College Students Gather To Sing For Israel in Times Square

Photos by Danna Shapiro and Mati Engel.

In response to recent violence in Israel, several student groups in New York City gathered last night to take a stand in, of all places, Times Square.  Hundreds of pro-Israel students attended the grass-roots-organized “Kumzitz 4 Israel” at W. 47th and Broadway, by the legendary TKTS red stairs in the heart of midtown Manhattan.

Attendees hailed from numerous universities across New York, from Columbia and NYU to Yeshiva University, to CUNY colleges. “We’ve had an unbelievable response from people through Facebook in the past couple of weeks,” said Abraham Bitton, a junior at Yeshiva University and co-organizer of the event. “Students and adults alike have been really excited to show their support for Israel.”

The kumzitz gained popularity online as times turn more troubling for Israel.  After the shocking murder of a family in Itamar two weeks ago and a bus bombing in Jerusalem last week, and then the launch of a popular Palestinian pro-intifada Facebook page, Israelis and Jews around the world are concerned that a third intifada is in the making.

“We want the world to know that to be pro-Israel is to be pro-peace,” said Avital Chizhik, journalism student at Stern College and event co-organizer. “We’re not rallying or protesting, we’re not making Facebook pages in support of retaliation for the violence – all we want is to let the world know that Israel is tired of war and has been ready for peace for a long, long time. We only ask for a partner.”

Nine o’clock on Thursday night found Times Square to be quite the happening party, despite the threat of rain and wind: over two hundred students whipped out their guitars and flags. Aaron Yevick of Yeshiva University brought his trademark violin; Ely Shestack and Shlomo Isaacson led the initial songs, in both Hebrew and English.

“At first I thought the kumzitz was mainly just for college students, to sing and show their support for Israel in a peaceful way,” said YU Israel Club president Aviah Saltzman, SCW ’12.  “But I realized that, in fact, the kumzitz was really for the Jews and supporters of Israel who had thought the world stopped caring. We were there to reassure them otherwise.”

But the event had much more impact than simply on those within the dancing circles: passersby, both tourists and New Yorkers, stopped to watch with amused smiles. “It’s cute, to see students so enthusiastic,” said Kostandin Demisovski, visiting from Albania on business, while tapping out a text message on his iPhone. “I have an Israeli friend here, I want to tell him to come and see this.”

“Keep up the good work!” one man from Sydney, Australia, shouted as he walked by, clapping one of the organizers on the back. “Keep doing this s***!”

Students also had information prepared, and several circled the dancing, offering brochures to anyone interested. “I was surprised to see a lot of people walking up to me, interested in learning more,” Elina Mosheyeva, political science major at SCW, reflected. “One Pakistani woman approached me and blessed Israel in broken English. ‘You do good things, your people,’ she said.”

Margot Reinstein, SCW ’13, decided to take the Facebook event’s instructions to ‘dress for Israel’ to the extreme: she was easily distinguishable in the center of the circle along with Dorit Muskin (SCW ’12) by the face painted stars and draped flags over her shoulders. Reinstein told of an encounter with a Peruvian Jewish woman: “She tugged on my shoulder and said, ‘I’m from Peru. We don’t have Jewish youth like you there. Thank you for reminding me that there are Jews like you. We need you over there.’”

“Song has always been a way for the Jewish people to come together,” Muskin added. “Through the use of song, we forget our differences, whether political, social or religious.”

Organizers were at first hesitant to run the event, worried about security threats. “The NYPD has been absolutely fantastic in making this go so smoothly,” Chizhik exclaimed. The Midtown North Precinct had been monitoring local hate groups’ websites for weeks in advance, ensuring that the groups had yet to be informed of the event and wouldn’t cause any problems.

“Westboro Baptist Church was actually supposed to be in town tonight,” said a NYPD detective, wishing to remain anonymous for security reasons. “We had to make sure they wouldn’t be in the Times Square area.”

The weather, however, proved to be an uncooperative partner in planning. Originally planned for the 24th, the kumzitz had to be pushed off by a week when forecasts promised sleet and snow. Much to the organizers’ concerns, the morning of the 31st also saw cold weather.  “Under the snow, under the hail, under whatever the sky wants to throw at us, we decided to go through with it anyway,” Bitton said. “We’re showing our support to our beloved country and homeland.”

“Lectures and panel events are important,” Chizhik remarked. “But it’s also important to invest into social gatherings. The kumzitz gave students an opportunity to connect with one another and unite, in the simplest of ways, despite the labels and boundaries so often created within the Jewish community.”

Reinstein agreed. “This kumzitz did exactly that,” she said, breathless from the dancing.  “It reminded us of our passion, our fervor.”