Rabbi Yonatan Cohen (right) attended the March for Israel in Washington along with his sons and a delegation of 18 members of his synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel of Berkeley, Nov. 14, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy Cohen)
Rabbi Yonatan Cohen (right) attended the March for Israel in Washington along with his sons and a delegation of 18 members of his synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel of Berkeley, Nov. 14, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy Cohen)

‘We are not alone’: I joined this week’s March for Israel in my nephew’s memory

When I first heard about Tuesday’s March for Israel, I immediately knew that I had to be there.

I imagined myself standing at the rally holding a sign bearing a photo of my nephew Yoav Malayev, z”l, a 19-year-old officer in the Israel Defense Forces, who died in the opening hours of the Oct. 7 attack while bravely defending his beloved soldiers and base.

I desperately wanted to bring Yoav’s memory and, more than that, the legacy of his courage to Washington, D.C., with me.

Soon after, two of my children, ages 12 and 14, heard about the rally and immediately asked to go as well. By the end of the week, close to 20 members of my community, Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, made plans to attend, together with a significant delegation from the Bay Area. We came with signs bearing a photo of Yoav, with signs calling for the release of hostages and with signs bearing a photo of our shul, declaring our community’s solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Israel.

At the rally, we heard our own stories and voices amplified on a national stage. When Natan Sharansky spoke of the 1987 march in D.C. for Soviet Jewry, I thought of my parents-in-law, Anna and Aron Gonshor, who traveled from Montreal with their firstborn son, then 12 years old, to attend the Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jews.

When Mijal Bitton spoke at Tuesday’s rally of the expulsion of her husband’s family from Egypt, I thought of my nona and nono, my Egyptian grandparents, whose family was also expelled by Nassar in the mid-1950s.

And when Rachel Goldberg spoke of the hostages and of her son, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who was born in Berkeley and spent the earliest years of his life at my shul, I couldn’t help but think of every child growing up at Beth Israel. Each child held hostage by Hamas could have been one of our sons or daughters.

A sign reading "Here for Congregation Beth Israel Berkeley" at the March for Israel in Washington, Nov. 14, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy Rabbi Yonatan Cohen)
A sign reading “Here for Congregation Beth Israel Berkeley” at the March for Israel in Washington, Nov. 14, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy Rabbi Yonatan Cohen)

Our stories were not only told at the rally, they were also heard in profound ways by our allies.

Time after time, political leaders from both sides of the aisle and faith leaders bore witness to Hamas’ atrocity and spoke with moral clarity about the Oct. 7 massacre, rejecting the sort of moral equivalencies that consistently leave our Jewish community feeling dumbfounded and abandoned.

They spoke with deep empathy and understanding about the rising threat of antisemitism and the ways in which it now finds expression in public schools and college campuses across America. They spoke out against Hamas, and they spoke out loud for Israel.

It was incredibly comforting to hear our story in so many voices. It reminded me that we are not alone. It also gave me a renewed sense of hope that we can still find ways to tell our story, not simply to ourselves but also to the world.

After the rally, I sent a message to Mor Moravia, a resident of Kfar Aza, who together with her family survived Hamas’ brutal and inhumane attack on her kibbutz. I met Mor a few weeks ago in Israel, shortly after my nephew’s shiva concluded, as part of my community’s effort to support evacuees throughout Israel. In my message to Mor, I let her know that American Jewry is standing with her, with Kfar Aza and with all of Israel.

“We will not forget you” were my words. Mor wrote back: “This is incredible. Truly heartwarming. Now let us pray that it all ends quickly so we can get back to our daily routines and my family can get back home.”

At the rally, we prayed, we protested, we cried and we prayed again. I mostly prayed that my children would never, ever again need to attend such a rally in their lives. And given the profound sense of helplessness we experienced after the Oct. 7 attack as a family and as a nation, I felt deeply grateful to give my children the opportunity to lift their voice and to experience their own power and sense of agency.

I went to Washington, DC, for Yoav, z”l, for the hostages and for Israel. But at the rally, I discovered that I was also there for myself, for my children, for Am Yisrael, and in truth, for the whole world.

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. He can be reached at [email protected].