We were up early that morning; like 3:30 a.m. early. But it was OK because we were taking a trip to visit with our family. We check-in at BNA at 5:00 a.m. and then stand in a surprisingly long line at TSA for that time of the morning. But again, no complaints because we were excited about seeing our family.
Landing at Reagan National Airport to a beautiful Tuesday morning, the 25 of us on the American Airlines flight quickly linked up with those who flew in on the Delta flight. Our trip coordinator, Leeron Resnick, directed us to our waiting bus for transport into downtown Washington D.C. We arrive at the Grand Hyatt hotel which will be our staging point for the day’s activities. Hey, where are the kosher meals that were supposed to await us? Oh well, no big deal because, you guessed it, we were here to see our family.
Some of the Nashville family, 64 in total on this trip, sprang into action right away. The dozen or so young people, led by Federation CEO Dan Horwitz, Rabbi Saul Strosberg of Congregation Sherith Israel, and Rabba Daniella Pressner of the Akiva School immediately got organized to attend the youth program at 11:30. Some of us older family members caught our breath before our next move.
By now, you realize that this was not any ordinary trip to visit family. We were attending the November 14 Rally for Israel in Washington, DC organized by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Council of Presidents [not sure about the correct name of this organization]. Organized in only a week, this event drew a reported 290,000 people from all over the U.S. and Canada.
Following the youth program, the main rally agenda kicked off at 1:00 p.m. Some of the highlights of the program were:
- Natan Sharansky, former Chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel and famous Russian refusenik, reminded us of a similar rally he attended here in 1987 in support of Soviet Jewry shortly after his release from prison in Russia.
- By satellite we heard from Isaac Herzog, President of Israel, live from the Kotel in Jerusalem. President Herzog reminded us of the unbreakable spirt of the people of Israel and how much the rally of all the American mishpocha means to Israelis during this difficult time. Herzog emphasized the spirit of “we are here,” and that our group was rallying for the triumph of good over evil.
- Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. Special Ambassador to combat antisemitism recalled the promise of George Washington in 1790 to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, that “…the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction and to persecution no assistance…” assuring Jews the right to practice their faith without fear. In addressing the rise of antisemitism around the world she said simply that terminology such as anti-Zionism and anti-colonialism are just veiled attempts to deny the reality of this speech, which is Jew-hatred, and we must call it out for what it represents.
- Our rally was addressed by the leaders of both parties in the Senate and the House. Senators Charles Schumer and Jacky Rosen (representing Sen. Mitch McConnell) and Representatives Mike Johnson and Hakeem Jeffries all had the same message. This unified message that the U.S. stands unequivocally with Israel was a welcome message of bipartisan support.
Walking around through the thousands of people in attendance, I heard a variety of languages being spoken, including a lot of Hebrew, Spanish, Russian (I think), and even some New York English. The posters and flags were both professionally printed and homemade, as well. The messages were clear and consistent:
- Bring the hostages home now!
- We Stand with Israel!
- Stop antisemitism now!
- Am Yisroel Chai!
The mood and the music were upbeat and hopeful, and the energy of the crowd persisted (almost) till the end of the program. Throughout the day, you could not help but feel that the people in the crowd were members of our extended Jewish family. This was clearly the biggest family reunion that any of us had ever attended.
Sitting at the airport awaiting our return flight to Nashville, I walked around and asked some family members why they had chosen to come to the rally. While I thought I knew the reasons, I wanted the people to speak for themselves:
- Janice Berger wanted to express her support for Israel with more than just writing a check. “I really wanted to do this,” she said, “in the same way that I attended the 1987 rally to free Soviet Jewry in 1987.”
- Barbara Mayden expressed it this way. “I want to put my energy into a cause that I feel in my heart.”
- As a child of Holocaust survivors, Renee Ward said “I never thought that this could happen again.” She felt that she needed to be present to stand against this same evil that her parents experienced.
I then asked some of our younger family members why they decided to come on the trip.
- Isaac Simpson wanted “to stand up for the Jewish people.”
- Yedid Strosberg also wanted to “stand up for the Jewish people and get a chance to come to Washington.”
- Xavier Rodriguez wanted to “experience the rally, something I’ve never done before.”
- Ravi Strosberg wanted to “stand up for Israel, and to see how many people would be here.”
- Hirsch Coleman wanted to “stand up for Israel” and also said “my Mom told me that I should go.”
Nashville’s clergy showed up and showed out on the trip as Rabbis Kullock, Freller, Mackler, Pressner, (Laurie) Rice, Rothstein, and Strosberg accompanied the group, interacting with younger and older members of the Nashville Jewish family. Rabbi Kullock said it well, “I am here because I have to be here.”
Federation CEO Dan Horwitz and Board Chair Leslie Kirby took time to acknowledge the event organizers at JFNA, as well as the staff of the Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville, who made this happen in a very short timeframe. Special thanks to Federation staffer Leeron Resnick, who did a lot of the heavy lifting in organizing and “herding the cats” on the ground in Washington.
When we first landed in Washington in the morning, I asked Rabbi Strosberg what he had said to encourage the student group to attend the rally. He said that he told them that first, there are times when you must stand up for things that are important to you and second, that if we do not stand up for ourselves in life, how can we expect others to do so for us? Based on the feedback I received from our students on the trip I would say these messages were received loud and clear.
One final comment. At the airport that evening Rabbi Saul saw me interviewing people and he told me that he had one more quote for me. “I always get choked up when I hear Hatikvah” he said. Me too, rabbi, me too.
All in all, a pretty good visit with the family!
Author’s note: BTW, I was also able to get together with two brothers and a sister and their spouses who came to the rally from Baltimore and Reston, Virginia. Shout out to Charles and Mary, Tina and Lee, and Don and Nell.
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