The reason for this major New York rally is violence against Hasidic Jews. But will they go?
Several of the New York area’s biggest and most important Jewish organizations will hold a rally on Sunday in response to a recent epidemic of attacks on Hasidic Jews, including a machete attack at a Hanukkah party last weekend that left five people wounded, including one in a coma.
The event is intended to express solidarity with communities whose Jewishness is easily identifiable by how they dress, making them subject to increasing violence. But will they attend?
This event — initiated by the UJA-Federation of New York and called “No Hate. No Fear.” — will test whether a broad coalition of Jews will cross denominational lines to protest anti-Semitism together.
After all, Orthodox Jews have long felt that less observant Jews were ignoring the increasing violence against them. Yet Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, a longtime leader of the transdenominational New York Board of Rabbis, which is co-sponsoring the rally, said if this event goes as planned, it will bring together a more diverse cross-section of the Jewish world than any in recent memory.
“We all operate within our separate enclaves,” said Potasnik. “We can no longer differentiate, whether its Pittsburgh or Poway, Williamsburg, Borough Park, Crown Heights — the attacker doesn’t look at, ‘Which denomination is this?’ Nor should we look at the denomination.”
Hanukkah saw seven assaults on Jews in Brooklyn, as well as an incident in which a homeless man threatened to “shoot up” a center of Hasidic life in the borough’s Crown Heights neighborhood. In November, two Hasidic Jews were killed when gunmen attacked a kosher grocery store just across the Hudson River in New Jersey.
Throughout New York City, there were 220 hate incidents against Jews in 2019, up 21% from 2018, according to the New York Police Department.
As of early Friday afternoon, the main Facebook page for the march had just over 1,500 people listed as “going.” Five Washington, D.C.-area groups that are local counterparts to the organizers of the New York rally are sending three buses of activists to participate.
“I cannot remember a moment when we all showed up in the kind of numbers we are anticipating now,” Potasnik said.
The rally is an effort by UJA and its co-sponsors — the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the American Jewish Committee — to create an interdenominational and interfaith rally. Speakers will include Cardinal Timothy Dolan and A. R. Bernard, the pastor of a Brooklyn megachurch.
The rest of the speaker list is still in flux, but may include multiple Haredi rabbis. Rabbi David Niederman, the leader of an influential Hasidic nonprofit in Williamsburg, is set to speak, according to Potasnik, as is Devorah Halberstam, the Hasidic mother of a teenager who was killed in New York in 1994 as retaliation for killings of Muslims in the West Bank.
Both Haredi Jews, whose distinctive clothing and headgear identifies them as religious, and liberal Jews — in the Reform and Conservative movement, as well as those who are unaffiliated — want to fight anti-Semitism, but in many cases they see different causes for the hatred.
The Reform movement, which represents over two million American Jews, has tied much of the rising tide of anti-Semitism to white supremacy. Jews on the left have espoused the idea that fighting anti-Semitism should be the same endeavor as fighting racism.
But in the most recent spate of attacks on Orthodox Jews, suspects have been predominantly African-American. For example, in the case of the Jersey City kosher grocery store shooting, in which two Jews, a store employee and a police officer were killed, the assailants left behind social media posts that indicated a belief in anti-Semitic Hebrew Israelite ideology, which holds that white Jews stole Judaism from Africans. Many assailants are juveniles or struggle with mental illness, according to reports of specific incidents.
Orthodox Jews have repeatedly accused liberal Jews of ignoring or playing down the violence, which has primarily occurred in Brooklyn. Nationally, the number of anti-Semitic incidents is rising but primarily non-violent, with nearly three-fourths of incidents in 2017 being categorized as vandalism or property damage.
“There has been a narrative, certainly when these attacks first started in brooklyn, that the broader Jewish community wasn’t sufficiently vocal,” said Eric Goldstein, the chief executive of UJA-Federation of New York. “This may be concentrated in the Brooklyn neighborhoods, but make no mistake, this is a threat to all of us, and we should see it as such and react to it as such.”
Goldstein, who is Orthodox, took over as chief executive of UJA in 2014, and was hired in part because of his ties to the Orthodox world. In an interview Friday, he said he has been working for five years to connect with various Orthodox groups, holding private meetings and attending both large celebrations and smaller, serious gatherings, such as shiva calls. The rally, he said, which will cross the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan and will include liberal Jewish, Orthodox and non-Jewish speakers, is designed to show that there is a broad coalition of Jews and non-Jews who want to stop the attacks.
“We’re literally going across a bridge, very deliberately, to show that we need to keep building bridges with the Brooklyn Orthodox community,” he said.
Events with this kind of broad coalition have been rare in American Judaism, Potasnik said. The last similar public unity event he could think of was the 1987 march in Washington, D.C. in support of Soviet Jews, which drew over 250,000 people.
The New York event got a significant signal boost in the form of a New York Times editorial endorsing it. Soon after the piece’s publication, Bari Weiss, a Jewish opinion writer for the Times, announced she would be speaking at the event. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also announced he would be attending.
You can’t sweep hatred under the rug. You have to call it out and confront it — and New Yorkers stand up for their neighbors. I’ll be marching this Sunday — join us as we show our Jewish community that their city stands with them. https://t.co/ExhZtI8Stj
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) January 2, 2020
Goldstein says that the rally has two broad purposes: to give people a chance to express their anger and concern, and to get the attention of community leaders and politicians.
“We hope that if there is a very significant turnout, it will motivate all, at all levels, communally, politically, religiously, the leadership to speak in a greater, more united voice,” he said.
But the focus of the rally is violence against Haredi Jews, and as such, Goldstein has been making an effort to encourage Haredi Jews from the New York area to attend.
Goldstein says he has been making calls to as many Haredi leaders and organizations as he can this week. He said he recorded broadcasts for two radio stations popular in the Haredi community, and spoke to people about the rally at Siyum HaShas, the event marking the completion of a seven-year cycle of Talmud study, which drew tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews to MetLife Stadium in New Jersey on Wednesday.
On Friday morning, an article about the rally was published to COLlive, a popular Hasidic news site. “Come and bring your TEFILLIN!!” wrote one commenter, an apparent reference to the practice of some Chabad Hasidic Jews of encouraging secular Jews to don the ritual leather straps.
Yaacov Behrman, a community activist in Crown Heights and Borough Park, said Friday morning that he saw increasing chatter about the rally in chat groups on WhatsApp, the social media network of choice for many Hasidic Jews, with some people encouraging their friends and family to attend.
Yet some community members say that UJA and other event sponsors have not effectively tapped into the Hasidic community’s own networks for distributing information. Two locally popular websites for Crown Heights — CrownHeights.info and the Chabad news website — were not carrying news of the rally as of Friday morning.
In order to get a large turnout from Haredi communities, the rally faces something of a cultural gap. Hasidic Jews broadly prefer not to organize events about negative subjects, many people in the community told the Forward.
Dalia Shusterman, one of the more recent victims of violence against Haredi Jews in Brooklyn, echoed that sentiment. On the fifth night of Hanukkah, she was one of three women slapped by a homeless woman in Crown Heights. But she said Thursday that she was not sure if she would go to the rally. She said that she, like other Hasidic Jews, prefers to respond to hate with prayers rather than protests.
“It’s good to be visible, but frum Jews are visible,” she said, using a Yiddish world for religious. “Our counter culture-ness is worn on a daily basis. We are who we are, and some people already feel affronted by that.”
“I’d rather come together for positive things,” she added, “like a menorah lighting.”
A rally? That’s our community’s response to anti-semitism? Rallies are good for getting the attention of the media and government. Would have been appropriate six months ago. Now it’s just a waste of time. I’m tempted to say OK Boomer to whoever planned this.
— Gil Student (@GilStudent) January 1, 2020
Many Hasidic Jews who have roles in politics are attending, such as community lobbyist Ushi Teitelbaum and former state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who now runs a group that aims to fight anti-Semitism.
“We scream together, am yisrael chai,” — the Jewish nation lives — “whether were black hat, or no hat,” Teitelbaum said.
Rabbi Avi Greenstein, the head of the Borough Park Jewish Community Council, said he intends to go, and noted that UJA-Federation of New York provides funding to the Council.
“I’m not looking at this as political,” he said. “My goal is that we build these bridges and that we show that were more similar than not.”
The march is nevertheless proving controversial with regards to another banner issue of the Jews: Israel.
In a tweet, IfNotNow, a progressive Israel group, said in a now-deleted tweet that the inclusion of two groups — Zioness, a pro-Israel group, and Americans Against Antisemitism, Hikind’s organization — would not make certian people in the Jewish community “feel safe.”
We disagree profoundly with many of the organizers, and we reject tactics that rely on policing or alignment with white nationalists. We know that those tactics harm Jews of Color and harm many of the communities with which we need to build solidarity. [3/4]
— IfNotNow? (@IfNotNowOrg) January 3, 2020
As interest in the event has picked up steam, liberal Jewish groups have attached their name to the event and encouraged their constituents to join, from local New York day schools to Jewish Women International.
Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, leader of SAJ, a Manhattan Reconstructionist synagogue, said that she hopes to bring at least two dozen congregants to the march Sunday.
“I don’t have to agree with everything Hasidic Jews believe to believe that they should be safe,” she said. “No one should be left behind, not the Hasidic, not the liberal, not anyone from any other marginalized group.”
Solidarity March: No Hate. No Fear.
Sunday, January 5, at 11:00 a.m.
Participants will meet at Foley Square, near City Hall in Manhattan, and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to Brooklyn.
The weather in New York City on Sunday is expexted to be sunny, with a high of 42º.
For more information about the rally, visit its Facebook event page at this link.