How it feels to be a Jew in the fascist jungle. . .

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A priest in Charlottesville, Va. stands four-square with the rabbis of Beth Israel as the fascists march

TRUMP IS RIGHT. Just like he tweeted, some US history and culture IS being ripped apart. As well it should be.

We should not honor men and women who fought to enslave others. We should not honor a culture that lionized slavery and its defenders,. Yet they are part of our history and culture in the same, apppalling way as Hitler, Stalin, Saddam and Osama bin Laden.

ALAN ZIMMERMAN is president of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Virginia. His eyewitness account of the fascist outrage in the city last week is a chilling reminder of the poisoned fruit that emerges when the seeds of intolerance are allowed to flourish and are cultivated by politicians who should know better but for whatever reason—ignorance, political advantage, their own bigotry, or just plain stupidity—let it thrive.

THE LOSS OF LIFE [in the Charlottesville outrage] far outweighs any fear or concern felt by me or the Jewish community during the past several weeks as we braced for this Nazi rally – but the effects of both will each linger.

On Saturday morning, I stood outside our synagogue with the armed security guard we hired after the police department refused to provide us with an officer during morning services. (Even the police department’s limited promise of an observer near our building was not kept – and note, we did not ask for protection of our property, only our people as they worshipped).

Forty congregants were inside. Here’s what I witnessed during that time.

For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them, either. Perhaps the presence of our armed guard deterred them. Perhaps their presence was just a coincidence, and I’m paranoid. I don’t know.

Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Sieg Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.

A guy in a white polo shirt walked by the synagogue a few times, arousing suspicion. Was he casing the building, or trying to build up courage to commit a crime? We didn’t know. Later, I noticed that the man accused in the automobile terror attack wore the same polo shirt as the man who kept walking by our synagogue; apparently it’s the uniform of a white supremacist group. Even now, that gives me a chill.

When services ended, my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups.

This is the United States of America in the year 2017.

Later that day, shortly after the car ploughed into peaceful protesters. I arrived on the horrific and bloody scene.

Soon, we learned that Nazi websites had posted a call to burn our synagogue. I sat with one of our rabbis and wondered whether we should go back to the temple to protect the building. What could I do if I were there? Fortunately, it was just talk. But we had already deemed such an attack within the realm of possibilities, taking the precautionary step of removing our Torahs, including a Holocaust scroll, from the premises.

Again: This was America, 2017.

At the end of the day, we felt we had no choice but to cancel a Havdalah service at a congregant’s home. It had been announced on a public Facebook page, and we were fearful that Nazi elements might be aware of the event. Again, we sought police protection – not a battalion of police, just a single officer – but we were told simply to cancel the event.

The congregation of Beth Israel, the oldest synagogue in Virginia, at prayer

Local police faced an unprecedented problem that day, but make no mistake, Jews are a specific target of these groups, and despite nods of understanding from officials about our concerns – and despite the fact that the mayor himself is Jewish – we were left to our own devices. The fact that a calamity did not befall the Jewish community of Charlottesville on Saturday was not thanks to our politicians, our police, or even our own efforts, but to the grace of God.

And yet, in the midst of all that, other moments stand out for me, as well.

John Aguilar, a 30-year Navy veteran, took it upon himself to stand watch over the synagogue through services Friday evening and Saturday, along with our armed guard. He just felt he should.

We experienced a wonderful turnout for both to observe Shabbat, including several non-Jews who said they came to show solidarity (though a number of congregants, particularly elderly ones, told me they were afraid to come to synagogue).

A frail, elderly woman approached me, crying, on the Saturday morning as I stood on the steps in front of our sanctuary; she told me that, while she was Roman Catholic, she wanted to stay and watch over the synagogue with us. At one point, she asked, “Why do they hate you?” I had no answer to the question we’ve been asking ourselves for thousands of years.

At least a dozen complete strangers stopped by as we stood in front the synagogue Saturday to ask if we wanted them to stand with us.

And our wonderful rabbis stood on the front lines with other Charlottesville clergy, opposing hate.

Attention is now, and will for the foreseeable future, be focused on the death and injury that occurred, and that is as it should be. But for most people, before the week is out, Saturday’s events will degenerate into the all-too-familiar bickering that is part of the larger, ongoing political narrative. The media will move on, and all it will take is some new, outrageous Trump tweet to change the subject.

We will get back to normal, also. We have two b’nai mitzvah coming up, and soon, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur will be upon us, too.                                                                                        

After the nation moves on, we will be left to pick up the pieces. Fortunately, this is a very strong and capable Jewish community, blessed to be led by incredible rabbis. We have committed lay leadership, and a congregation committed to Jewish values and our synagogue.

Tempering makes metals tougher and harder. [In the same way]. . . we will come out of it stronger.

1 COMMENT

  1. Just keep these articles coming, please, it’s information and it’s communication that is critical. We cannot be blind to what is put in front of us.

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