The Center City gathering brought out a diverse group of Jews — and non-Jews — from across the region.
An estimated 2,500 pro-Israel supporters converged Wednesday afternoon at LOVE Park in Center City for an Israel solidarity rally.
The rally, which was organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia in conjunction with dozens of area synagogues and Jewish organizations, featured speeches from Elad Strohmayer, Israel’s deputy consul general to the mid-Atlantic region; state Sen. Anthony Williams; Federation President Sherrie Savett and CEO Naomi Adler; Josh Shapiro, chairman of the Montgomery County Commission; and Risa Vetri Ferman, Montgomery County’s district attorney. A few other elected officials and several non-Jewish clergy also sat on the dais.
The crowd brought together a diverse group of pro-Israel supporters from across the region, including some non-Jewish advocates. A mix of Orthodox and non-Orthodox, young and old waved Israeli flags and held signs that said "We Stand With Israel" and "What if rockets targeted your city all year long?" Among the crowd were local rabbis, day school teachers, Israelis, a contingent of students from Barrack Hebrew Academy and members of the Star of David Bikers. Rabbi Gregory S. Marx of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen gave the invocation and Cantor Stephen Freedman of Temple Sinai in Dresher led the crowd in the singing of "Hatikvah," Israel's national anthem.
The gathering far surpassed three previous pro-Israel rallies held in recent weeks since the conflict between Israel and Hamas and other Arab terrorist organizations escalated one month ago.
More than 2,000 rockets have been fired into Israel, and at least 32 Israeli Defense Forces soldiers and 600 Palestinians have been killed — many of them just in the last week as Israel launched a ground operation to try and clear underground tunnels and weapons in Gaza. The local event occurred while flights from the United States to Israel are suspended and as Secretary of State John Kerry was in Israel to try and reach a cease-fire agreement.
"We will not surrender," Strohmayer said in a passionate speech. "We will not give up. The Israeli people are resilient and strong. We choose life and we will not let Hamas war crimes dictate how we live."
Though aggressive verbal — and even physical — altercations had been reported at some rallies related to the conflict across the country, the gathering in Philadelphia was carried out in a relatively peaceful fashion. A counterprotest of several hundred people calling for "Israel to end the occupation" and blaming the Israeli Defense Forces for the loss of civilian life in Gaza gathered across the street from the pro-Israel rally.
Williams, who is not Jewish but is a regular presence at Jewish events and gatherings in support of Israel, criticized people who are no longer supporting Israel because of the war.
"Where do they stand today?" he asked. "If there are those who stand here or across the street or in another part of the world, let me ask this question: If you want a peace, a true peace, one that is dignified, fair, balanced and diverse, than you stand with Israel!"
Lev Hirschorn, a graduate of Brandeis University who is Jewish, stood among the crowd of pro-Palestinan supports, who were largely Muslim.
"I have been really saddened and disturbed by the events in Gaza the last month," Hirschorn, a 24-year-old community organizer, said as people around him chanted "Free, Free Palestine." "Across the street there are people who claim to speak for the whole Jewish community, but the Jewish community is not united on this issue. There are thousands of us who stand in solidarity with Gazans and Palestinians."
Justin Cohen, a 28-year-old attorney from Cherry Hill, N.J., said he attended the pro-Israel rally, in part, because he feels "a little helpess," away from the conflict itself.
"I realize there's only so much you can do unless you're actually in the army," he said. "So my way of showing support is showing up here and coming to be with people who share the same ideals and the same morals."
Marsha Hyman, who is in her 60s, biked from Havertown to express her solidarity. "I'm a big supporter of Israel and these kind of rallies are very good to show that they have our support," she said.
Lucille Stein, an elderly resident of Center City and longtime member of Rodeph Shalom, said she had gone to the Israel Bonds office earlier in the day to purchase Bonds and was now here to be counted among Israel's supporters. "It's important to do something," she said.
The large attendance shows "we are united in our solidarity with Israel," Savett, the Federation president, said in her remarks. She quoted a letter from Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynewood, who is in Israel but sent a letter urging his congregants to attend the rally.
"To stand with Israel is not about politics," wrote Cooper. "It is not about right and left, it is about right and wrong. Standing up for Israel in her time of need means to put aside for the moment those internal differences in order to come together and show that we are united in our support of and solidarity with Israel."
Harriet Gimpel, who made aliyah some 30 years ago and had been scheduled to fly home to Israel on Tuesday night after a business trip to the United States, came to the rally with her father. She said it was "really moving" to see so many people at the rally.
"It really does give us a feeling of support," she said, adding that she was going to post photos from the rally on Facebook to share with her friends at home.
Jewish Exponent executive editor Lisa Hostein contributed to this report.