Some, like Seattle resident Julie Margulies, 50, flew thousands of miles to the nation's capital to attend. Others, like high school student Adam Zuckerman, 18, from Portland, Maine, raised money to help bring friends -- both Darfuri and Jewish -- to Washington for the big day.
Toting signs of "Never again, again" and "Not on our watch," Jews representing Hillel groups and day schools, synagogues and youth groups, community centers, Hadassah chapters and all denominations came from around the country to the National Mall in Washington for Sunday's Save Darfur rally. (Please also see page 11, for one person's experience of the rally.)
Participants included a delegation of more than 100 from Los Angeles. Another group of Angelenos attended a Darfur rally in San Francisco.
With the genocide in Darfur topping the Jewish community's national agenda, an unmistakable Jewish presence ran through Sunday's rally. Organized by the Save Darfur Coalition, a collection of 150 faith-based advocacy and humanitarian aid organizations initiated by two Jewish agencies, the roster of speakers included Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel; Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS); and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Other speakers included political heavyweights such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.); celebrities such as actor-director George Clooney, Olympic skater Joey Cheek and the Rev. Al Sharpton; and Sudanese representatives like Simon Deng, who recently walked from New York City to Washington to call attention to the situation in his homeland.
Their voices joined to oppose the genocide being waged by Arab militias against black Africans in a poor, desert-ridden region of Sudan known as Darfur. Since 2003, the government-backed militias have been decimating towns and raping, torturing and killing hundreds of thousands of Darfuris, leaving behind scorched earth.
Famine and disease are now endemic in the region, where refugees subsist in makeshift displaced persons camps. Officials in Chad nervously monitor the conflict, which they worry will spill over to their country. The situation in Darfur, which some estimate has claimed more than 400,000 lives, constitutes the first time the United States government has recognized genocide while it is still occurring.
Those behind the Save Darfur Coalition say Sunday's rally aimed to galvanize a multinational peacekeeping force to stop the attacks and ensure that humanitarian aid can be delivered.
David Rubenstein, a coordinator of the coalition, elaborated on these goals in a memo to the White House that called for guaranteed access to food and medical aid in the region, a beefed-up force on the ground from the African Union, a more effective United Nations peacekeeping mission and a presidential envoy focused on Darfur.
Addressing the sea of faces in Washington, Saperstein challenged listeners to realize these goals.
"An 'A' for effort doesn't do it," he said. "Your legacies and ours will be measured not by efforts alone but by whether, in the end, we stop or fail to stop this genocide."
Jewish participants like Joseph Milgrom, 92, a wheelchair-bound Holocaust survivor from suburban Maryland, found the message particularly salient because of the Holocaust.
"I was standing in line and they were sending people right, left, right, left," he said of his experiences in the Holocaust, the tears rolling down his cheeks. "I was sent to work. Everybody else in my family died."
For these reasons and others, Jewish participants turned up in droves Sunday under hot and sunny skies. Rally organizers reported Jewish representation from all major cities along the Eastern seaboard and from as far away as Wisconsin, Oregon and California.
At least 100 traveled from Los Angeles for the rally through the joint efforts of the locally based Jewish World Watch (JWW) and the Jewish Community Relations Committee, among other participating organizations and congregations. Those on the trip included Rabbi Karen Bender and Saundra Mandel of Temple Judea and Peter Marcus, chair of JWW's Community Action and Response Committee and a member of Temple Israel of Hollywood.
"We delivered 15,000 postcards and 1,000 petition signatures to the AJWS as part of its Million Voices campaign," said Janice Kamenir-Reznik, co-founder and president of JWW.
Rally Director Chuck Thies estimated the day's turnout at roughly 75,000 people.
Activism on Darfur has been a rallying cry among socially conscious Jews for months. In February, the issue topped the agenda of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs' annual plenum, which sets national priorities for local Jewish community relations councils.
The AJWS also has taken a lead role, with Messinger making two trips to Darfur. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a genocide alert for Darfur even before the government did. The AJWS and the museum formed the Save Darfur Coalition in 2004.
The weekend's pre-rally lineup included a smattering of Jewish-led Darfur events. Last Friday morning, Messinger and JCPA's executive director, Steve Gutow, along with a slew of others, succeeded in getting arrested while protesting on the steps of the Sudanese Embassy.
That night, the DC Reform Chavurah and Tikkun Leil Shabbat hosted a Shabbat service on Darfur. This was followed by three Havdalah services Saturday night, including one at the Jefferson Memorial; and a Sunday morning pre-rally brunch at the George Washington University Hillel, among other events.
Meanwhile, the Million Voices for Darfur campaign, also launched by the Save Darfur Coalition, deluged the White House on Sunday with 1 million handwritten and electronic postcards.
The extent of Jewish involvement has caused some to ask how much other faith communities have done.
"I don't know on what basis we can quantify what someone else can or should do," Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, commented at a recent Darfur event outside the United Nations. "But it would be shameful if we cannot get faith communities in our country to say this is one of the most important issues of our day."
Even Sudanese participants noticed a disproportionate Jewish presence at the rally and in relief efforts in general.
"The people in Darfur know very well and welcome the support of the American Jewish community," said Iessa Dahia, a Darfuri now living in Portland, Maine.
Karlo Okoy, a Sudanese pastor living in Lakewood, Colo., echoed the sentiment.
"The present Sudanese killing is exactly the picture of Jewish killing in Germany. They feel the same pain, that's why they came heavily to help out the Sudanese community," he said.
Other rallies were staged in Portland and Eugene, Ore.; St. Paul, Minn.; Austin, Texas; Tucson and Prescott, Ariz.; Boca Raton, Fla.; San Francisco; Seattle; Somerville, N.J.; Toronto; and Boulder, Colo.
Some 50 to 100 people from Los Angeles journeyed to the San Francisco rally, under the leadership of Rabbis Yosef Kanefsky of B'nai David-Judea and Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple, in a trip organized by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, the Union of Reform Judaism and JWW.