be in the wider community discussing and educating, returning to my familiar modes. It was good to be talking to our representatives. That seemed more like me, even though the conversations were unlike any I have ever had with them. I am not fine yet.
I am grateful: for the Jewish people, for the United States of America, for my family’s safety and wisdom, for community, for all the teachers and inspirations who brought me to this week, for everyone who is standing up for us and for what is right.
Please feel free to ask me more. I will go now and light an extra Shabbat candle and put some extra tzedakah in the box, for the people who need us now.