Holding signs and waving flags, a crowd of more than 1,000 gathered in Highland Park July 23 for a demonstration in support of Israel.
With Israel’s war in Gaza entering its third week, organizers of the march and rally aimed to send a message of solidarity with Israel and local families of Israeli soldiers.
After marching through downtown Highland Park to the site of the former YM-YWHA of Raritan Valley, demonstrators heard from politicians, community leaders, a parent of an Israel Defense Forces soldier, and a local resident whose Israeli cousin had been killed in action two days earlier.
Under dark and threatening skies, they prayed for the safety of the IDF soldiers and concluded with “Hatikva” just before the rain began.
“Why does it take the president of the United States to remind the world that Israel has the right to protect itself from missiles and rockets?” asked Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler, who said she came to the rally as “a mother, niece, wife, and sister.”
A former president of the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, she urged those present to reach out to family and friends in Israel to let them know “America will not abandon them” and “to make a better world where children are not victims of terrorism or fanaticism.”
The rally was sponsored by an ad hoc community group originally called Central New Jersey Stands with Israel, which organized the event in just three days and got the word out largely through its Facebook page. As interest in the rally grew, the site was moved to Highland Park from the Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County secured permission from the owner of the rally site.
Many speakers highlighted the relationship between the United States and Israel. Dr. Marc Hanfling, a leader in NORPAC, a NJ political action committee supporting Israel, urged the crowd to be advocates for Israel with the media and elected representatives.
“Israel is America’s strongest ally,” he said.
Jeffrey Korbman of Highland Park, who had just returned from Israel on a Jewish Federations of North America mission, described the lengths Israel goes to to protect its residents from rockets fired by Hamas.
“When Israel was approached by Palestinians in the West Bank, who asked that siren warnings be extended to them so they would know when rockets were launched from Gaza, Israel said yes,” said Korbman, assistant executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Korbman also called the Iron Dome missile defense system, largely funded by the United States, a “game-changer” that has intercepted up to 90 percent of all incoming rockets.
“You can be proud as American taxpayers that the Unites States stands with Israel,” he said to loud applause.
Rutgers Hillel executive director Andrew Getraer, whose son, Sandy, is serving in the IDF, spoke on behalf of other local families with children in Israel’s armed forces.
Getraer, a Highland Park resident, said Israel “has no choice” but to send its sons and daughters to defend itself.
“Israel doesn’t want to kill anyone,” he said. “If there were peace tomorrow, everyone in Israel would say, ‘Thank God.’”
Rhoda Cohen of East Brunswick reminded the crowd of the price Israel pays for its freedom. She and her husband, Rabbi Herman Cohen, came to the rally in remembrance of a young cousin, 2nd Lt. Yuval Haiman of Efrat, killed just two days earlier when a terrorist squad hit his jeep with a missile as he patrolled underground tunnels around Kibbutz Nir Am.
“He was a wonderful boy, loved by friends and family alike,” said Rhoda Cohen. She said Yuval’s great-grandfather was killed in Israel’s War of Independence.
Yonit Rothchild, who was visiting from Efrat, marched with her mother, Zelda Wildman of Edison, and children Shira, seven, and Ari, two.
“Everybody is hurting,” she said. “My neighbors’ kids have been called up. It’s very sad but everyone knows it needs to be done, even people with kids in the IDF. We had a missile hit very close to Efrat. But everyone knows it is not feasible to make peace.”
Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein of East Brunswick Jewish Center came with his son and daughter “for Israel and for us.”
“Our values are reflected in how much we love and are behind Israel,” he said.
Ethan Wasserman of Highland Park — who waved an Israeli flag as he stood with his wife, Debbie, their two-year-old daughter Maya, and infant son Alex — said, “We have family there, and we wanted to support Israel.”
Hadassah Geretz of Highland Park slipped away from the crowd to stand at the corner flipping her sign, which on one side urged Hamas to stop its attacks on Israel and the other urged support for Israel. Some passing motorists honked their horns in support.
“I wanted to show my support for Israel at a time when they were being bombarded by tens of thousands of terrorist rockets from that terrorist organization Hamas,” she said.