Would they come or wouldn’t they?
The extend of Orthodox participation in the memorial tribute to Yitzhak Rabin was uncertain in the days leading up to the Sunday event at Madison Square Garden here.
In the end, even though the Orthodox presence at the gathering was limited to those who would describe themselves as “modern” Orthodox, rather than the more fervently Orthodox, they were there in force.
By some estimates, Orthodox Jews comprised as many as one-third of the estimate 14,000 to 15,000 individuals who attended.
“There was an outpouring of interest” by the Orthodox community, Rabbi Raphael Butler, executive vice president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, said in an interview at the rally.
The O.U., after a series of internal debates about participating in the event, did so as one of the program’s co-sponsors.
Organizers feared that if the Orthodox community boycotted the event, it might be viewed too narrowly as a political event in support of the peace process.
Many in the Orthodox community oppose the polices that Rabin developed and that his successor, Shimon Peres, intends to carry out.
David Gershov, an Orthodox attorney living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, she he knew many people who did not come because they thought that the rally was intended to support the Israeli government’s policies.
“I might not have come had it been billed as supporting the peace process rather than the pursuit of peace,” he said. “I believe in the pursuit of peace and the pursuit of unity of the Jewish people.”
Even members of several area Young Israel synagogues, whose parent organization, the National Council of Young Israel, had boycotted the event, attended.
Orthodox involvement was not limited to sitting in the audience, either.
Boys and girls from two modern Orthodox schools in New York City – Ramaz and the Park East Day School – sang as part of a youth choir, which also included children from religious liberal day schools.
There had been a strong wave to protest in the N.Y. area’s Orthodox communities against the rally. Many criticized that no one on the short list of speakers was from Israel’s political opposition.
The widely read Jewish Press newspaper printed a prominent editorial headline. “All Jews Should Say NO To The Rally” in the issue published a few days before the gathering.
“No Jew who cherishes democracy and freedom of expression should attend a rally the countenances the principle that `unity’ can be achieved by excluding all opposition,” it read. It described the gathering as “the so-called `unity rally’.
Orthodox men and women in the audience said the decision to attend the tribute was controversial in their home communities.
“There were very mixed feelings about the rally and some opposition because they didn’t have [Likud leader Benjamin] Netanyahu come,” said one young woman from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, who is a freshman at Brooklyn College and asked that her name not be used.
Others made it clear that the Orthodox community is far from monolithic even when it comes to opposition to the current peace process.
“I’m Orthodox and I’m here,” said Yael Ukeles, a computer programmer specializing in the design of multimedia applications. “Why does the media always focus on the protesters, on the negative?”
Several applauded the remarks by Peres, who said that “when you have two views you don’t have to become two peoples.
“We expect the opposition with us to make the nation free and democratic, having many views and remaining together,” he said.
“Peres had it right,” said Steven Katz, an Orthodox Jew from Manhattan who works as a researcher at an investment banking firm.
“Before we can make peace with other people, we have to make peace between ourselves.”