NEW YORK, Aug. 21 (JTA) — Via planes, trains and automobiles, tens of thousands of Jews from across North America are expected to descend upon New York on Sept. 23 for the long-anticipated continental rally in support of Israel, organizers say.
Preparations for the rally have begun to gel, with speakers and sponsors spanning the religious and political spectrum, including Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The message will be one of solidarity with Israel, and a reminder to Washington, the United Nations and the rest of the world that Israel and Jews in the Diaspora are united.
Perhaps even more important, said the rally’s honorary chairman, Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, is for Jews to stand together.
“Many of us have the feeling that we don’t know where to go,” Wiesel said Tuesday in a conference call with American Jewish media. “We need to feel that we are not alone, that we are with other Jews, that we are with friends, that we are with Israel.”
The federation world, led by the umbrella United Jewish Communities, first discussed the possibility of a large-scale rally back in March amid debate about the most effective way to use communal funds in showing solidarity with Israel.
The UJC tentatively planned a demonstration for June 4 at Madison Square Garden in New York, but canceled for what officials said was an inability to guarantee Sharon’s presence — or his security.
“The situation has changed so dramatically since then, with a series of wake-up calls, that people need an avenue of expression,” said Arthur Naparstek, vice president of the UJC’s Israel and Overseas Pillar and national director of the Israel Now Solidarity Rally.
“Transcending our individual interests and differences is the centrality of Israel in people’s lives, that Israel is being challenged, and the message that Jews are in Israel to stay,” Naparstek said.
The UJC settled on Sept. 23 — in the middle of the High Holy Days and one day before the U.N. General Assembly opens — as one element of its multi-pronged “Israel Now and Forever” campaign.
The rally is being described as the most significant for American Jewry since Dec. 6, 1987, when more than 200,000 American Jews marched on Washington to demand that Soviet Jews be allowed to emigrate.
In addition to Sharon, speakers from Israel will include Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg and perhaps Housing Minister Natan Sharansky; from New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Gov. George Pataki and U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton; and from Washington, former vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, among many others.
Rally organizers say they chose New York over Washington because it is home to the largest Diaspora Jewish community and because the rally is not a protest against the Bush administration.
Besides, they said, they’d rather protest against the perceived anti- Israel bias at the United Nations, headquartered in New York.
Rally organizers brush off grumbling from those who suggest the event would make a stronger statement in Washington, and wonder whether the cost — an estimated $900,000 to $1.2 million — would be better spent on solidarity trips to Israel.
In addition, some Israelis, at least in e-mails making the rounds, have complained of the perceived inaction of American Jewry.
“If we got preoccupied with the cynics and the naysayers, we’d never get anything done,” Naparstek said.
Once word went out that the rally’s date was in stone, the community swung into action.
Through mail and fliers, e-mails and Web sites, newspaper and radio ads, Hillel is organizing its students, yeshivas are sending their young scholars, and synagogues of the four major streams — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist — are mobilizing their congregants.
Organizers predict that up to 130 of the 189 federations and 100 of the 123 community relations councils nationwide will be represented at the rally.
“We’re trying to tap the energy we know is out there, to make it a creative force in one place at one time,” said Benita Gayle-Almeleh, the Jewish Council of Public Affairs’ director of community relations and special projects.
Larger communities like Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta and South Palm Beach County are chartering airplanes.
Federations have arranged a deal with Amtrak to shuttle in Jews from Washington and scoop up Jewish passengers from throughout the Northeast corridor — from Boston, down through Connecticut, into New York City.
A number of communities are offering partially subsidized trips, for up to $100 off the normal fare.
Others are trying more creative approaches.
The Los Angeles community is luring larger donors with a “Jewish roots” trip to New York, to be coupled with the rally.
The Jews of Harrisburg, Pa., are arranging for “family, adult and youth buses” that will include food, videos and discussion about Israel, all for as low as $10 a person.
If that’s not reason enough to attend, participants will also receive a commemorative hat.
“They’re really looking to make it a pleasurable trip,” Gayle-Almeleh said.
For some, the trip will be grueling — but worth it, activists say.
The Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland hopes to send 500 to 1,000 members, marketing director Michael Bennett said.
One hundred seats have been reserved for a flight and 18 buses have been chartered for the eight-hour drive.
The group will leave late Saturday night, stop for breakfast outside New York City, attend the rally, and return to Cleveland Sunday night.
“We’ll have to call our Jewish chiropractors and assign them to buses,” Bennett joked.
Community delegations are being encouraged to arrive with a large banner indicating their hometown, as is done at a Democratic and Republican conventions.
The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago has chartered two 177- seat planes and hopes to send a contingent of 500 that will stick together at the rally, Executive Vice President Michael Kotzin said.
The federation is also trying to round up Chicagoans living in New York, such as university students, Kotzin said.
“We’re doing this as a community, not simply as individuals, to show that we’re a community that’s part of a broader national community,” he said.
Overall, Gayle-Almeleh predicted that some 65,000 people may turn out, though circumstances may draw even larger numbers.
“The likelihood of there being a precipitating event, of something happening that would attract others who ordinarily may have made other plans, is strong, given the climate in the Middle East,” Gayle-Almeleh said. “Quiet, it’s not.”
Exactly how many Jews turn out Sept. 23 ultimately may determine whether the rally is deemed a success.
As Wiesel acknowledged, with 3 million Jews in New York and 6 million nationwide, a poor turnout would be “a mark of shame” for the community.
Moreover, he said, a poor turnout could be used as propaganda against Israel, intended to show that American Jews don’t care about the fate of the Jewish state.
“I will not be satisfied with 50,000 or even 100,000,” Wiesel said. “We must concentrate our efforts to give Israel strength, because Israel gives us hope.”