On the long walk to the New York City Women’s March with the Upper West Side Jewish contingent, it was hard to find someone who had been to a protest rally in the past decade.
More than a thousand people crowded the sidewalk in a sprawling group that at times stretched a half-dozen blocks, walking together from the West 88th Street sanctuary of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun down to meet the day’s main protest march.
And while the stereotypical Upper West Side Jew owns more protest pins than cufflinks, the crowd that came out on Saturday seemed made up of mostly people who had not gone marching for a long, long time.
Hannah Rothstein, a member of the Upper West Side minyan Darchei Noam, struggled to remember if the last time she attended a protest was in support of Soviet Jewry or women’s rights. Either way, she said, it was in the 1970s.
Bryan Bridges, who brought his young daughter from the Upper East Side, hadn’t been to a protest since the Republican National Convention came to New York in 2004. Sara Friedlander, 33, who was marching with her mother and her six-month-old daughter, said she had never been to a protest in her entire life.
“I’ve grown up complacent,” she said. Now, Friedlander said, “there’s no choice.”
Others said that they hadn’t protested since the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Kent State shootings in 1969, abortion rights marches in the 1980s, or the 2014 climate change marches.
Now, the marchers said that they were taking to the streets again because they saw in the dawn of Donald Trump’s presidency a threat to some of the same values that they marched for decades ago.
“It’s very dismaying to have to come out and march again for some of the same things,” Rothstein said.
The parade of newbie protesters started with a morning gathering at B’nai Jeshurun, organized with a coterie of other city synagogues. Congressman Jerry Nadler, who represents Manhattan’s west side, was greeted with a standing ovation. Nadler boycotted Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday, and has called the election tainted.
After the speeches, attendees spilled onto the side street, where an overflow crowd was already waiting. Dressed in Shabbat clothes and yarmulkes, the group moved south down Broadway, sticking mostly to the sidewalk, with police officers stopping traffic at intersections to let the group through.
As the Jewish marchers moved south past the Upper West Side landmarks — Fairway, Zabar’s, Barnes and Noble — the tone was closer to a Shabbat afternoon stroll than a protest; the marchers chatting and singing Hebrew songs. The mood shifted as the parade reached 42nd Street, the crowd growing denser as younger marchers led protest chants.
“I feel that you have to say something,” said Mayris Webber, who had not been to a protest since the Vietnam era. “You have to stand up and be heard.”
Susan Schneider, who was marching with Webber and had not been to a protest in three decades, said that she felt a “pressing need to express the power of democracy.”
At Times Square, a man in a Luigi costume stopped to take a picture of chanting marchers.
The Jewish feeder march intersected with the main New York City Women’s March outside of the New York Public Library at 5th Avenue and was immediately swallowed up. At unpredictable intervals, the crowd would begin to roar, the sound sweeping across 42nd Street and turning the corner onto 5th Avenue.
“It was thrilling,” Cantor Elizabeth Goldman said of the moment that the march from the Upper West turned the corner and the participants saw how massive the main march was. “The cheering is phenomenal. The way it’s kind of coming from everywhere.”
Drummers near 48th Street provided a beat that kept the crowd bouncing. Cell phone service was limited within the confines of the march, as the large number of people strained the phone network.
“It’s incredible and so gratifying that there are so many people here,” said Renee Cherow-O’Leany, who carried a sign reading: “M’dor l’dor: I march for my grandchildren’s future.”
Other signs were remarkably on-message. Most ridiculed Trump, or played off of election memes, or specifically referenced women’s rights. The standard protest signs that turn up at most large New York City marches, calling for the release of specific prisoners or advocating particular causes, were mostly absent.
Inside of the crush of the main march, the Upper West Side group largely splintered. Every half-block or so, a multi-colored yarmmulke indicated where they had gone.
“I wanted to join and be present with those that are both deeply concerned, if not disgusted, with what appears to be originating out of Washington at this point,” said John Ruskay, CEO emeritus of the UJA-Federation of New York, who marched with the Upper West Side group
Other Jewish community leaders were present for various portions of the day, including Jewish Theological Seminary of America chancellor Arnie Eisen, JCC Manhattan executive director Rabbi Joy Levitt, and Nadler, among others.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.