Standing with Jewish community: Valley residents join 300,000 at March for Israel in D.C.

People attend the March for Israel rally Tuesday on the National Mall in Washington.

People attend the March for Israel rally Tuesday on the National Mall in Washington. AP

People attend the March for Israel rally Tuesday on the National Mall in Washington.

People attend the March for Israel rally Tuesday on the National Mall in Washington. AP

Western Massachusetts resident Ros Barron rode one of the buses the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts organized for residents who wanted to participate in the March for Israel in Washington on Tuesday.

Western Massachusetts resident Ros Barron rode one of the buses the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts organized for residents who wanted to participate in the March for Israel in Washington on Tuesday. CONTRIBUTED

Western Massachusetts residents traveled on Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning to Washington, D.C. to participate at the March for Israel organized by Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Western Massachusetts residents traveled on Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning to Washington, D.C. to participate at the March for Israel organized by Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. CONTRIBUTED

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 11-15-2023 7:20 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Andrea Olkin, an educator at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton, wants her youngest students to take pride in their identity as Jews and to not have to live in fear or face the rising levels of antisemitism seen across the country and the world since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

“As a Jewish American, I feel like we really need to have a voice, yet a lot of places it’s not safe to show love for Israel,” Olkin says. “We don’t expect to have kids on college campuses not feel safe because they’re Jewish.”

Olkin, a Springfield resident, was among those joining the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts on Tuesday’s bus trip to Washington, D.C. for the March for Israel.

Organizers of Tuesday’s demonstration said they estimated that more than 300,000 people attended to show U.S. support for Israel, demand the release of hostages and condemn antisemitic violence and harassment. Among those in attendance were more than 100 residents from Hampshire and Franklin counties, as well as Hampden County, who rode on two buses provided by the Jewish Federation. Others attended on their own.

While Olkin considers herself aligned with progressives on many issues, she worries that many of her like-minded friends don’t have the backs of Jews and that the circumstances of the 1930s that led to the Holocaust could be repeated.

“It’s a horrible feeling having people saying such hateful things about Israel and her right to defend herself,” Olkin said.

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Another participant in the march, Karen Loeb of Amherst, said the past month has been a “slow motion torment” for her, so joining 300,000 people was an uplifting experience.

“Since Oct. 7, I’ve just been devastated by the cruelty and horror of it, and the support seen on college campuses for Hamas,” Loeb said. “I feel like my eyes have been opened about antisemitism, including in this country, and I’m very, very disappointed.

“Now I have been awakened as a Jew, and as an American Jew I’m afraid,” Loeb said.

Over the course of more than three hours, the local participants said they took inspiration and wisdom from elected leaders across the political spectrum and activists from a number of faiths and various media personalities, as well as families whose loved ones remain captive in Gaza. With the U.S. Capitol serving as the backdrop, the gathering on the National Mall aimed to show support for Israel, call for the hostages being held by Hamas to be freed, and to protest rising levels of antisemitism.

The Jewish Federations of North America and Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which organized the march, described it as “an opportunity for all Americans to come together in solidarity with the people of Israel, to demonstrate our commitment to America’s most important ally in the Middle East, to condemn the rising trend of antisemitic violence and harassment, and to demand that every hostage be immediately and safely released.”

Both Olkin and Loeb said they particularly appreciated the words of Anila Ali, a grassroots community and interfaith leader from Pakistan, who said that Hamas doesn’t represent Islam and that the world needs to take guidance from her country’s 1947 formation out of massacres and refugees.

“India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, we integrated refugees, we accepted the borders and we focused on building a better future for all of our generations,” Ali said. “In that spirit, I declare the war to destroy the Jews and the Jewish homeland must end once and for all.”

Barry Elbaum of Hatfield, who grew up in Brooklyn, said he’s never known a time in his 77 years where antisemitism wasn’t present.

“There’s been such an explosion of antisemitism and Jew hatred that is just irrational,” Elbaum said. “Antisemitism is pervasive, it is current, it is quiet sometimes, it is not quiet sometimes, but it is always there.”

Elbaum said it doesn’t matter how progressive an area or organization is, antisemitism still lurks.

Being in Washington, though, he said he appreciates that President Joe Biden is standing by Israel, along with all of the prominent elected leaders from both parties, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, and House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana.

Schumer said Congress stands with Israel after Hamas militants stormed into Israel from Gaza, killing more than 1,200 people and taking more than 200 hostages Oct. 7.

“My friends, there are no words for the horror that happened one month ago in Israel, the most Jews killed in a single day since the Holocaust,” Schumer said. “It brings back much darker days.”

“The survival of the state of Israel and her people unites us together, and it unites all Americans,” Johnson said. “Let me be very clear, the United States stands unequivocally with our neighbor, our friend, our ally Israel. They are neighbors in a global sense.”

“Just their presence was so heartwarming,” Elbaum said of the many politicians who took the stage. “It’s important for we Jews to welcome support, and wherever the support comes from, we appreciate it.”

The March for Israel began with a brief presentation by Mika Alexander, a 17-year-old from New Jersey whose older brother Edan, a member of the Israeli army, remains a hostage in Gaza She said bringing her brother home would mean closure and happiness to her family.

“I would just say, ‘thank you so much for coming here and supporting this campaign,’” Alexander said. “We just need to bring Edan and all the other hostages home now.”

Other speakers included Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy to combat and monitor antisemitism, CNN political analyst Van Jones and actresses Deborah Messing and Tovah Feldschuh.

Optimism follows march

Nora Gorenstein, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, said the March for Israel was about standing with the Jewish community to fight hate and bigotry in all its forms. “We are proud to join the March for Israel alongside partners and allies in a gesture of solidarity with our Israel friends and family and commitment to fight antisemitism,” Gorenstein said.

The Harold Grinspoon Foundation provided travel subsidies. Elbaum praised the Jewish Federation for its skill to organize so many local people to participate.

“For so many Jews to come together, it was encouraging and gives me a lot of confidence for the future,” Elbaum said.

Loeb, though, said she is frightened at what might come. “Hamas doesn’t want a Palestinian state, they want Jews dead and gone,” Loeb said. “What I’d like to see is for people to get educated, to know what Palestine means, to know what river to the sea means.”

The only short-term solutions might be for hostages to come home soon, she said. “There can be no greater torment than not knowing what is happening to your child,” Loeb said.

Olkin, who was accompanied to the march by her 16-year-old daughter, recalls participating in a similar rally in the nation’s capital in 1987 when she herself was a teen. The Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jews called on then-Soviet President Mikail Gorbachev to end the country’s forced assimilation of Jews and to allow their emigration.

Tuesday’s March for Israel brings with it some optimism. “I came away with so much hope,” Olkin said. “What I heard is, ‘We see you, we know what you are going through.’”

She would also like to see American political leaders show continued aid for both Israel and Ukraine.

“When we come together for good, amazing things can happen,” Olkin said. “The world seeing that so many people are against antisemitism, are for Israel, and are for bringing the hostages home, hopefully that will mean something.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.