March for Israel 2023: Community Members Share Their Experiences

On November 14, 2023, close to 300,000 Jews and allies came together on the National Mall in Washington, DC for the largest pro-Israel gathering in the history of the North American Jewish community. An additional 250,000 people tuned into the livestream of the event. We sounded our unified voice in support of Israel, made a plea to free the hostages, and denounced antisemitism!

Jewish Federation of the Berkshires is so grateful to have been part of this powerful and historic moment, with 32 community members showing up for the #MarchforIsrael! Thank you to the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York for their partnership. We are most grateful to the Harold Grinspoon Foundation for their generous grant for Berkshire participants.

A step of strength and comfort for our people

By Rabbi Jodie Gordon

The march was held on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, the start of the Hebrew month in which we celebrate Chanukah, and strive to add light to our world. There is a custom of reciting Hallel (psalms of praise and gratitude) on Rosh Chodesh, and as I remarked to my traveling companions on Tuesday morning, our footsteps at this march would be our Hallel. Each step we took was an offering of gratitude for our First Amendment rights to gather and proudly affirm our love and care for Israel, demand the release of hostages, and denounce the rising tide of antisemitism at home and abroad.

I want to share a few moments that stood out for me from the March for Israel:

  • Hearing teenagers and college students speak about this moment as part of a special “pre-show” gathering which featured speakers from Young Judaea, USY, Tzofim of North America, Students Supporting Israel, North American Day Schools and Jewish Summer Camps, NFTY, NCSY, MaccabiUSA, JNF-USA’s Alexander Muss High School in Israel, Hillel, Hashomer Hatzair, Habonim Dror, Club Z, Bnei Akiva, BBYO, AMHSI and more.
  • Hearing Natan Sharansky begin his remarks to the crowd by saying "dear, dear family". As the former chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel and Soviet dissident, Sharansky shared remark that were poignantly grounded in his personal experiences helping to free Soviet Jewry over 30 years ago.
  • Hearing a large group of Yeshiva and Kollel students loudly applaud Arielle Mokjtarzideh, an Iranian Jewish woman who works for the Milken institute, as she paid tribute to the American Jewish dream afforded to her and her family after their escape from Iran.
  • Hearing Isaac Herzog, president of Israel, describe a beautiful vision of Israel for the future, in which he said “Children will one day play again in the streets of Beeri and Sderot.” Halevai.
  • Learning from Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt – who reminded us of the promise of America, as described 230 years ago by President Washington, who promised the Jews of Newport that here, bigotry would have no sanction. Lipstadt affirmed that today, on behalf of the US president and the entire US government, that the current US leadership stands shoulder to shoulder with us against Jew hatred. Her powerful remarks ended with the words: "Do not cower. Do not allow them to make you afraid."

It came as no surprise for me that the most powerful moments of the day were when the families of hostages spoke. The opportunity to bear witness to the pain and call to action offered by the families of hostages was remarkable. I remain haunted by the leonine power of Hersh Goldberg-Polin’s mother, Rachel Goldberg. Her voice rang out in pain and power when she said, "We have lived the last 39 days in an endless torment. We have third degree burns on our souls. Our hearts are bruised and seeping with misery". The crowd's chant of “Bring them home now” was meditative, inspiring, and heartbreaking. The strength of these families to hold their pain and hold space for the pain of others is humbling.

My deepest hope and prayer is that the story that will be told of November 14, 2023 is that it was a day of unity and bravery; a day when American Jews were able to gather peacefully to sound a clarion call for the return of the hostages, affirming our love and support for Israel, and denouncing the scourge of antisemitism. I hope that it will be remembered as a day when our family in Israel felt strengthened and held by the North American Jewish community and allies, during a time when they have been isolated by the global community writ large. This gathering was but one important step: a step of strength and comfort for our people, a sign to the world that the Jewish people will not be silenced.

Even taking one small step…

By Jilly Lederman

As I exited my subway car onto the platform at Smithsonian station, the sound of hundreds of people inside singing in Hebrew reverberated through the crowd. Turning back over my shoulder as I rode the escalator up, I saw a sea of blue. People from all over the country, individuals of many different political persuasions, genders, ages, and beliefs comprised the swell of faces behind me. I emerged from the station, blinking in the sunlight, to face the Mall. As I stood there, I imagined the hundreds of thousands of people as concentric circles around me: my friends, my Berkshire Jewish community, my new regional friends from the Albany Federation, the United States, the world —all united in support of Israel, and against the rising threat of antisemitism. 

I teach my students that you have to stand up for what you believe in. Even taking one small step makes a difference. Thank you to the Jewish Federation for helping me take that step. 

This was one of those times

By Zach Fluhr

Only 3 times in the past 60 years have I felt compelled to be present at a political rally. This was one of those times. It was important for me to stand with Israel in this time of her need. The experience of being among roughly 300,000 other supporters listening to elected officials and celebrities oppose Hamas’s brutality and global Jew hatred was emotional. Thanks to Federation for handling all the details.

Trying to Hang on to How She Felt

By Elisa Snowise

Standing on the National Mall in DC listening to more than 290,000 people chant “Bring Them Home” is something I won’t forget. It was powerful. It was comforting. It was inspiring. It was reinvigorating. It was confidence-building. It was hopeful. It is a feeling I find myself continuously trying to bring forth again.

We got off the bus at FedEx Field, rode a shuttle and the Metro to the Mall, and then walked through the growing crowd to find our spot for the program – throughout, I felt comfortable and safe and part of something substantial and remarkable. It was a beautiful blue-sky day; everyone around me was going to the same place and seemed to feel as I do about Israel. Sure, we might disagree on some of the nuances of the situation, but clearly, everyone around me believed in Israel’s right to exist and that October 7 was a terrorist massacre. Everyone seemed excited to gather and soak up the strength and sense of unity from working towards a common goal. Throughout my travels that day, I did not witness any counter-protests. Every police officer I encountered was friendly and helpful, and some even shared that they supported our cause. When we were packed in like sardines on the Mall or the Metro, strangers held each other up and helped one another get to where they needed to go. Even when separated from the group I traveled with, I never felt alone or nervous. I believed I could hold my head high as a Jew and was surrounded by people who supported and cared about the people of Israel as I do.

The words spoken and sung from the stage were reassuring, determined, empowering, and, most of all, hopeful. I felt that there were many people there who could affect change and would work towards getting the hostages home. I believed them when they expressed their unwavering support for Israel, its right to defend itself, and their dedication to stand with Israel and all of us through this war. I sang and chanted and felt hopeful.

Despite the spotty cell phone coverage on the Mall, I found my college-age daughter among the enormous crowd. We shared a moment of exciting optimism before we separated again to find our way back to the groups we had each traveled with.

It felt great, safe, and hopeful to be a Jew in DC on November 14th.

Since coming home, hanging on to the positivity I felt in Washington has been challenging. The news is full of stories about antisemitism, hate, and violence being demonstrated all over the world. The war between Israel and Hamas continues and hostages remain in Gaza. I worry that I need to remain on alert all the time because it seems likely that even my small, sheltered world could change and become hostile towards Jewish life. The safe, supported, and hopeful way I felt in DC is also how I existed throughout my college career at Brandeis University. This week, my daughter at Brandeis experienced horrible antisemitic hate speech explicitly directed at her – at Brandeis! Places created for Jewish people to live and prosper safely are under attack.

I am trying to remember and hang on to how I felt at the March for Israel so that I can have faith that the ideas and commitments expressed will ensure a safe Jewish future for Israel and all of us.

It was clear we are not alone

By Marc Rudoltz

I had been to previous marches in Washington in support of Israel and the Jewish people, but never one for which I felt an existential threat to the Jewish state and the United States continuing to be a relative safe haven for Jews.

Though hoping for more attendees (no matter how many showed up), there was a tremendous feeling of solidarity among the Jews who attended from all over the country – from our largest cities to rural communities.

Most heartening was the support from our non-Jewish brethren; I was fortunate enough to interact with many pro-Israel pro-Jewish Christians for whom attendance was a priority. When I saw a group of "Blacks for Trump" wearing pro-Israel hats and shirts, it was clear we are not alone."