Former Michiganders react to the NYC
anti-Semitism event in Brooklyn.
Featured photo by Rivka Segal
When some 25,000 people gathered in New York City on Sunday to stand against anti-Semitism, West Bloomfield native Rabbi Leah Sternberg was there.
Sternberg, who today serves as assistant rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J., made her way from the packed Foley Square in lower Manhattan and across the Brooklyn Bridge with another member of the clergy and a group of some 50 congregants in a show of unity.
“I think it was a moment where so much of the community was able to come together and set aside those things that are incredibly divisive for a greater purpose, and in solidarity with a group of people they may or may not agree with on a lot of things,” Sternberg said. “I think that was the biggest part about it for me, the ability for an incredibly divided Jewish community to rally together in that way.”
Anti-Semitism has been on the rise, with a December attack on a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, N.J., and a machete stabbing during a Chanukah candle-lighting at a rabbi’s home in Monsey, N.Y., making national headlines. The New York City Police Department also stepped up its presence in Brooklyn neighborhoods with large Jewish communities following a spate of anti-Semitic incidents at the end of the year.
Chanting “No hate. No fear.”, marchers who had hopped flights, and boarded overnight and
early-morning buses from around the East Coast, Canada and Cleveland joined with New Yorkers from congregations of many stripes as they sang and waved signs calling for safety and promoting Jewish pride.
New York politicians Gov. Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer spoke ahead of the march, as a sea of people, among them a group from the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn and representatives from the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a network of Muslim and Jewish Women, prepared to cross the iconic bridge.
Event organizers included the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the Anti-Defamation League, the New York Board of Rabbis, the American Jewish Committee and the UJA-Federation of New York.
“Today, we do not simply walk over a bridge, we begin building better bridges between all denominations of Jews, and between Jews and non-Jews,” said Eric S. Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York. “Building bridges means putting aside our differences, religious and political, and calling out anti-Semitism and all forms of hate wherever we see it. The purpose of today’s march is to loudly and publicly proclaim that an attack on a visibly Orthodox Jew is an attack on every Jew, an attack on every New Yorker and an attack on every person of good will.”
Young and old, families with children in strollers, groups in brightly colored hats and individuals waving Israeli flags came in a steady stream across the bridge for hours, emerging into Cadman Plaza for a program featuring speeches by community leaders as well as music by singer Matisyahu and Jewish a cappella group the Maccabeats.
Sternberg, who moved to New Jersey six months ago, said she feels the march’s message, which brought together Jews and allies, is universal.
“While this was an event that happened in New York, it was really for everybody,” she said. “Though it rallied around recent events in the New York tri-state area, the same things that we were out there marching for, raising our voices, rallying for in New York are things that are relevant in Detroit, in Cleveland, that are relevant all over the world.”
Ann Arbor native Ari Axelrod, an actor and director who moved to New York in 2016 and lives in Manhattan, said though he is active and outspoken on social media about the steep rise in anti-Semitism and how to fight it, he ultimately decided not to attend Sunday’s rally. He’d heard about it well in advance and even made plans to meet people there, but Friday morning’s news of a strike that killed Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani convinced him to stay home.
“I think that stirred the pot a little too much,” he said. “I wasn’t confident that I would be safe or that the community would be safe. I’m thrilled that I was proven wrong, but I wasn’t in a place to take that chance.”
While the march provided a space for solidarity and visibility, he said, it has to be part of something bigger, and lead to action. “I think it’s great, but I think it has to be paired with something ‘stickier’ that can actually hold more potential for change. It can’t be an isolated event.”
Rokeya Akhter, who marched with the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom and co-leads its Queens chapter, said she saw the march as a chance to “pray with our feet” and support unity. “Whenever one of us is hurt, we are all hurt,” she said.