By Yaakov Ort – Chabad.org
Photos: Itzik Roytman/COLlive
the Israel-Gaza war approaching its 40th day and antisemitism on the rise around the world, an estimated 290,000 people from all walks of Jewish life gathered at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in a massive show of unity and support for the people of Israel, who have been under attack since Oct. 7. They likewise prayed and did mitzvahs, with countless Jewish men putting on tefillin at Chabad-Lubavitch’s dozens of mitzvah booths spread throughout the Mall, in the merit of the Holy Land and her people.
The unity rally comes amid a huge surge in Jewish engagement in the wake of the Oct. 7th terror attacks and the subsequent war, a Jewish awakening that includes an increase in attendance at Jewish programs and services, a heightened sense of Jewish pride, connection to Israel, and stronger Jewish identity.
Zalman Watman, 69, woke up before dawn in Roslyn on Long Island, N.Y., on Tuesday and boarded a chartered bus to attend the rally. Watman, a son of Holocaust survivors, volunteered on a kibbutz near the Golan Heights during college and today is an active community member of Chabad-Lubavitch of Roslyn.
Watman told Chabad.org that his community’s connection to Judaism has only grown in the past 40 days. A self-described baal teshuvah who returned to Jewish observance 20 years ago, he says he has been deeply impacted by the teachings of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
Watman cites the Rebbe’s teaching that giving strength to other Jews through positive action is central, and says that’s especially true now, in the aftermath of the brutal terror attack and difficult war in Israel, and amid rising antisemitism in the rest of the world. As president of his congregation, he devotes himself to encouraging the large Jewish population living in Roslyn to participate in Jewish events and activities, working closely with Chabad of Roslyn’s co-directors, Rabbi Aaron and Chanie Konikov.
Watman said he is looking forward to the widespread support he will experience at the rally. Speakers at the “March for Israel” include Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Mike Johnson.
Also on hand were families of hostages being held in Gaza, who had flown from Tel Aviv to New York the day before to pray at the resting place of the Rebbe at the Ohel, in Queens, N.Y.
Showing Their Support
Zev Klein, a father of four from Long Island, whose parents emigrated from Israel when he was a baby, grew up in what he calls a secular household. Nonetheless, “Judaism and my sense of belonging was always important to me,” says Klein. “It’s completely embedded within me.” Years later, Klein said, he took on the mitzvahs of wrapping tefillin, praying and keeping kosher.
Although Klein considers himself a “behind-the-scenes” person, since Oct. 7, he has pushed himself to step up to the communal plate to unite Jews, and take advantage of the sense of community Chabad provides. He thinks of himself as a “welcoming ambassador” helping new people feel comfortable.
“I feel great comfort in my faith,” said Klein. “I’m not afraid to have and to model true Jewish pride to my family.”
For Steven Freifeld, the events of Oct. 7 caused a notable shift in his Jewish observance and communal pride. Freifeld decided to take the cumulative 12-hour bus ride to Washington, D.C., to take part in the rally.
“It’s important for all Jews and others who care about what’s happening in Israel to show support for Israel,” he notes.
Unafraid to show others who he is, he has a sign on the lawn of his house in East Meadow: “We stand with Israel.” He now proudly wears his chai necklace—meaning “life”—pulled out from storage, and his prayer book to use on a daily basis in his effort to be more connected to his faith and heritage in light of the Oct. 7 atrocities.
En route via bus to the rally, Freifeld, with the help of Rabbi Eli Goodman of Chabad of the Beaches, put on tefillin—a mitzvah he hasn’t done in the eight years since his mother passed away.
He sent the picture of his putting on tefillin to a cousin in Israel, who promptly responded: “Thank you for your support!”
Nancy Hochman and Faygie Levy Holt contributed to this article for Chabad.org.
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