Above the sea of bodies, signs and pink knitted “pussyhats” jostling for space a block from the Mall on Saturday, 22-year-old Aya Kantorovich stood on a riser holding a sign that read “Jewish women will never stop fighting for human rights.”
“I wouldn’t have missed this,” she shouted from her perch.
It was almost noon and it was unclear whether the Women’s March on Washington would end in an actual march or, swamped by its own size, stay put and be satisfied with a rally, speeches and its celebratory mood.
What brought Kantorovich?
“What wouldn’t bring me?” she said. “Women’s rights, the environment. We are a democracy. We should use it.”
Those issues, plus LGBT rights, Black Lives Matter, disability rights, immigrant rights, voting rights and the Affordable Care Act brought an estimated 500,000 people to the Women’s March, a loosely organized response to President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric against Muslims, immigrants, the disabled and, front and center, women.
It was clear from the chants, the headgear and the signs that the founding text of this gathering — larger than Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, larger than the March on Washington for Soviet Jews in 1987 — was the 2005 recording in which Trump explained his approach to women:
“I’m automatically attracted to beautiful [women] — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait,” Trump told interviewer Billy Bush. “And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. … Grab them by the p—-y.”
Trump dismissed the conversation as “locker-room banter,” but the 500,000 here on Jan. 21 weren’t buying it.
They filled the Mall and spilled out from it like a river overflowing its banks. Demonstrators clogged Metro stations, cars and platforms, where waves of shouts went up at intervals. From the corner of 4th Street NW and Madison Drive, the Jumbotron, broadcasting the speeches near the Capitol, looked like a distant star. More than a million marched in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and in other cities across the country and around the world.
About 200 organizations partnered with the Washington march, including National Council for Jewish Women, which was involved early in the planning and drew at least 1,000 participants. The Reform movement, while not formally affiliated with the march, also drew more than 1,000 participants, according to JTA.
Other Jewish groups represented at the march included Jewish Women International, Bend the Arc, Jews United for Justice and T’ruah. JWI, JUFJ and T’ruah also sponsored a Friday night service at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue downtown.
On Tuesday, Jody Rabhan, NCJW’s director of Washington operations, said her group would build on the “historic moment” of the march to organize women to advocate for “reproductive health rights and justice” during the congressional recess in February.
“We’re going to set our sights on 2018, 2020 and beyond,” she said of NCJW’s political goals.
She agreed that the event was loose limbed, but said that was partly because it was a grassroots effort, begun by a Facebook post about a hypothetical march by a woman in Hawaii named Teresa Shook.
After that, “it was a runaway train,” Rabhan said. “Far more people showed up than had been expected.”
That was the other reason for the march’s disorganization. “Even if they had been planning it for a year — with the massive number of people, you could never have prepared for it,” said Rabhan.
“It was an overwhelming day, a powerful day,” said Rabbi Susan Shankman of Washington Hebrew Congregation, an organizer of a Shabbat morning service before the rally at the Hyatt Regency Washington attended by 1,000 people.
At one point during the march, Shankman became separated from her group. “I’m not a big person and I’m not particularly fond of crowds,” she said. “But what was affirming was, wherever I went, people were reaching out to each other — whether it was a hand to pull someone up on a bench or making room for each other.
Shankman eventually reunited with her group at the Hyatt, where the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism had set up a hospitality area for the marchers.
Uncounted numbers of Jews were there without affiliation. Melissa Toporek and Abebe Debay traveled to the march from Savannah, Ga., with their signs that read “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” (Justice, justice you shall pursue), a commandment from the Torah.
“We’re commanded as Jews to fight for justice,” Toporek said. “That’s what we do.”
Asked which causes she was fighting for, Toporek seemed to quote a sign that popped up all day: “Where do I even start?”
The long roster of speakers included Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers; Rabbi Sharon Brous, the founder and senior rabbi of the Ikar community in Los Angeles; and Gloria Steinem, the feminist writer, activist and organizer, who said, “And remember the Constitution does not begin with ‘I, the president.’ It begins with ‘We, the people.’”
“If you force Muslims to register, we will all register as Muslims,” she said.
The presence of Muslim civil rights activist Linda Sarsour as a march organizer has led to criticism from the right.
Rabhan said that before NCJW became involved, it “asked lots of questions about the rally’s messaging, signage, speakers and security.”
Some of those questions were to Sarsour, a Palestinian American. “Linda could not have been more open with our questioning,” Rabhan said. In her speech, she said “nothing to do with Israel or anything that would give a Jewish group pause.”
After noon, the marching began spontaneously. Marchers filled Madison Drive and Jefferson Drive in the direction of the Washington Monument. A group of students chanted, “We believe in science.” Others shouted, “This is what democracy looks like.”
Other marchers reached Pennsylvania Avenue and poured out in the direction of the White House. When they passed the Trump International Hotel, they booed, and the chants of “shame, shame” reverberated off its granite walls.