Some, like Seattle resident Julie Margulies, 50, flew thousands of miles to the nation’s capital to attend. Others, like high-school student Adam Zuckerman, 18, from Portland, Maine, raised money to help bring friends — both Darfuri and Jewish — to Washington for the big day. Toting signs of “Never again, again” and “Not on our watch,” Jews representing Hillel groups and day schools, synagogues and youth groups, community centers, Hadassah chapters and all denominations came from around the country to the National Mall in Washington for Sunday’s Save Darfur rally.
With the genocide in Darfur topping the Jewish community’s national agenda, an unmistakable Jewish presence ran through Sunday’s rally. Organized by the Save Darfur Coalition, a collection of 150 faith-based advocacy and humanitarian aid organizations initiated by two Jewish agencies, the roster of speakers included Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel; Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service; and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Other speakers included political heavyweights such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.); celebrities such as actor/director George Clooney, Olympic skater Joey Cheek and the Rev. Al Sharpton; and Sudanese representatives like Simon Deng, who recently walked from New York City to Washington to call attention to the situation in his homeland.
Their voices joined to oppose the genocide being waged by Arab militias against black Africans in a poor, desert-ridden region of Sudan known as Darfur. Since 2003, the government-backed militias have been decimating towns and raping, torturing and killing hundreds of thousands of Darfuris, leaving behind scorched earth.
Famine and disease are now endemic in the region, where refugees subsist in makeshift displaced persons camps. Officials in Chad nervously monitor the conflict, which they worry will spill over to their country.
The situation in Darfur, which some estimate has claimed more than 400,000 lives, constitutes the first time the United States government has recognized genocide while it is still occurring.
Those behind the Save Darfur Coalition say Sunday’s rally aimed to galvanize a multinational peacekeeping force to stop the attacks and ensure that humanitarian aid can be delivered.
David Rubenstein, a coordinator of the coalition, elaborated on these goals in a memo to the White House that called for guaranteed access to food and medical aid in the region, a beefed-up force on the ground from the African Union, a more effective United Nations peacekeeping mission and a presidential envoy focused on Darfur.
Addressing the sea of faces in Washington, Saperstein challenged listeners to realize these goals.
“An ‘A’ for effort doesn’t do it,” he said. “Your legacies and ours will be measured not by efforts alone but by whether, in the end, we stop or fail to stop this genocide.”
Jewish participants like Joseph Milgrom, 92, a wheelchair-bound Holocaust survivor from suburban Maryland, found the message particularly salient because of the Holocaust.
“I was standing in line and they were sending people right, left, right, left,” he said of his experiences in the Holocaust, the tears rolling down his cheeks. “I was sent to work. Everybody else in my family died.”
Other Jews said their desire to participate came from a sense of social action rooted in Jewish tradition.
“Our halachah dictates that we help save lives,” said Rebecca Stone, 23, who organized a fleet of six buses from Yeshiva University in New York City. “Apathy is really antithetical to Torah values.”
For these reasons and others, Jewish participants turned up in droves Sunday under hot and sunny skies. Rally organizers reported Jewish representation from all major cities along the Eastern seaboard and from as far away as Wisconsin, Oregon and California.
Participants came from more than 90 synagogues in Washington. New York City contributed 100 buses; Boston, up to 25. Other substantial contingents hailed from Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Jersey and the New York City suburbs.
Rally Director Chuck Thies estimated the day’s turnout at roughly 75,000 people.
Activism on Darfur has been a rallying cry among socially conscious Jews for months. In February, the issue topped the agenda of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ annual plenum, which sets national priorities for local Jewish community relations councils.
The American Jewish World Service also has taken a lead role, with Messinger making two trips to Darfur. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a genocide alert for Darfur even before the government did. The AJWS and the museum formed the Save Darfur Coalition in 2004.
The weekend’s pre-rally lineup included a smattering of Jewish-led Darfur events. Last Friday morning, Messinger and JCPA’s executive director, Steve Gutow, along with a slew of others, succeeded in getting arrested while protesting on the steps of the Sudanese Embassy.
That night, the DC Reform Chavurah and Tikkun Leil Shabbat hosted a Shabbat service on Darfur. This was followed by three Havdalah services Saturday night, including one at the Jefferson Memorial; and a Sunday morning pre-rally brunch at the George Washington University Hillel, among other events.
Meanwhile, the Million Voices for Darfur campaign, also launched by the Save Darfur Coalition, deluged the White House on Sunday with 1 million handwritten and electronic postcards.
On Monday morning, volunteer lobbyists were to descend on Capitol Hill seeking intervention to stop the genocide.
The extent of Jewish involvement has caused some to ask how much other faith communities have done.
“I don’t know on what basis we can quantify what someone else can or should do,” Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, commented at a recent Darfur event outside the United Nations. “But it would be shameful if we cannot get faith communities in our country to say this is one of the most important issues of our day.”
Renee Chelm, a volunteer with Cleveland’s Jewish federation, took Potasnik’s thoughts a step further.
“I wish the Jewish community weren’t the only ones, and that we weren’t alone,” she said.
Even Sudanese participants noticed a disproportionate Jewish presence at the rally and in relief efforts in general.
“The people in Darfur know very well and welcome the support of the American Jewish community,” said Iessa Dahia, a Darfuri now living in Portland, Maine. “They know the Jewish community has been through that in the Holocaust. The Jewish community has said we cannot allow this to happen again. That’s why they are here more than any other community.”
Karlo Okoy, a Sudanese pastor living in Lakewood, Colo., echoed the sentiment.
“The present Sudanese killing is exactly the picture of Jewish killing in Germany. They feel the same pain, that’s why they came heavily to help out the Sudanese community,” he said. “We see that the American Jewish people helps us more than any other people or country in the world.”
The Washington rally wasn’t the only such event on Sunday, though it was by far the largest. Other rallies were staged in Portland and Eugene, Ore.; St. Paul, Minn.; Austin, Texas; Tucson and Prescott, Ariz.; Boca Raton, Fla.; San Francisco; Seattle; Somerville, N.J.; Toronto; and Boulder, Colo.
New York City also hosted a Dining for Darfur event Sunday, in which more than 60 participating restaurants donated 5 percent of sales to humanitarian relief efforts.
In San Francisco, the nation’s second-largest Darfur rally kicked off in the morning with at least 2,000 people linking hands at a silent vigil on the Golden Gate Bridge. That was followed by an afternoon rally at the Presidio and a concert and fund-raiser at San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El.
As in Washington, Jewish groups took the lead in San Francisco, with major sponsors including the AJWS, the local JCRC and the Holocaust Center of Northern California.
More than 30 Bay Area Jewish congregations sent groups to the Presidio rally, representing every Jewish stream as well as several college Hillels and Chabad of Stanford University.
The master of ceremonies at the rally, Rabbi Henry Shreibman, West Coast director for advancement and outreach at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, told the crowd that two weeks ago the college divested $20 million from its endowment fund representing companies that did business with the Sudanese government.
In her invocation, Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Temple Emanu-el said, “Give us the chutzpah to shake up our world” and to ask the Bush administration not just to speak out on Darfur, “but to do something.”
Stanford junior Elissa Test, organizer of the San Francisco rally, told JTA she was inspired by her Judaism and her grandfather’s experience as a Holocaust survivor.
“The stories my grandfather taught me spoke of a need to care about each other in the world and do all we can to end the suffering that we see,” she said. “Darfur is the site of today’s most intense suffering, within the context of a genocide, and I think my grandfather would want me to live the lessons learned after the Holocaust.”
It was a sentiment repeated by Jews around the country.
Said Judah Klausner, who came to the Washington rally from New York, “After Yom Hashoah, there is no better way to pay respect to the dignity of the Jewish people that suffered and died and were lost forever than to say, ‘Not on our watch.’ “
Correspondent Sue Fishkoff from San Francisco contributed to this report.