WASHINGTON (JTA) — When “Saturday Night Live” alum “Father Guido Sarducci,” delivering the benediction at Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, ran through a list of religions seeking the true faith, Judaism received the biggest applause.
That didn’t surprise Rivka Burstein-Stern.
“There were a lot of Jews there,” she said of Saturday’s rally. “But when it comes to rallies and social activism, you’re going to have a lot of Jews.”
Jewish participants — many from the Washington area, some from farther away — seemed to comprise a hefty proportion of the estimated crowd of 250,000 attending the event conceived by Stewart and fellow Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert, the faux conservative host.
At least three liberal Jewish organizations — J Street, the New Israel Fund and Jewish Funds for Justice — were represented on a sunny Saturday in a crowd that spilled over the National Mall. Jewish Funds for Justice used the occasion to launch its “Fear Not” campaign aimed at convincing voters to tune out political forces depicting President Obama and his allies as a threat to the nation.
All three groups chose to emphasize Stewart’s overarching message of keeping down the shouting and keeping up the listening. The NIF fielded posters saying, in Hebrew and English, “Sanity, Sanity, Thou Shalt Pursue,” a play on the justice commandment in Deuteronomy.
Naomi Paiss, the NIF spokeswoman who headed her group’s delegation, said many of the queries from attendees were from participants who recognized Hebrew.
“Some other people said, ‘What language is that?’ ” said Paiss. “Everyone we explained it to was very supportive. We thought the message of lowering the temperature and civil discourse and not demonizing the opposition was an appropriate message.”
Participants said the message was appropriate to a Jewish upbringing, although they recognized that Stewart (who is Jewish) and Colbert (reportedly a devout Catholic) sought an ecumenical appeal.
During the past three years, much attention has been focused on the fear in some Jewish circles that President Obama is hostile to Israel and bent on tilting U.S. policy toward the Muslim world. But the run-up to the Stewart-Colbert gathering and the increasing predictions of Tea Party-fueled Republican gains has shifted the spotlight onto what past polling suggests is the more common brand of Jewish anxiety — fear over the rise of a potent conservative political movement dedicated to rolling back nearly a century’s worth of liberal gains and willing to employ inflammatory rhetoric aimed at minority groups, including Muslims and illegal immigrants, not to mention Democratic lawmakers.
Jennifer Helburn, a Washington gardener, said she joined the rally partly as a statement for those she described as “refusing to be open to facts that contradict what they want to believe.”
“It’s very disturbing to me,” she said. “Especially for Jews, we’ve been targeted by groups who have determined they know who we are.”
Helburn cited the issue of the planned Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York.
“And here are Jews doing the same thing,” she said to a number of Jewish bloggers and groups that have targeted the center.
Josh Pudnos, a graduate student in political management at George Washington University here, also cited the Islamic center controversy as a factor spurring him to apply for a ticket to sit up front.
“The Tea Party and the religious right really worry me,” said Pudnos, 22, referring to the conservative insurgent movement that seems likely to propel Republicans back to power in Congress. “Using extreme terms like calling the Manhattan mosque ‘terrorist,’ that’s a little extreme.”
A number of participants regretted that the rally wasn’t more political. Stewart, they said, could have hewed to an apolitical line and still rallied participants to vote.
“They focused on the media,” said Burstein-Stern, 26, who works at an educational nongovernmental organization. “But politicians are also a big part of the problem.”
Bess Dopkeen, a Pentagon analyst who hosted her brother and a friend for the rally, said the point was to gather with the like-minded.
“The overall fun was seeing all the great signs,” she said.
Dopkeen flooded Facebook friends with photos of her favorites, including “Ditch fear, choose puppies,” “God hates these signs,” and a man, dressed as Indiana Jones, bearing a placard that read “No one in American politics is a Nazi. Trust me, I know Nazis.”
The chaos — organizers expected 60,000 and got that fourfold — meant that the like-minded didn’t have the wherewithal to find each other.
The NIF’s Paiss echoed others interviewed when she reported that a friend who watched the event unfold from home, on C-Span, caught more of the rally than she did.
“I wish,” she said, “we could have caught the ‘Jump Rope with Muslims’ people.”