Organizers estimate that 290,000 people attended the March for Israel in Washington, Nov. 14, 2023. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
Organizers estimate that 290,000 people attended the March for Israel in Washington, Nov. 14, 2023. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

Bay Area Jews join massive March for Israel in nation’s capital

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

WASHINGTON — Upwards of 200,000 Jews and allies converged on the nation’s capital Tuesday in a forceful demonstration of solidarity with Israel and unity against a surge in antisemitism following the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel.

Organizers claimed 290,000 people showed up for the event, which would make it one of the largest gatherings of Jews in U.S. history.

“Today, we do not need to be quiet, with heads bowed!” announced Talia Bodner, the college-age daughter of Zack Bodner, CEO of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, in a spoken word poem she recited from the main stage to loud cheers. “Today we are loud!” Talia said.

Talia Bodner recites a poem at the march. (Photo/Courtesy Zack Bodner)
Talia Bodner recites a poem at the march. (Photo/Courtesy Zack Bodner)

Dubbed the March for Israel, the rally was organized relatively quickly by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Its purpose was to advocate for Israel, call for the liberation of all the hostages held by Hamas and combat antisemitism.

Present were Orthodox and secular Jews, Americans and Israelis, hundreds of teenagers sent on school trips from places as far as Toronto and Palo Alto, families with children, Chabad communities, synagogue congregants who traveled together on charter buses, and adults who came unaffiliated with any Jewish organization simply to show their support.

The sheer mass of people filling the grounds between the Capitol building and the Washington Monument made the event reminiscent of historic marches, rallies and inauguration ceremonies held in the shadow of those iconic buildings.

Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York and Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana all addressed the crowd in a bipartisan, bicameral display of support for the Jewish state. Their voices boomed over multiple public address systems throughout the mall, while their images were projected on a number of screens for an overflow crowd beyond the view of the speakers area.

Hours earlier, many members of Congress had viewed footage of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and some said they were in tears as they watched the horrors.

“These Israeli hostages were kidnapped in their homes by barbaric Hamas terrorists for simply being Jewish in Israel,” said Johnson, a conservative Christian and newly elected House Speaker. “As Prime Minister Netanyahu says so well, this is a fight between good and evil, between light and darkness, between civilization and barbarism.”

The crowd at the march stretched down the National Mall. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
The crowd at the march stretched down the National Mall. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

The Bay Area, like Jewish communities across North America, sent a large delegation. Though attendees traveled at their own expense, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund helped facilitate the trip, securing wristbands and formulating a plan to meet up at a nearby coffee shop to distribute T-shirts and posters before heading to the march together.

Joy Sisisky, Federation CEO, said there were over 150 people from the Bay Area on the Federation list.

“For six days’ notice, I think that’s amazing,” Sisisky said. “We had people who flew in today on red-eyes.” Among the Bay Area contingent were students from Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and members of the JCC in Palo Alto. Many wore T-shirts that said “Bay Area for Israel.”

“There are a lot of different kinds of people in the Bay Area,” Sisisky said, when asked why she found it important to have a strong Bay Area Jewish presence at the rally. “There is a large population of people [in the region] that are supporting both Hamas and the Palestinian cause. I think it’s really important to show up for Israel when it matters most.”

Sisisky, who grew up in Richmond, Virginia, said the event reminded her of the rally 35 years ago that brought hundreds of thousands to the National Mall to free Soviet Jews. Sisisky was there, traveling to the event as a girl on a bus with her parents.

Many Bay Area Jews traveled to D.C. for the march, including Federation board member Dara Pincas (left), Rabbi Mark Bloom of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland (second from right) and Federation CEO Joy Sisisky (right). (Photo/Courtesy Sisisky)
Many Bay Area Jews traveled to D.C. for the march, including Federation board member Dara Pincas (left), Rabbi Mark Bloom of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland (second from right) and Federation CEO Joy Sisisky (right). (Photo/Courtesy Sisisky)

“It was very formative for me,” she said about that demonstration. “It set the pace for a lot of the work I do now.”

Natan Sharansky, a leader of the Soviet refusenik movement, also delivered an address at the march Tuesday.

Teenagers and college students took a central role in the day’s proceedings, with many pro-Israel students on college campuses feeling increasingly ostracized, and sometimes threatened, simply for expressing support for Israel.

Meanwhile a number of people present had been impacted by violent antisemitism directly — not only those victimized by Hamas.

Leigh Stein traveled to the rally from Pittsburgh. Her late father, Daniel Stein, was one of the 11 victims of the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue massacre.

“Obviously, it was very important that I be here and support what is going on. And stand with Israel, the community, our people,” Stein said. She wore a T-shirt that said “Stronger than hate” next to a logo reminiscent of the Pittsburgh Steelers’, but with a Star of David — an image that’s become a recognizable symbol of resolve since the deadly synagogue shooting.

Leigh Stein (second from left) attended the march with friends. Her father, Daniel Stein, was killed in the 2018 Tree of Life shooting. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
Leigh Stein (second from left) attended the march with friends. Her father, Daniel Stein, was killed in the 2018 Tree of Life shooting. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

Straining to be heard while speaking to J., behind an Israeli ballad playing over the PA system, she said it was the first pro-Israel rally she’d ever been to. “It’s extremely powerful, and overwhelming,” she said. “I’m definitely feeling the love and support.”

Rep. Ritchie Torres, a reliably pro-Israel, young Afro-Latino member of Congress, also addressed the audience, receiving loud ovations including chants of “Ritchie! Ritchie!” Families of those affected by the Oct. 7 violence also spoke, including the mother of an American dual citizen from Long Island who volunteered in the Israeli army, was captured and is currently being held by Hamas. Orna Neutra said the event turned her life “upside down.”

“Omer is a warm, optimistic and people-loving person. Everywhere he goes, he immediately makes new friends,” she said of her 22-year-old son. “Omer, we speak in your name.”

The Department of Homeland Security had designated the rally a “Level 1” security event, CNN reported. It’s the highest level with considerations of national importance, potential threats and the resources needed to ensure public safety.

For the Bay Area delegation, the long trip came with the opportunity to experience mass solidarity with like-minded Jews. In the Bay Area, it can feel alienating to support Israel, some said.

“I wanted to not feel so alone,” said Rabbi Mark Bloom of Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham. “In general, in the Bay Area, it feels lonely to be Jewish and a supporter of Israel, because there’s so much anti-Israel activity, it’s almost unfathomable.

“It feels good that there’s a lot of the Jewish community behind us, with us. It feels like we are at a momentous occasion,” he added. “I felt like I needed to be here today.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.