Before the speakers even took to the podium, a number of people, many of them high school students, danced almost ecstatically while chanting "Am Yisrael Chai" and waving signs that read "We Stand With Israel."
"We are standing up today against a reign of terror. Let not the threat of the rain … wash away our resolve," said Rabbi David Gutterman, executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, to the roughly 300 or so people who attended the Center City rally on March 19.
In fact, the rain held off for most of the program, which ran for more than an hour. Organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and a host of other Jewish groups, it was the first major event of its type since one held in exactly the same spot in August 2006, during the height of what's now known in Israel as the Second Lebanon War.
Evoking the theme of Purim, Gutterman said that — like the events described in the book of Esther — Jews would survive the onslaught of whatever foes rise up and seek to destroy them. Only now, he said, the enemies are not the ancient Persians but modern-day Iranians, as well as members of Hamas, Hezbollah and other terror groups.
Gutterman read the names of each of the yeshiva students who died at Mercaz Harav in Jerusalem. He also led a recitation of the Kaddish prayer.
Later in the program, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced to the crowd that "this recent terrorist act perpetrated at a school in Jerusalem — murdering eight students and injuring many others — and, on a daily basis, the relentless firing of missiles into Israel from a variety of places — this terrorism must stop, it must come to an end."
Nutter briefly interjected into the program the political campaign that has embroiled Pennsylvania, namely the contest between Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for the Democratic presidential nomination. Nutter, a staunch supporter of Clinton, evoked her strong backing for Israel, though he also pointed out that Obama has taken the same position.
He also said that U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) was in attendance and would later speak on behalf of Obama, although the lawmaker was never actually called to the podium.
Other speakers included Leonard Barrack, chair of Federations's board of trustees; Sherrie Shavett Rovner, a board member of both the Jewish Publishing Group and Federation's Israel and Overseas Center; and Israel Consul General Uriel Palti.
Palti stressed that, since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Palestinians in the region have fired more than 3,000 rockets at southern cities, including Sederot and, more recently, the port town of Ashkelon.
Sounding a slightly different note, Victoria Yancey, special representative of the School District of Philadelphia's office of community relations and faith-based initiatives, linked the deaths of the yeshiva students to school violence throughout the world, including the 2007 massacre of nearly 30 students at Virginia Tech University, as well as shootings right here in Philadelphia.
"When tragedy strikes one of us, tragedy affects all of us," said Yancey. "Violence against students is especially heinous."
Strong Student Participation
Zack Margulies, who works in Center City, waved an American flag and cheered throughout the speeches. "It was very inspiring," he said.
A considerable number of college students attended, especially from Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania.
"It was good to see politicians standing up for Israel, and defending the radical idea that Jews should live safe and secure in their own homeland," said Adam Buchoff, a Penn junior and vice president of that campus's Zionist Freedom Alliance.
Andrew Schwartz, president of Temple Students for Israel, noted that he was slightly disappointed that attendance wasn't greater.
"On the bright side," added the Temple junior, "there was no counterprotest. At least we were given the opportunity to get the message out that was intended."
A contingent from Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, Jewish Alliance for Justice & Peace, offered a somewhat dissenting message, as several people held up signs that read "Security Equals Peace Agreement."
None of the speakers called for such an offensive or for any specific action.
Steve Masters, president of the organization, said later that a cease-fire with Hamas, and not a reoccupation of the Gaza Strip, would prove the best way to stop the rockets.