Members of Riverdale’s Jewish community gathered outside the Russian Mission residential compound on Mosholu Avenue on Sunday morning, chanting as loud as they could, hoping anyone on the other side of the heavily fortified fencing might hear them.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, longtime spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (The Bayit), wrapped himself in a tallit and explained the decision to gather at a site that serves more of a residential purpose than a political one.
“Who would have thought that 30 years after the fall of communism, we would once again be standing here in this place, raising the voice of moral conscience?” Rabbi Weiss told the crowd, remembering past Cold War protests from that very spot.
“During those days, we were often asked, ‘Why here? This is not a consulate building. This is not a mission. Why at a residence?’ Our response was simple. We know that the politicians’ and Russian diplomats’ hearts were hardened. But we also knew that by standing here in front of their home, their children would see and hear the protest, and go to their parents and ask with their more innocent hearts: How dare you?’ ”
Later in the afternoon, a large contingent of Ukrainian nationals gathered on the same spot in front of the mission, many arriving in a parade of cars that blared their horns as they drove past the 20-story behemoth. The crowd sang patriotic songs well within earshot of the building, and at one point, emptied bottles of Russian vodka onto the near-frozen ground.
Rabbi Weiss returned to share his support with this group, declaring that everyone within the sound of his voice should all declare themselves as Ukrainians, and stand by the side of a community whose country was being dismantled piece by piece by its aggressive neighbor.
“This morning, 250 people gathered here and I want to send you this message from all of us,” he said. “We stand with you and believe our voices can be heard by the heros in Ukraine who are pushing back the Russians.
“We stand here in freedom; they stand there, their lives are in jeopardy. And I want you know know from the bottom of my heart, you are not alone, we are with you. We all are Ukraine.”
Pointing to the Russian compound, Rabbi Weiss bellowed, “We overcame to Soviets in the past. And we will overcome Putin today.”
The morning rally, organized by the Riverdale Jewish Community Partnership, began with a recitation of Psalm 121.
Those at the rally came “to pray, to lift a voice, to shout, and to send a message that we do not tolerate evil or violence, that we stand with the Ukrainian people,” said The Bayit’s senior rabbi, Steven Exler.
“We’re here, in front of a residents’ building, because it’s this kind of residents’ building that at this moment is being indiscriminately bombed by Putin,” Rabbi Weiss said. “We’re here to tell Putin, you have joined the wicked of the wicked. But as those wicked have been overcome in the past, so too you will be overcome.”
Rabbi Weiss continued: “I as a Jew, who knows that over 1 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust in the Ukraine, including tens of thousands in Babyn Yar, I declare and I ask you to declare, ‘I am a Ukrainian’.”
“When Natan Sharansky came from the gulag, his first speech in the west was here in Riverdale,” Rabbi Weiss said, relating that the KGB would show Sharansky film of protests in Riverdale and around the world, “and they would look at Natan and they would mock him and say — they’re going to free you? They’re just a bunch of students and housewives. But students and housewives freed Natan, freed Soviet Jewry. … Mr. Putin, you will be overcome.”
“Who knows what this crazy man will do next,” Rabbi Weiss concluded. “The whole world is a narrow bridge — but don’t be afraid. Be resolute, be strong. The sun will rise, the light will shine and the world will know real hallelujah, real peace till the end of days.”
The Jewish Star contributed to this report.