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DC rally attendee: ‘It felt like every Jew in the world was there with us’

A few of the nearly 300,000 people who came to the “March for Israel” in Washington shared their stories with JNS.

Itai Yanai (with son Ben on his shoulders), and Shelli Robbins and Noam Bar-Touv, at the “March for Israel” on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of Itai Yanai.
Itai Yanai (with son Ben on his shoulders), and Shelli Robbins and Noam Bar-Touv, at the “March for Israel” on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of Itai Yanai.

Itai Yanai woke his 11-year-old son Ben up at 5 a.m. on Nov. 14 to board one of five buses that the Israeli-American Council had arranged to take people from Manhattan to Washington, D.C., to attend the “March for Israel” rally on the National Mall.

The Haifa native and his son arrived at the designated location on 32nd Street at 6 a.m., half an hour before the bus was slated to leave. An hour and 20 minutes passed until finally, the 250 or so people waiting were told that the buses had been canceled. (Yanai still doesn’t know why, he told JNS.)

“No one would have blamed me for just going home,” Yanai, a scientist and university professor, told JNS. He had bought two tickets. He’d woken up so early with his son. He’d waited. But at that moment, he realized just how much he wanted to attend the event in Washington.

“In a way, the cancellation was a gift,” he said.

Amtrak trains were fully booked, as were flights. Uber was an option, albeit a costly one. He realized that there was an Avis nearby, so he and his son went to see about renting a car. Many other Jews and pro-Israel people had the same idea, but Yanai was told there were enough vehicles. He booked a rental through the Avis app, and a mere 10 minutes after he learned that the bus was canceled, he and his son had a reservation at 7:30 a.m.

Then they met Shelli Robbins and Noam Bar-Touv, who were also waiting online and who had only met each other several minutes beforehand. Bar-Touv had moved from Israel eight months prior and wasn’t sure about how to arrange for rental insurance; Robbins, too, was wary of renting a car. Yanai, who has lived in the United States since he was 9 years old, was comfortable doing so. Soon, two perfect strangers were hitching a ride to and from Washington with the Yanais.

“They were just waiting for a miracle,” Yanai said. He had also wanted Ben to experience the bus ride with fellow travelers, so sharing the car ride with two others was “a good substitute for the atmosphere.”

“It was a real adventure,” he told JNS. “We were perfect strangers. We spent the whole day together laughing, telling stories. It kind of restores your faith in humanity.”

The drive took four hours (the drive back took four-and-a-half). The quartet parked in Bethesda and rode the Metro together to the National Mall; spent the duration of the march together; and then got some dinner and drove back to New York.

“All the speeches felt like such therapy,” he said. He noted those, in particular, of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Israeli President Isaac Herzog (broadcast live) and his brother Michael Herzog, Israeli ambassador to the United States.

Although the trip was somewhat of a hassle, Yanai told JNS it was more than worth it to attend. “We see protests all the time, and this one is ours,” he said. “If we don’t show up, who will?”

‘I was there’

The four were among the nearly 300,000 who flocked to Washington for the rally, which organizers said was the largest pro-Israel gathering in history. Another estimated that 250,000 others watched the event online.

On the National Mall, many attendees held up posters of kidnapped children and Israeli flags, and the area between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument was a sea of blue and white.

Chezky Rimler and Shimshon (“Shim”) Silverstein attended as part of a significant delegation associated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement from the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“We’re here to spread the love. Support Israel. Support our American brothers here,” Silverstein told JNS. “Spread light. Spread love.”

Chezky Rimler
Chezky Rimler (in foreground) at the “March for Israel” on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 14, 2023. Credit: Chezky Rimler.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson—was “very into outreach and spreading love. That’s what we’re here to do today,” Silverstein said.

Rimmler said his father just went to Israel last week to serve as a paramedic in Ashkelon, where there is a need for more medical professionals.

“If we can come down to D.C. and show people that we’re not afraid, and we’re here to love and share goodness and kindness, we’ll be there,” Rimmler said.

“They want us to hide our Jewishness,” Silverstein said.

“Don’t be afraid. Just get bigger and better,” Rimmler advised others. “Love will always trump hate.”

When JNS spoke to them, the two had collectively convinced seven men to wrap tefillin. Asked if there was a competition going on between them, Silverstein said: “There’s always a competition. Even for holy things.”

Tori Greene arrived from the other side of the country as part of a group from Los Angeles. It was so important to her to be there that Greene took the red eye to land in the D.C. area at 5 a.m., only to leave again at 10 p.m.—traversing the width of the country twice in less than 24 hours.

“It felt like an important opportunity for me to speak up against antisemitism and call for the hostages to return home,” Greene, a Hebrew Union College rabbinical student, told JNS. “I knew it was going to be something historic. Forever, I will be able to say, ‘I was there.’”

Greene told JNS she feels a responsibility as a future Jewish leader to “show up when it matters.” She also shows up online, where she has a sizable social-media following. The rabbi-in-training uses her platform to educate others about Judaism and Zionism, among other subjects.

“I’m a liberal Zionist who believes Palestinian liberation is just as important as Jewish liberation,” she told JNS. “In order for that to happen, we have to take down Hamas.”

“We are so strong, and we are stronger when we are together,” she added.

‘Going to be something next-level’

Eric Leiderman, the Midwest regional director of IsraelLink, a Jewish and Israeli education nonprofit, was also drawn to the rally by a sense of togetherness and strength.

The Chicago resident also holds private, Orthodox rabbinic ordination, and is co-founder and president of Masorti on Campus, which is associated with the Conservative Jewish movement and creates “inclusive Jewish spaces on college campuses.”

Leiderman has vivid memories of attending the major “National Rally in Solidarity with Israel” on April 15, 2002, during the years of the Second Intifada in Israel, which reportedly drew 100,000 people.

“When I first heard about this week’s rally in Washington, D.C., I immediately posted about it on social media and looked up airfare,” he told JNS. “This was before any Jewish Federation or synagogue had shared information about group transportation, but I knew if this event was going to happen, I was going to be there.”

Like Greene and Yanai, Leiderman woke up at the crack of dawn to get to Washington, although he wasn’t flying cross-country. (Like Yanai, he woke early with his son, but instead of taking him to the rally, he changed the latter’s diaper.)

Leiderman left the house at 3 a.m. to drive to Chicago Midway International Airport with thoughts racing through his mind. He knew others who planned to attend from all over the country. But how would the size and scale compare with his memories from the gathering 20 years ago?

But from the moment he got to the airport, he knew “this was going to be something next-level.” Every security line was full of Jews, whether in traditional attire or clad in clothing with Hebrew letters, supporting Israel or calling for the release of hostages.

“I do not know how many nonstop flights from Midway or O’Hare to Washington, D.C. there are, but I am sure they were all full flights,” he told JNS. His gate “felt more like a gate area for an El Al flight to Israel.”

Although he traveled alone, when he arrived in Washington, Leiderman felt that togetherness that drew him to the rally in the first place. The Metro was packed with others heading to the same place, to support Israel.

When he arrived at the rally, Leiderman said he felt an “unprecedented” level of Jewish unity.

“No matter how big the actual crowd size,” he noted, “standing on the National Mall, it felt like every Jew in the world was there with us.”

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