NEW YORK (Apr. 22)
It was a busy week for New York businessman Benjamin Mandell: First he attended the massive Israel solidarity gathering in Washington, and then he made it to an Orthodox-sponsored prayer gathering in downtown New York.
Like many who attended the “tefillah gathering” in lower Manhattan on Sunday, Mandell, 58, said the two events were aimed at different audiences.
“The one in D.C. was more political,” he said, “and this one we’re using as an opportunity to pray to God.”
The prayer service was organized by a broad spectrum of Orthodox organizations, from the modern to the traditional. Organizers included the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America and the National Council of Young Israel.
The tone of Sunday’s event was nearly the opposite of the high-spirited, emotionally charged, politically contentious rally in Washington last Monday.
The prayer gathering was orderly and peaceful, set in downtown Manhattan near the Hudson River. It was subdued, yet emotionally intense in its own, quiet way.
No political signs and just a few Israeli flags interrupted the sea of black hats, yarmulkas and baseball caps in the densely-packed men’s side of the gathering. The side for women and children was equally crowded, but also quiet and orderly — even infants seemed to try to cry quietly.
The weather, too, seemed to reflect the different tone. While several protesters fainted from the glaring sun and unseasonably high temperature in Washington last week, the New York event was covered by dark, ominous clouds, and rain broke out just as the gathering was dispersing.
“There are no speeches here and no political people. It is really just Jews coming together in prayer,” said Chanie Friedman, director of public relations for Agudath Israel.
The prayer service included the afternoon mincha service and selected psalms.
Praying to God for guidance during times of communal crisis is common among Jews, Mandell said.
“This is a time-honored tradition, actually a requirement posed by the Talmud, that in times of problems and times of sorrow the Jewish people should get together and pray to God and ask for his help, and at the same time have some introspection of our own,” he said.
The New York gathering, which lasted about 90 minutes, was coordinated with at least 35 other prayer gatherings across North America, many of which were connected by telephone.
Friedman said the gathering was one of “the largest unified recitations of psalms in modern history.”
“There’s something to be said for strength in numbers,” he said.
It is fairly unusual for so many different types of Orthodox groups to organize an event together.
Aaron Tirschwell, chief associate executive director of the National Council of Young Israel, said the gathering was a show of unity.
“We want to show that the situation is clearly serious enough that it requires the involvement of every individual in our community,” he said. “Unifying the Jewish community and bringing it together in one place at one time sends a message that there may be differences that separate us in terms of practice and political opinion, but we’re breaking down those walls.”
Organizers say the event was not planned as an alternative to the Washington solidarity rally, but was meant to complement it.
According to Agudath Israel’s Friedman, the prayer gathering was being planned well before the Washington rally – - which was thrown together on short notice — was announced.
The groups purposely held off advertising the prayer rally until after the Washington event ended, Friedman said, to make sure they didn’t appear to be competing with the Washington rally.
Their message was aimed primarily at God, but organizers and participants say they hope it is also heard in Israel and by Jews around the world.
“The intention is to have an impact in the heavens, but I believe the impact will be felt in Israel and will strengthen the resolve of the Jewish community in North America to continue their efforts,” said Moshe Krebke, national director of community and synagogue services of the Orthodox Union.
Mark Bane, 42, of New York, agreed.
“I think the primary objective of all of these rallies is to signal to God our eagerness for his assistance and guidance,” Bane said. “I think secondarily it’s to reach out to our brothers and sisters in Israel and indicate to them that we’re here for them and we’re doing everything that we can. Our hearts are with them and our minds are with them.”
For many in the audience, the prayer gathering was just one of many events they were attending to show support for Israel.
Stern College student Rachel Fried, 21, who also attended the Washington rally, said she wished she could go to an Israel solidarity gathering every day.
“There’s a lot of negative publicity,” Fried said. “If this is the only thing we can do to show the world that we’re not bad and all we want to do is allow our country to live and defend itself, then that’s what we have to do.”
Some hope the gathering also will be seen as a show of strength.
“I hope those who hate us will see our strength and be a little afraid.” said Miriam Rhine, 59, of Brooklyn. In addition to attending any rally she can — she attended the Washington rally and the Israel solidarity rally in front of the United Nations earlier this month — Rhine has made several solidarity trips to Israel since the intifada began in September 2000.
During Rhine’s most recent trip, there were four suicide bombings in eleven days. But she still would go back, she said.
“You have to be a little bit of a fatalist,” she said. “When your time is up your time is up, and we’re in God’s hands wherever we are.”