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Manhattan Jews march in support of hostages every Shabbat

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“If people saw the faces of the hostages and their humanity,” Michelle Sarna told JNS, “that that would raise empathy in a way that crossed political lines.”

Mike Wagenheim

(JNS)

Michelle Sarna and her family were visiting Israel to celebrate her mother’s birthday last year when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

The psychologist at SAR Academy, a Modern Orthodox day school in the Bronx, and her husband, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna—executive director of the Bronfman Center at New York University and senior religious adviser to the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue in the United Arab Emirates—found themselves “consumed, as was the rest of the country, with fear and sadness and rage,” she told JNS.

They also felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility to do something upon their return a few days later to Manhattan, where they have lived for 22 years, she said.

Sarna contacted Jewish communal leaders in downtown Manhattan at synagogues spanning religious denominations, as well as student and young professional groups.

The psychologist proposed that a group take a “quiet, respectful, solemn walk” every Shabbat on behalf of the hostages Hamas kidnapped on Oct. 7 and continues to hold in the Gaza Strip. The gathering would raise “awareness of the gravity of what is happening to these humans held in captivity,” she told JNS.

A community member donated large posters with photos of and information about the hostages and the word “kidnapped” in large letters.

“We considered that if people saw the faces of the hostages and their humanity—to literally and figuratively look them in the eyes—that that would raise empathy in a way that crossed political lines,” she told JNS.

Sarna planned the walks for Shabbat because New York’s Jewish community cannot rest—even on the Day of Rest—as something so unsettling and disturbing was taking place to their brethren in Gaza.

Since Nov. 4, a group of Manhattanites—ranging from 20 to 100 people, from young children to those in their late 80s—have marched in support of the hostages every Shabbat afternoon for around 45 minutes, in rain, sleet, snow and shine, away from the cameras and media attention that larger-scale protests have drawn.

“Most people go about their lives in New York, and they forget that there are hostages and or don’t care,” McBee, a painter and writer, told JNS. “Our job is to try to remind them that this is an ongoing tragedy.”

Manhattan march hostages
Every Shabbat afternoon since Nov. 4, pro-Israel Manhattan residents have marched for about 45 minutes carrying signs drawing attention to the hostages whom Hamas holds in Gaza. Photo by Phillip Maier.

Every Shabbat afternoon, the group gathers at the Bronfman Center on E. 10th St., between Fifth Avenue and University Place. It walks along Fifth towards the always-busy Washington Square Park, which it circles twice before walking to University Place and then on to Union Square at 14th Street.

The group often circles Union Square twice as well, ending at the famous statue of George Washington on the south end of the eponymous Park. There, the group sings “Acheinu,” a prayer that refers to Jews who are captive, and the Israeli national anthem “Hatikvah,” meaning “The Hope.”

‘We’re not going to back down’

Made up of many kinds of Jews and Israel supporters, the group doesn’t photograph itself, per Shabbat restrictions. But passersby have offered to document marches and share their photos with McBee.

Some members, who don’t carry anything in public on Shabbat despite an eruv in Manhattan—which many Orthodox Jews rely upon to bring items such as prayer shawls, house keys and snacks, and to push baby strollers or use a cane—opt to march without bearing signs.

New York City Police Department officers and those who work in community affairs for the department accompany the group, and interactions with others have been almost exclusively positive, according to McBee.

“We see a lot of people because it’s downtown Manhattan,” he said. “Many people don’t say anything. Some people say, ‘Am Yisrael chai,’” Hebrew for “the people of Israel live.”

Manhattan march hostages
Every Shabbat afternoon since Nov. 4, pro-Israel Manhattan residents have marched for about 45 minutes carrying signs drawing attention to the hostages whom Hamas holds in Gaza. Photo by Phillip Maier.

“In all the months that I’ve been doing this, I think maybe we had negative comments three times,” McBee said. “Even then, it’s not really even much of anything.”

At one point, with pro-Hamas encampments growing downtown, the group made a decision, in coordination with the NYPD, to go outside of its normal route past the New School and Fifth Avenue and 13th Street, an academic institution that has served as one of the more “provocative, offensive” encampment sites, according to Sarna.

There, Hamas supporters had taken over the lobby and vandalized the area with anti-Israel propaganda.

“We walked to those sites, and we just spent a moment kind of reclaiming that space,” Sarna said.

The “reclaiming” included “singing and reminding the world, and hopefully the citizens of New York City, that there is another voice that needs to be heard about Israel, about the hostages and about this war, and we are not going to be scared,” she told JNS.

Sarna insisted that “we’re not going to back down, and we are also going to do it with both dignity and with audacity.”

During one walk, the marchers crossed paths with family members of one of the hostages. The relatives were taking a break from a meeting that day, Sarna told JNS.

Manhattan march hostages
Every Shabbat afternoon since Nov. 4, pro-Israel Manhattan residents have marched for about 45 minutes carrying signs drawing attention to the hostages whom Hamas holds in Gaza. Photo by Phillip Maier.

“They were so touched that we were doing this for them, thinking ‘What are the odds that a group in downtown Manhattan on Shabbat would be thinking about their relative and taking a moment to do something about it?’” she said. “That was very moving.”

An Iranian freelance journalist and former political prisoner sent an email to Sarna after seeing the Shabbat march condemning the Islamic Republic leadership for its support of Hamas.

The writer passed along her “special thanks to you for your commitment to support the hostages,” Sarna told JNS. “I’m proud of you as a woman who strongly stands for the persecuted people.”

At the end of the walk, “we often will take a moment and have everybody look into the face—the name that they’ve been carrying—and to feel connected to that person just for a minute,” said Sarna.

McBee has sent notices to local synagogues and Jewish community groups in Manhattan, looking to drum up more support and consistent march attendance.

Thus far, regular support has been drawn from the Town and Village Synagogue, the Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue, the Downtown Minyan, Aderet El, the Bronfman Center, the Brotherhood Synagogue and the Sixth Street Community Synagogue.

“It varies, but people feel strongly about it,” he told JNS. “Anyone who’s bothering to walk feels pretty much the same as I do.”

“This is the least we can do for the hostages,” he added.

Featured Image: Every Shabbat afternoon since Nov. 4, pro-Israel Manhattan residents have marched for about 45 minutes carrying signs drawing attention to the hostages whom Hamas holds in Gaza. Photo by Phillip Maier.

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