WASHINGTON — Members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community boarded early-morning buses, walked miles and joined an estimated 290,000 people for a historic gathering in Washington, D.C.
The Nov. 14 event, organized by the Jewish Federations of North America and Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, featured public support for Israel, condemnation of antisemitism and a demand to return nearly 240 hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7.
As hordes filled the National Mall, and an estimated 250,000 people watched online, celebrities, influencers and politicians stressed several messages during the “March for Israel.”
“Today, in the thousands, we stand as one to say, ‘Am Yisrael Chai,’” Broadway star Tovah Feldshuh said.
“I am here because the horror and the terror that unfolded in Israel and Palestine has sent shockwaves far beyond their borders that affect and disrupt lives right here in the United States,” CNN political commentator Van Jones said. “I cannot be silent when Jews fall under attack today, I just can’t do it. And that’s why I’m here.”
Natan Sharansky, a Soviet dissident and Israeli politician and activist who spoke at Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jews, a 1987 gathering in D.C. that also welcomed more than 200,000 attendees, told Tuesday’s crowd, “Many of your grandfathers fought for our freedom. Many of your parents fought for our freedom. Many of you fought for our freedom. And that’s what made all the change.”
Mijal Bitton, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, passionately recalled her connection to persecuted Argentinian, Egyptian and Syrian Jews.
“I stand here for all of us who remember that in every generation they stand up against us to destroy us. And for all of us who thank God that America and Israel changed the world and became our safe havens,” she said.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Joni Ernst (R-IA), House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) demonstrated bipartisan support for Israel in its war against Hamas.
“We are here united, Democrat and Republican, House and Senate, to say, ‘We stand with Israel,” Schumer said.
Johnson characterized the war as a fight between “civilization and barbarism,” and said, “The calls for a ceasefire are outrageous.”
“Let me be clear: Israel has an absolute right to defend itself against Hamas terror,” Jeffries said. “Our commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad.”
“We will not shutter in fear as too many in fear already have. We will not sit quiet as antisemitism is being promulgated in classrooms and campuses around the country,” Ernst said. “The brutal reality of Hamas cannot be diminished: They murder babies. They rape women. They abuse the elderly. They killed 30 of our fellow Americans, hundreds of our Israeli friends, and are currently, right now, holding 200 innocent men, women and children hostage. How anyone in America could sympathize with these terrorists is truly unfathomable.”
Bringing a message to D.C.
Like most attendees, Gal Gilboa Dalal arrived in Washington shortly before Tuesday’s program.
The Israeli told the Chronicle he came to “meet with as many influencers” as possible.
Five weeks earlier, Dalal, 29, and his brother Guy Gilboa Dalal, 22, attended the Nova Music Festival. Hours into the peaceful party, Hamas terrorists killed 260 people. Gal Dalal escaped the terror. His brother was taken captive by Hamas.
“I feel like I need to tell his story,” Dalal said.
The Dalal brothers enjoy psych trance, but hearing music characterized by mesmerizing rhythms with high beats per minute wasn’t the only reason to attend Nova. The main draw, Dalal said, was being around similarly spiritual people who “believe in peace and love.”
For weeks, Dalal has tried sharing that message — and telling listeners about his brother’s kindness, guitar-playing talents and love of Japanese culture — but the conversations sadly drift into other topics about regional conflict, he explained.
“The people who were taken really don’t have anything to do with this war,” he said. “These civilians are not just a number. It’s my brother. He’s my best friend. I love him so much and I miss him so much.”
Understanding the simplicity and profoundness of those words doesn’t require historical expertise; people who know nothing about Israelis or Palestinians should be able to “see how awful and devastating this incident was,” Dalal said. What happened on Oct. 7 was solely about “massacring innocent people.”
“My goal here is to make sure people understand,” he continued. “Make sure people know their story and my brother’s story. Make sure the hostages won’t be forgotten. They are not just posters, they are not just pictures, they are human beings that have families that worry about them.”
Bringing the message home
Squirrel Hill resident Hannah Adelson was among 400 people who traveled to D.C. with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Adelson, 16, called the march “empowering” and praised the many listeners who arrived “with open hearts and a whole lot of love for what was going on in Israel.”
Through her work with United Synagogue Youth, and in conversations and programs with fellow Jewish teens, Adelson plans on sharing her observations after returning to Pittsburgh, she said.
Rabbi Howie Stein also plans on conveying his impressions.
“It was overwhelming to be with that many people, Jews and non-Jews, supporting Israel,” Temple B’nai Israel of White Oak’s spiritual leader told the Chronicle.
Whereas being a Jew often generates feelings of loneliness, today’s demonstration thwarted that sense, he continued: “We have support from everybody, from politicians, from government officials. Americans and Israelis are together. This is not a path we have to walk by ourselves.”
Bhavini Patel, a Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district, similarly spent nearly 10 hours on Federation transport and walked miles through the nation’s capital in a demonstration of support.
“Showing up for my community is important to me. It’s something I take very seriously, so when I was given the opportunity to take the bus down to D.C. today with the Pittsburgh group, it was an easy decision,” she said. “Our Jewish neighbors in Western PA are hurting, and I think it’s important to connect with our communities when they tell us they are in pain. To understand that pain requires you to show up. I will always show up for all my neighbors.”
Throughout the day, Pittsburghers implored each other to carry the messages home.
Squirrel Hill resident Ann Powell took the microphone on Pittsburgh Bus 10, and said, “We need to be visible and vigilant. One day in Washington is not going to be enough.”
Moshe Barber helped passengers don tefillin, invited people to recite Psalms and encouraged travelers to light Shabbat candles.
Performing these Jewish deeds creates a “direct hotline to God,” he said.
Rabbi Sam Weinberg, principal of Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, told the Chronicle the Jewish day school brought 104 students to the march and will spend Wednesday helping students process their experiences at the historic event.
As Pittsburghers made their way to and from the National Mall on Tuesday, dozens of gatherers assembled afternoon prayer groups. People shouted “Am Yisrael Chai.” Individuals dispersed pins bearing the faces and names of the hostages. Representatives of Neturei Karta, a fringe group of Haredi Jews, held signs including, “Judaism rejects Zionism, the State of Israel and its atrocities” and “The Zionists ignited the fire both now and in the past.” Separated by fencing, yellow tape and police officers, counterprotesters yelled the Hebrew words “Kofer” and “Apikores,” terms that describe heretics.
Dressed in a matching Stronger Than Hate T-shirt and yarmulke, Rabbi Larry Freedman, director of Pittsburgh’s Joint Jewish Education Program, said the day’s value stemmed from placing oneself among a sea of landsmen.
“I think there’s something about setting aside the particular way each one of us expresses our Judaism — the way we each live out our Judaism — and saying we are here for the greater good,” he said.
Marching on Washington required travel, patience and listening. The message Pittsburghers should bring home is about Jewish peoplehood, not polarization, he continued: “Sometimes we have to find a little grace. Stay mission-focused, keep your eye on the prize and stop trying to make everyone ideologically pure to suit you. It’s not about you, it’s about us.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.