Waving Israeli, American and Canadian flags and hoisting signs naming their hometowns, thousands of delegates at the Jewish federation system’s General Assembly wound their way through the back alleys, markets and main streets of Jerusalem, vowing to stand by Israel.
Some 4,300 North Americans and 2,000 Israelis have gathered in Jerusalem this week for the annual assembly of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations.
Under the theme “With Israel, In Israel: Shaping Our Common Future,” the 2003 assembly featured a welcome by Israel’s president and prime minister. Delegates were scheduled to tour the country, visiting a range of sites from immigration and absorption programs and high-tech companies to programs to aid needy Israelis.
On Monday’s solidarity march through Jerusalem, soldiers and delegates linked hands and danced the hora, vendors at the Mahane Yehuda market cheered, Israeli folk music and shofars blared, and blue and white balloons bobbed overhead.
Security was tight. Police and soldiers manned street corners along the march route, which had been blocked to traffic. Pedestrians were searched before being allowed to enter parts of downtown Jerusalem.
Delegates said coming to Israel was a matter of principle.
“Israel needs American Jews to come at this time to show it’s a perfectly safe country to enjoy yourself in,” said Robert Michael, part of a seven-person delegation representing the 800 Jews of Peoria, Ill. “It’s our home. We need to show our solidarity.”
As the four-day gathering opened Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told delegates that the Jewish people would not be deterred by terrorism.
“Our enemies have got to understand that the Jewish people cannot be broken,” Sharon said.
For many General Assembly participants, Monday’s march epitomized the conference’s feel-good spirit.
At most General Assemblies — typically held in North America — the customary question is, “When was the last time you were in Israel?” said Fred Zimmerman of Nashville, Tenn. Here in Israel, “it just feels right, and it’s something that defies words,” he said.
Judy Rosen of New York also was glad the event was being held in Israel. It “shows the centrality of Israel and how important it is for the spirituality of the Jewish people,” Rosen said.
David Ben-Porat agreed. Porat, a 29-year old Israeli, has helped clean up after terrorist attacks in downtown Jerusalem as a volunteer for the Hatzolah emergency response service.
Monday night was his first time patrolling the streets on a happy occasion, he said.
It gives a “good feeling for every person here,” said Ben-Porat, marching on behalf of his in-laws from Minnesota.
David Cohen, 59, closed his photo shop along the march route so he could watch “our brothers coming together” in support of Israel. “This is the Jewish home of all the world,” he said. “We know that the Jewish people of the world are with us.”
Along the march route, delegates paused to embrace Israelis standing by the side of the road, exchanging greetings in a mixture of Hebrew and English.
Delegates thanked soldiers and policemen for protecting the country, flashed wide smiles and posed for pictures. Soldiers and police clapped in return.
Such support “warms the heart,” said Ami Mizrahi, a policeman who helps oversee security at Mahane Yehuda.
“We roll out the red carpet to them,” Mizrahi said. “If only more would come.”
Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s main open-air food market, has been a frequent terrorist target, and many people now fear to shop there.
Ahead of the march, police swept the market area, banned cars and motorcycles from parking and did security checks on shoppers.
“I’m not at all nervous,” said Dov Altman of Toronto, marching with a Canadian flag draped around his shoulders. Being here “shows they are never going to shut us down. We are going to continue to live and grow,” he said.
At spice shops and stands of figs, mangos and oranges, marchers stopped to buy food and exchange greetings with vendors, who waved flags and shouted boisterous welcomes.
“They should come every day,” fruit vendor Yossi Chai said.
Israel’s tourist industry has been devastated by the three years of violence since the Palestinian intifada began. Conference organizers said the visiting delegates would pour some $15 million into the Israeli economy.
Ina Silverman, an English teacher from New Haven, Conn., who has been to Israel some 25 times, said she was appalled that more North American Jews do not visit the Jewish state.
“In our time we have had people who crossed the desert to get here. Some have been sent to jail,” Silverman said. “And all we need to do is spend $1,000 and get on a plane.”
Caught up in the spirit of the parade, Marian Frankston and David Weisberg of Harrisburg, Pa., burst into the “mummers strut,” a typical dance from their home state.
“If someone asked how long” the parade was, “I wouldn’t be able to tell you in time or distance,” Weisberg said, explaining that the event’s power had made it feel like a “single moment.”
“When you’re here, you live in a moment, but you’re also living with such history,” Frankston added.
Among those marching were several dozen Ethiopian Jews. They carried framed photographs of relatives still in Ethiopia and posters that read, “Our Brothers in Ethiopia Love Israel Too: Bring Them Home.”
At the conference, Stephen Hoffman, the UJC’s CEO, urged Israel to bring descendants of Ethiopian Jews known as Falash Mura to Israel. Hoffman has said the federation system might provide financial aid to Israel to help absorb some 20,000 Falash Mura still in Ethiopia who want to immigrate.
The Israeli Cabinet voted in February to expedite their immigration, but critics accuse the government of foot- dragging.
“The General Assembly has been a tremendous success because of the energy and commitment to care for every Jew, wherever they may be, in the spirit of one community united,” said Rabbi Eric Lankin, director of UJC’s religious and educational activities.
The march ended in downtown Jerusalem’s Zion Square, at the bottom of the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall. That area also has been a target of suicide bombings in recent years, and stores and restaurants in the area have struggled to stay open.
Delegates were urged to spend the rest of the evening shopping and dining in the city center.
Dorit Hoja, a secretary from Jerusalem, was among the Israeli delegates in the march. She said the sight of so many Diaspora Jews in the streets gave her hope.
“We are so happy they are in Israel,” she said. “They make me feel like they are our people, that we are not alone.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.