New York – The 54th annual Celebrate Israel was a riot of color and sound, as tens of thousands of marchers took to Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue on Sunday morning to participate in the hours-long festivities commemorating the State of Israel’s 70th birthday.
With a theme of “70 & Sababa,” the contemporary sounds of Gad Elbaz’s Hashem Melech and Yaakov Shwekey’s Maamin B’Nissim mixed with the iconic strains of Am Yisroel Chai and other upbeat music as revelers partied all along the nearly mile long parade route stretching from 57th to 74th streets, despite cloudy skies, cool temperatures and the occasional drizzle.
Spectators along 5th Avenue cheered and waved as they enjoyed the more than 30 floats, 15 marching bands and groups representing over 250 organizations from the greater New York area and beyond.
Many fed off the energy of the marchers, some of whom tossed sunglasses, rubber bracelets and other trinkets into the crowd. While there were those who wore traditional blue and white in tribute to the Israeli flag, others went the whimsical route, with students at Yeshivat Noam of Paramus donning blue capes bearing the words “Israel, 70 and Super!” over bright orange t-shirts and holding signs of famous Israelis spanning the spectrum including Chief Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau, Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir and actress Gal Gadot.
A large contingent from Yeshiva of Flatbush wearing purple t-shirts with a picture of giant birthday cake superimposed in front of a drawing of the Kosel distinguished themselves both with their impressive signage as well as the gratitude they showed to members of the NYPD, thanking numerous officers along the route for their service.
Asked if students had been prepped by the school to express their thanks to police, seventh grader Albert Kroub replied, “we know on our own to thank the NYPD for their service. And the FDNY also.”
Those sentiments were echoed by fellow seventh grader Charlie Aini.
“My favorite part of the parade is when we thank the NYPD and they fist bump me,” Aini told VIN News.
The Yeshiva of Flatbush contingent followed behind the 800 students representing Brooklyn’s Magen David Yeshiva.
“As long as the parade has been going, we have been here,” said principal Rabbi Alan Berkowitz. “It is wonderful to be here celebrating with Medinat Yisrael I see this as an opportunity to stand up and say we are here and we are proud to support Eretz Yisrael.”
While children were enthralled with the parade, participants ranged from all ages, including Dr. Ruth Westheimer who traveled the parade route perched atop the passenger seat of a vintage light blue 1963 Chrysler Imperial convertible, waving cheerfully to the crowd in an official Celebrate Israel parade sash. Dr. Westheimer said that she recalled dancing in the streets when the State of Israel was created in 1948, something she looked forward to doing today as well, one day before her 92nd birthday.
“I come every year, rain or shine,” said Traring. “It is wonderful to see the kids and I am so touched that sometimes I can actually cry, truly, truly. I get so emotional because this is very special for me.”
While the majority of those who participated in the parade were Jewish, there were many representatives of other faiths on hand, including Reverend Jacques DeGraff of Canaan Baptist Church of Harlem.
“Israel is my holy land,” said Reverend DeGraff. “The Jewish people have stood with my people in troubled times in America. We have the same values and the same faith and I am here today to show my support for Israel and my support for the Jewish people.”
Pastor William Devlin of Infinity Church in the Bronx strolled down Fifth Avenue with Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, wearing both a yarmulke and a clerical collar.
Pastor Devlin joked that he and Rabbi Potasnik attended yeshiva together and noted that he has been to Israel 37 times. While he said he enjoyed taking part in the parade, Pastor Devlin expressed surprise at what he thought to be a relatively small number of spectators, possibly due to less than perfect weather conditions.
“Here I am a Christian pastor marching out here – where are all the people that support Israel?” mused Pastor Devlin. “We want them to come out in 2019.”
Far Rockaway resident Rachel English, who has been attending the parade every year for the past 30 years, expressed the same sentiment.
“I wish there were more people here,” said English. “It should be jam packed. Everybody should be here showing their support for the State of Israel, not just because it is a Jewish state and the Jewish homeland, but because it is the only democracy in an area of the world that needs that democracy.”
In addition to an appearance by Israel’s United Nations representative Danny Danon, there were politicians aplenty at the parade. As in previous years, both Governor Andrew Cuomo’s delegation and that of Mayor Bill de Blasio were flanked by tight security, with Cuomo’s team handing out Israeli flags bearing the governor’s name just seconds before the delegation passed.
New York City Public Advocate Letitia James marched down the parade route twice, once with Mayor Cuomo’s group and a second time on her own, surrounded by supporters touting her upcoming run to fill the attorney general position recently vacated by Eric Schneiderman.
“I love coming every year,” said James, noting that she formerly represented Crown Heights in the City Council. “I consider myself an honorary Jew.”
Asked about her second pass down the parade route James smiled and quipped, “I’m getting my steps in today.”
Senator Chuck Schumer was surrounded by a small group as he marched down the avenue, pausing at once point to chide spectators who greeted his approach with disapproval.
“Partisanship doesn’t help Israel,” said Schumer, following up his remarks to onlookers with a more general statement.
“This is a great day for New York, for Israel and for America,” said Schumer. “The Israeli-American relationship will stay strong.”
Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal of Queens, who got married just over a week ago, came to the parade with his new wife, Orli.
“It is very important to come out here as New Yorkers and celebrate the State of Israel,” said Rosenthal, noting that he looks forward to continue promoting the strong relationship between New York State and Israel.
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, whose district includes portions of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, expressed wonder at Israel’s many accomplishments in a relatively short time span.
“When Israel was started, you had no agriculture, no water and now you have figured out how to desalinate water and build a strong economy while being a leader in innovation. Israel’s successes are an inspiration to the world.”
As always, the parade was marked by the presence of a group of anti-Israel demonstrators, with Chasidic men wearing Palestinian scarves standing shoulder to shoulder with pro-Palestinian demonstrators. Not to be outdone, just uptown stood a smiling young man in blue and white sunglasses holding up a sign bearing the words “I think Israel is PRETTY COOL.” Underneath those words were arrows pointing to the right at the anti-Israel protestors and the words, “This guy smells.”
Making their way up Fifth Avenue at the later end of the parade 50 motorcyclists from the Chai Riders, part of the Jewish Motorcycle Alliance of America which has 36 groups nationwide. Nearby was a crew from Maimonides Medical Center in Borough Park that featured marchers and with live music from entertainer Lipa Schmeltzer, stationed at the upper level of the first of two double decker buses.
“It’s a great day, an energetic day,” said Ken Gibbs, president and CEO of the hospital whose 8,500 births annually is the largest in the state. “We were founded as a Jewish hospital over 100 years ago and we believe in serving the community for who they are. We are in the heart of a very diverse Jewish community and we do our best to provide excellent clinical outcomes to everybody while respecting traditions of our home community.”
Political activist Devorah Halberstam marched the parade route as she does every year, proudly expressing her support for the State of Israel.
“Every Jew in New York City belongs here and then some,” said Halberstam. “We are the Jewish Americans, who really have to be here and to show our support. We keep America safe. America keeps us safe. We are partners, the best partners in the world.”
Security was said to be high for the parade, as previously reported on VIN News, but while certain blocks in the frozen zone surrounding the route had obvious security checkpoints, others did not appear to have any. Michael Miller, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council which runs the parade, praised the NYPD and the FBI for their joint efforts keeping parade-goers safe deftly side-stepping questions about any additional measures taken this year.
“They are heightening security as they always heighten security,” said Miller. “We can’t detect what they are doing differently but the most important thing is that they are here and they are protecting everybody who is attending. Thankfully the enthusiasm on the street is incredible. The kids are having a good time. The adults are having a great time. The review stands are full. What more do we need?”