June 6, 2005

Fifth Avenue goes blue-and-white for Salute to Israel Parade


New York Jewry put on its biggest annual show of support for Israel on Sunday with tens of thousands of people crowding onto Manhattan's Fifth Avenue to watch or march in the 41st annual Salute to Israel Parade.

The East Side street turned into a river of blue-and-white flags on what was a brilliantly sunny day, while on the sidelines many parade-goers wore orange T-shirts to demonstrate their solidarity with Gaza's settlers. The march was followed by a concert in Central Park that doubled as a political rally in support of Gaza's Jews and against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan.

But the anger and controversy that marked Sharon's visit to New York two weeks ago was largely absent from the parade day.

"The parade has always been the largest gathering in support of Israel," said Judy Kaufthal, president of the Israel Tribute Committee, the group that organizes the annual parade. "It's a real feel-good kind of a day."

In an effort to keep the parade apolitical, marchers included both left-wing and right-wing groups, including a small contingent bearing a sign that read "Kahana Chai." On a day on which synagogues, youth groups, marching bands, entertainment companies and even rental-car companies marched or floated up the avenue, Jewish day schools comprised the vast majority of marchers-as they do every year. About 100,000 marchers were expected for the parade.

Traditionally, the most visible presence at the parade are Orthodox Jews, who constitute the majority of the spectators. On Sunday, in addition to men in kippot and women in long skirts, there were plenty of bare midriffs, teenagers in tank tops and Israelis wading through the crowds.

After the parade, a stream of orange made its way for about a mile through Central Park to the site of the concert, where women sunning themselves in bikinis jockeyed for spots on the expansive lawn with men clad in white shirts and dangling tzitzit. Meanwhile, an Orthodox chazzan intoned the El Moleh Rachamim mourning prayer.

Then Orthodox Jewish bands took center stage, and Hasidic and modern Jewish music was interspersed with oratory about the folly of Israel's disengagement plan and words of support for the Jews of Gaza. One speaker at the concert recited Psalms on the stage, which was festooned with a banner reading, "For the sake of Jerusalem we dare not be silent."

The concert, which also is an annual event, was organized by Joseph Frager, chairman of the board of American Friends of Ateret Cohanim. MKs Effie Eitam and Uzi Landau were expected to deliver speeches, and the concert was broadcast live on an Israeli radio station.

While obviously political demonstrations of a sort, the concert and the parade were also opportunities for New York Jews simply to hang out together and have a good time. Men with beer guts waved signs reading "Israel, our homeland," a few elderly people clutched miniature Israeli flags as they were pushed in wheelchairs, and young mothers and fathers and their babies seemed to be everywhere. People selling cold drinks did swift business, and the smell of contraband marijuana was in the air in some places.

Rivky Nadler, 17, came to the parade with a few friends both to show her support for Israel and to sell T-shirts in support of Gush Katif for $5 each. She said she had sold almost 100 shirts in a little more than two hours, and ran into only one or two parade-goers who tried to argue with the shirt's message, "Jews don't expel other Jews."

On the avenue, the Chai-Riders Motorcycle Club revved their motors between day school students singing Zionist songs. A panoply of local political officials marched down the avenue, and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom served as grand marshal of the parade. Last year, real-estate mogul and star of NBC's "The Apprentice," Donald Trump, served as marshal.

Sociologist William Helmreich, an expert in American Jewry at the City University of New York, called the parade "the largest and only public vehicle to demonstrate support for Israel in New York."

The parade suffered from relatively poor attendance in the mid-1990s, when it was perceived as a showcase for institutions affiliated with modern Orthodoxy. Several years ago, sponsorship for the parade had slowed to a trickle and the annual event was on the verge of being canceled until a group of parents and administrators from North Shore Hebrew Academy, in Great Neck, Long Island, stepped in and took things over.

Helmreich, who at the time was president of the North Shore school, was one of those activists. "No one wanted to come up with the money that year," he said. Helmreich and a group of patrons and administrators of the Great Neck school came up with the $100,000 necessary to sustain the parade, and the event went on.

Even as the parade has grown and participation has become more diverse, raising funds has remained a challenge, according to parade officials. The event usually costs upward of $500,000.