How the Charlottesville March Reminded Me of My Favorite Havdalah Service
“A good week, a week of peace. May gladness reign and joy increase…”
These are the words Reform Jews sing during Havdalah, the ceremony observed Saturday evening at sundown to mark the end of Shabbat. We gather together to sing and to pray, passing around a snifter of fragrant spices to soothe the soul as we say goodbye to Shabbat, the day of rest, and welcome a new week.
Joining in Havdalah services at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., made for some of the most powerful and profound moments of my Jewish experience. Last Friday evening, as I watched videos of neo-Nazis wielding torches and chanting slurs at the Jefferson memorial in Charlottesville, I was struck by some of the parallels – and the vast differences those parallels present.
For three years, I worked for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the advocacy arm of the Reform Jewish movement. Reform Judaism is the largest stream of Jewish life in North America, and its D.C. office puts Jewish values into action by lobbying Congress on social justice issues.
They also host a half a dozen conferences each year for Jewish high schoolers from across the United States, inviting them to D.C. to learn more about issues such as LGBTQ equality, criminal justice reform, immigration reform, and more. One of the keystone experiences of those weekends is a Havdalah ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial, designed to inspire these youth with stories of our country’s history, its democracy, and their vital role in shaping its future.
To stand on such hallowed ground, the shadow of one of our founding fathers looming large behind us, was truly a holy experience. How can you stand in such a place, surrounded by 300 hopeful, idealistic, action-driven youth, and feel anything less than inspired?
On Friday evening, by contrast, I was overcome with horror as I watched video after video out of the “Unite the Right” event in Charlottesville. I was aghast at (but unfortunately not too surprised by) the hatred I heard, the violence I watched, and the anger I saw. I spotted a Hitler salute in the crowd, then another; one swatiska, then dozens more. “White lives matter,” they yelled, because they believe that Black ones, among others, do not. “You will not replace us!” they shouted, because these selfish, hateful white men cannot bear to see people of color and other minorities treated as their equals and given a voice as loud as their own has, for centuries, been.
I couldn’t help, too, but notice the similarities between their protest and our Havdalah services – and the deep differences those parallels represent.
It wasn’t just that we chose as our location spaces dedicated to democracy and history. Where they chanted slurs, we sang prayers. Where they thrust burning torches, we held shining unity candles. Where they represented exclusion, bigotry, and hatred, we stood together, arm in arm, as we dreamed of a future that would represent, include, and respect all people. Where they saw Thomas Jefferson as a representation of white power, we saw how far we’ve come and what the future could hold.
This is America, where we all have the right to peaceable public assembly and to free speech – even when those assemblies espouse ideals that divide and demonize. Last weekend's rally made clear that those rights can manifest themselves very differently between individuals of varying views.
I am heartened by acts of resistance in response to the Charlottesville protest. College students risked bodily harm to protest the rally in their town. The Charlottesville Clergy Call brought clergy of all faiths together in peaceful, prayerful counter-protest. Social media is brimming with condemnations of this detestable event and with words of love for all the stunned, scared individuals who are targets of such an open display of hatred.
But will it be enough to help put an end to it?
These days, there’s plenty of talk about what will finally serve as a “wake-up call” to America. We hear these words – this desperate plea – after every mass shooting, after every act of violence again a mosque or a synagogue, after every senseless death by police brutality. And yet, we can’t seem to collectively awaken.
When will the very real comparisons between Nazi Germany and present-day America finally scare us into action?
I don’t have the answers; it seems none of us do. And yet, even as I watched last weekend's rally, I thought back to the sense of hope that I felt during those Havdalah ceremonies on the steps of the Jefferson memorial.
I am terrified, yes, but in my anger and fear, I also feel recommitted to my belief in liberty and justice for all. I feel reawakened and reinvigorated, ready to continue to fight back – and I know that this year, just like every year before it, hundreds more Jewish teens will come to Washington, D.C., to learn about social justice and to arm themselves with the tools to engage in bettering our world. They will not be silenced by acts of hate.
We will not be quiet. We will not be cowed. You will not replace us, either.
“A good week, a week of peace. May gladness reign and joy increase.” May it be so – and may we work to make it so.
Join the Reform Jewish community's response to the hate and bigotry in Charlottesville. This week, #BeTheLightForJustice: Take a photo of yourself holding a candle of unity, then post it to Instagram or Twitter using the hashtag. Next, learn about action steps to take for direct responses to terror from the Union for Reform Judaism.