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Raining On The Parade

Time to consider new ways to attract more people to Israel’s cause.

Tue, 06/05/2012
Editor and Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

To be clear: I have been a big booster of the Celebrate Israel parade, personally and professionally, for many years, and once again felt a real sense of pride on Sunday afternoon watching the waves of youngsters carrying banners and singing Hebrew songs as they marched up Fifth Avenue. And I have the greatest respect for the staff and lay leaders of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York for the outstanding and essentially thankless job they do in planning, coordinating and raising more than a million dollars, with the support of UJA-Federation of New York, to produce the largest event of its kind for the State of Israel.

That said, it’s time for a serious communal conversation about the future of a parade that relies on the mandatory participation of thousands of day school and Hebrew school youngsters, and draws on their families as the core of the crowd. Without them the highly touted parade would be a modern-day display of the Emperor’s New Clothes: the naked fact is that the great majority of New York Jewry is nowhere to be found on the one day of the year we celebrate Israel together, even when the weather is as perfect as it was on Sunday (at least until the rains came in mid-afternoon).

Does this mean most of our community doesn’t back Israel? Of course not. But there’s a big difference between voicing support and physically showing up to express those sentiments at a large-scale event.

One would think that with the heightened tension, and attention, over Iran’s effort to produce the means to wipe Israel off the map, as pledged, there would be an outpouring of solidarity for Israel this year. But that was not the case.

Perhaps it tells us more than we care to know about the engaged pro-Israel community of New York when we look up and down Fifth Avenue and note the disproportionate involvement of Modern Orthodox Jewry and core activists, and wonder about the level of participation — or lack thereof — of the great majority of New York Jews. Is this a microcosm of the American Jewish relationship with Israel going forward?

I was saddened, but not surprised, to see many familiar faces from years past. Indeed, that’s the problem. It’s largely the same constituency, brimming with enthusiasm, that turns out each year. I saw parents and relatives of the youngsters who were marching, lots of kippot, and plenty of middle-aged and older faces in the crowd, which was particularly sparse between 60th and 65th streets.

I know that the Celebrate Israel parade, now in its 48th year, is an almost sacred institution in the eyes of many old-timers. If it were put on hiatus a howl would go up saying it’s a dangerous sign of erosion of support for Israel in the great city of New York. But maybe there are new ways to touch Jewish hearts.

What Would It Take?

Parade organizers, who worked hard much of the year to avoid an open rift within the community over the politics of the parade, will tell you privately how frustrated they feel during the run-up to the big event, wondering whether it’s all worth it, because Celebrate Israel has become a punching bag for the Jewish community rather than the great unifier it once was. A few individuals on the edges of the communal spectrum brought shame to their cause, seeking to disallow the participation of groups they are opposed to ideologically.

The organizers have managed to bring renewed funding and energy to the parade these last few years, widening its participation and securing live television coverage and Internet streaming to cover the proceedings. Channel 9’s two-hour coverage was crisp, and professional, and was stationed near the crowded reviewing stand, where the energy level was disproportionately high.

My gripe, then, is not with the parade; it’s with the missing majority of New York Jews. And I wonder what it would take, if anything, to bring them out.

Some ethnic parades have big-name celebrities who help draw large crowds. So yes, an Adam Sandler, Natalie Portman or Jon Stewart could probably create a buzz and bring the numbers up. But what’s the message we want to transmit here? Or to put it another way, how best could $1 million be spent to engage, educate, entertain and inspire large numbers of New York Jews regarding Israel, whose accomplishments in science, technology, medical research and other areas are the envy of much of the world?

The fact that more than 5,000 people took part in a related Celebrate Israel run through Central Park prior to the parade is particularly impressive, in part because it received relatively little attention. At a time when walk-a-thons and charity races are so popular, maybe that element could be expanded and funds raised for Israeli causes.

Perhaps the celebration should not be limited to a single day when the weather is a major factor. There could be a month of Israel-related cultural events, including concerts, films and theatrical productions, in different venues around New York. Live forums could offer leading thinkers in the U.S. and Israel the opportunity to discuss and debate the most important issues of the day affecting our two communities, with live streaming so that there could be participation from both continents.

It’s true that the day of the parade can create warm and lasting memories for the tens of thousands of marchers, especially the children. But I’d love to see more funding in our schools to teach Modern Zionism to those students over several years in a creative and inspiring way, instilling pride as well as knowledge.

Those are just a few ideas; I certainly don’t have all the answers and I welcome your thoughts and suggestions.

The Israel day parade has been an integral part of the New York Jewish experience for decades, but times change and so do our interests, customs and modes of communication. It would be a healthy exercise for us to consider alternative forms of expressing our love for Israel so that we could actively reach a much larger segment of our community — a new way to say “Am Yisrael Chai” (the People of Israel Live).

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I attended the Parade this year as I have for the past several years. When I was younger I use to march in the parade with my youth movement. Before I remake aliya in 3 years I would like to see the Parade make the improvements it needs to survive so that by the 50th anniversary of the Parade it will rival that of the St. Patrick's Day Parade. Gary, you are right that the Parade needs a shot in the arm. It has begun to change when it reinvited groups that are critical of Israel to march. As the old saying goes; "I would rather have my enemy in the tent pissing out than have him outside the tent pissing in". The parade also needs those Jewish actors and actresses showing up and being honorary grand marshals like Natalie Portman, Seth Rogen, and yes even Jon Stewart. They also need to invite Israeli singing stars like Sarit Hadad and Hagit Yaso to the Parade to perform on floats. Most important, every year the President of Israel honors the 120 best soldiers in Zahal on Independence Day. Those soldiers have to be put on a plane and march in the Parade to show the flag and the uniform of Zahal. But the Parade must not be the be all and end all of our commitment. If the month of May is Jewish Heritage Month then we must utilize all of the month culminating with the Parade. Where are the Israel Food Festivals, Bible Quizes, Trade Fairs and Film Festivals? It should be the month where the greatest number of Taglit (Operation Birthright) members are recuited. In short, Gary you are 100% right in your assessment of the situation.

As chair of the Northeast Queens Jewish Community Council I am pleased to note our contingent of 13 members organizations (Our member yeshivot march separately and many of the family of our Young Israel and OU congregations march/ participate through the day schools and yeshivot.) represented a broad spectrum. We do this as an ALL-VOLUNTEER -- without any support outside of our member congregations and other member organization -- as UJA-Federation elected not to maintain its support for the largest grassroots regional JCC in the Greater NY area (we do not deliver human services so as not to compete with the Y and our other institutional members and it seems Federation no longer looks to fund "community relations" councils despite our important role.).

And...Why did Mr. Rothblatt chose not to identify either those he sees as "fringe" elements ("edges of the communal spectrum") or the groups they "ideologically" oppose? Then he would be obliged to address himself and the paper to the particulars rather than take the passing shot he took? I am PROUD, not ASHamed, to identify myself as one of those who protested, and I invite Mr. Rothblatt to make clear whether or not he is "ideologically" supportive of the groups whose participation we protested.

It is commendable that your paper - a Federation publication "gets it" - ie that it is the Orthodox Jews, and pretty much only the Orthodox Jews who have a deep and vested interest in supporting Israel - even to the extent of attending this parade, which in my case, coming from South Jersey, is very difficult and challenging. Yet we come because as important as it is to come and show support for Israel, it is equally important to demonstrate and highlight who, by their absence is not so supportive of Israel, meaning in large part, the non-observant Jewish community in this country.

It always very pleasant - very Federation like to call upon the community to establish gateways and entries into the pro-Israel world of meaningful and participatory Judaism and Zionism, and very politically correct to gently chide the powers that be into goading the non-involved to become more involved. But this "build another JCC" mentality can only take you so far as the appropriations commitees in the Federations. On the Street the approach needs to be more of an in your face "Pinchas" reproach. This parade puts it right on the line - Where is your heart? Are you with us? because if you're not, then you are basically against us.

Our response to the Beinarts and J Streeters - the "tough love" gang - is that they have no constituency, they do not represent the Jewish community which is dedicated to unquestioning support of the Medina. They represent only themselves and a small group of kvetchers - like the liberals who marched with ML King yet wouldn't live next door to him, this minority of false prophets has no message as they disappear into history. The Israel Day parade is indeed an important demonstration of which part of Am Yisrael is actually "Chai" (and which part, sadly is destined for oblivion). The parade is a wake up call to the non-participants to join Am Yisrael before it is too late.

Tucked away unobtrusively at the end of the 9th paragraph is this nugget, "A few individuals on the edges of the communal spectrum brought shame to their cause, seeking to disallow the participation of groups they are opposed to ideologically." Let's parse that loaded sentence.
First, does Mr. Rosenblatt disapprove of dissent generally? Or only when it is dissent from positions which he personally approves, like the decision to allow groups that have supported BDS or otherwise aligned themselves more closely with the Palestinians than with the Israelis to participate in Celebrate Israel parade?

Those who protested brought shame not to themselves but to their "cause," that of support for Israel, by objecting to the inclusion of those who may fairly be seen as anti-Israel activists? (That is if there were any shame to be assigned other than to those anti-Israel activists and their enablers, which there wasn't.)

The center of the communal spectrum is ipso facto wherever John Ruskay, the Federation CEO, has planted his feet, and those who would challenge him consign themselves to the "edges of the communal spectrum"? [Reportedly, Dr. Ruskay collaborated with that "lover" of Israel Noam Chomsky through CONAME, an organization that urged the US government not to resupply Israel with armaments during the Yom Kippur war, when it was in such grave peril. So he may have a far more expansive view of what does and doesn't constitute anti-Israel activisim. If that isn't true, I hope that he will set the record straight once and for all.]

Is it "intolerant," and thus wrong, to be "opposed...ideologically" to any group that purports to be "pro-Israel," no matter their bona fides, especially if they have Jewish members? It's "illiberal" not to welcome them? [286 words]

Can some of those funds go toward Taglit to accept more kids to their program in Israel?

The answer is obvious: Only the Orthodox truly support Israel. And, frankly, we are all Israel needs.

Dear Mr. Rosenblatt,

I share your concern that Orthodox Jews represented the vast majority of those attending the parade. But I believe that part of the reason is that many New York Jews are either hostile to Israel or simply indifferent, and would never consider attending a parade. My point of view is based on personal experience. I worked for many years in the music industry, where I rarely encountered Jews who knew even the most rudimentary facts about Israel, or cared enough to learn them. I live in an Upper West Side building where many of my neighbors, who apparently think of me as the reincarnation of Avraham Stern, have expressed to me their distaste for Israel.

So the real problems are apathy and antipathy. I don't see anything changing -- unless, as was the case in the days leading up to the Six Day War, Israel's existence is clearly threatened.

Maybe the organizers of the NY effort should meet with organizers of the recent VERY successful LA Israel festival and share ideas....

I think the day school families are the only ones to whom it is properly marketed. I honestly only realized it was Sunday on the Friday before, thanks to a secondary comment on a friend's Facebook post about the run. This despite our being active at two synagogues only 15 or so miles from the parade route. And despite having my office on Fifth Avenue. And despite regularly reading Jewish newspapers, websites, Twitter feeds, etc. If I wasn't aware of it until too late, what about the tens of thousands who aren't as actively involved with the community?

The little translation at the end was touching.

I have the honor to begin the parade by sounding the Shofar, for the last 15 consecutive years, through the parade. After I finish the parade route, I come back to the reviewing stand to watch the parade.

I also noticed that there are less people watching the parade. However, on the positive side, there have been more marchers. It is a great honor to see the many, many children from the Yeshivas marching in support of Israel. I also noticed that more congregations have in the parade this year.

San Francisco has a hugely successful annual event called Israel in the Gardens. In fact, it's happening this Sunday. Maybe NY can do a similar event in Central Park!

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