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August 20, 2017 8:00 pm

The Events of Charlottesville Are a ‘Shandeh’

avatar by Avi Weiss

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Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville. Photo: Screenshot

It was a surreal moment.

Approaching the Robert E. Lee Monument in the center of Charlottesville, Virginia, a young black woman — Aliya — joined her white friend Tom in placing a placard in front of the statue.

The placard covered the name of “Robert E. Lee.” Instead it read, “The Heather Heyer Memorial,” in honor of the 32-year-old woman who was murdered when a car driven by a white supremacist rammed into a crowd of counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally last weekend.

Together with my colleagues — rabbis Shmuel Herzfeld, Etan Mintz and Uri Topolosky — we asked if we could join in this memorial to Heyer. Together, we stood singing, “We Shall Overcome.”

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We had come to Charlottesville to express solidarity — solidarity with the beleaguered Jewish community, and with all of Charlottesville’s citizens. But as the day progressed, we realized that solidarity alone was not enough. The lack of protection given to the Jewish community deeply worried us, and we believe that it merits an investigation by the US Justice Department.

We first discovered this upsetting situation when sitting with Rabbi Tom Gutherz, who is the leader of Congregation Beth Israel. He shared with us that he had received a call last Friday from municipal officials, telling him that the synagogue was under threat. The rabbi asked for protection, and was told that not enough personnel was available.

He then told us that on Saturday, during Sabbath morning services, three neo-Nazis were standing in front of the synagogue with semi-automatic weapons as congregants assembled for prayer. The rabbi again asked for protection, but none came.

His account echoed an article posted by the synagogue’s president, Alan Zimmerman: “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,” he wrote.

Incensed, we walked a few blocks to Charlottesville City Hall, insisting that we see the city manager, Charlottesville’s highest government official. One of the assistant city managers, Mike Murphy, spoke to us. Rabbi Herzfeld chastised the Charlottesville police department for not offering the synagogue protection. I added that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that with many, many hundreds of neo-Nazis marching through the streets of Charlottesville on Friday night with KKK-type torches — declaring “Jews will not replace us,” — that the synagogue needed to be guarded. That protection should have been automatic, without any request coming from the synagogue at all.

And it wasn’t just the Jewish community that lacked adequate protection. As I left Charlottesville, my mind wandered to the moment when we stood at the very spot where Heather Heyer was murdered. Flowers and notes were everywhere.  As I looked up, I could see a police car blocking the intersection. If only the police would have placed a car there on Saturday, Heather might still be alive. We chanted the prayer for the dead. And then we began to sing, “We Shall Overcome Someday.”

Fifty years ago, I sang that song with millions of others during the dark days of the civil rights movement. Never would I have imagined that decades later, we would still be facing similar times — singing the same melody and the same piercing words.

We need more Aliyas and Toms. We need white, black, brown and yellow, Jews, Christians and Muslims singing together — we shall overcome — not someday, but today. 

Rabbi Avi Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and National President of AMCHA – the Coalition for Jewish Concerns. He is a long-time human rights activist who has traveled the world defending Holocaust memory.

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