The Israel Rally :: Solomon Schechter Day School

The Israel Rally

/ Nov 15, 2023 /
By: Rabbi Jonathan (Yoni) Berger

“For many of us, the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

Our day began at 3:15 a.m., in the thick of the night. We got dressed for the rally, grabbed our bags, and snuck out of the house, trying not to wake our sleeping spouses, parents, children, siblings. We boarded buses just before 4 a.m., and our journey began. The bus ride from West Hartford to Washington, DC was quick; we never hit traffic, and arrived at FedEx Field in about six hours. We then rode a shuttle bus, a Metro, and an escalator—and we finally emerged somewhere between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol.

Picture tiny backyard creeks flowing together into streams, combining into tributaries, converging to become the Mississippi River. Now imagine being a droplet of water and taking that journey, and you have a sense of our experience yesterday. I woke up alone in my house, and met seven Schechter students and two parent chaperones at the synagogue parking lot. We joined 32 students and chaperones from the New England Jewish Academy as one bus of the four that left from West Hartford, organized by our Jewish Federation with the support of the Jewish Community Foundation, 160 people in all.

Starting in New Jersey, we began seeing other scattered buses on the highway, and another 8 or 9 buses were idling at the rest stop in Delaware. Hundreds of buses converged in the parking lots at RFK Stadium and FedEx Field, where thousands of marchers waited in lines to board shuttle buses. The Metro was standing room-only, with Israeli flags on display everywhere you looked. And at the Mall itself? Over 250,000 Jews had flowed together like the mighty Mississippi, demanding justice, calling for the hostages to be freed, standing together. We had come from LA, from Kansas, from Montreal, from Atlanta, from Pittsburgh. We were truly K’lal Yisrael, the unified Jewish people.

And we weren’t exclusively Jewish. While Jewish pride was evident throughout, it was reassuring and inspiring to see many people at the rally holding “Christians for Israel” signs, and to hear the words of politicians of different religious backgrounds (and very different politics!) who united to stand with Israel, condemn Hamas, and call for the release of the hostages.

Our hearts were broken as we listened to two mothers of hostages, and a cousin of another, speak of their loving and beloved relatives who were taken captive. We joined together and chanted, “Send them home, send them home.” And then, just before we left to begin our journey back home, we lifted our voices and sang “Acheinu,” the traditional prayer which asks God to free captives and hostages. Singing together didn’t mend our hearts, exactly, but it knit us all together, and that offered a kind of healing.

Towards the end of the day, as we boarded the buses that would take us back to Connecticut, I asked the seventh and eighth graders, “What do you think will stick with you from today? What will you remember?” Their beautiful answers reminded me again why it is such a privilege to be a Jewish educator. “The feeling of being there with the whole community.” “The groups who came from so far away.” “Chanting, ‘Send them home!’” One student made a beautiful connection to Rosa Parks. And finally, two of the students gave the answer I would have given: “Singing ‘Acheinu.’”

In truth, you don’t have to choose between praying with your feet and praying with your lips; you can do both. On the bus to DC, Schechter students and NEJA students davened shaharit (recited the morning service), just as I’m sure Rabbi Heschel did the morning of the march from Selma. But yesterday’s rally—both the words of the speakers and the feeling of unity—had a spiritual impact that will shape us all for years to come.

I imagine that any seventh or eighth grader who attended the rally would have felt its power. Still, I can’t end this column without calling attention to the role of a Schechter education in making it meaningful. Our students didn’t show up to the rally as blank slates; they have been engaged with the situation in Israel since we returned to school on October 9th. They showed up to the local rally at West Hartford’s Town Hall, and to the vigil at the Emanuel. They met Governor Ted Lamont, and have written multiple letters to elected officials, and even more letters to Israelis to let them know they aren’t alone. They have helped raise money for Federation’s emergency fund—and they have sung “Acheinu” at school with all their hearts. It was no accident that they showed up to the rally in DC; they’ve been training for it for a long time now.

And if you ever find yourself worrying about the future, about who will be the leaders of the next generation, or about who will have the knowledge and passion to build a more vibrant future for our community—then email me to arrange a visit to Schechter. When you meet our students, your questions will be answered, and your mind set at ease.

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