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You Think It Couldn’t Happen at Your Synagogue? So Did I

You Think It Couldn’t Happen at Your Synagogue? So Did I

Outside view of Congregation Beth Israel building in Charlottesville, VA

It is now widely reported that on the days white supremacists marched in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, this month, Shabbat morning services were taking place at Congregation Beth Israel (CBI), the oldest continuously operating synagogue in Virginia. Built to look like anything but a Jewish space – which is how it’s done in the South – CBI is a tiny jewel of stained glass, homemade kugel, chalk drawings in the courtyard, and an endless loop of “Bim Bam” and grape juice on Friday mornings at the preschool.

Charlottesville has only one synagogue, although we boast a Hillel House and a Chabad and some independent minyanim. CBI has been, in the 16 years since our family moved to Charlottesville, a kind of one-stop shopping with egalitarian Conservative services on Saturday mornings, Reform services Friday nights, an award-winning preschool (my husband helped build the kindergarten) and thriving Hebrew school. My kids each had their bris (ritual circumcision) at CBI (we try not to remind them of this fact too often) and my eldest son became bar mitzvah there last spring. Two weeks before the Nazis marched, my family hosted a Kabbalat Shabbat in anticipation of a move to New York we completed this week.

You have probably read the reports from our president, Alan Zimmerman, about the absence of meaningful police protection on August 12, when hundreds of white supremacists – mostly from out of state – marched on the park that stands next to our synagogue. You have heard that Nazi sympathizers marched around the building chanting “Sieg Heil” and carrying flags with swastikas, as 40 Jews prayed inside. You may have read that John Aguilar, a 30-year Navy veteran, who isn’t a Jew, took it upon himself to stand guard during Friday and Saturday services. Like me, you probably didn’t openly weep until you heard that our Torah scrolls – including a precious Holocaust scroll – had to be moved from the building and hidden in a private home. Or that a community Havdalah service was canceled because it was deemed too risky for Jews to gather together Saturday after the march. I interviewed our rabbi educator, Rabbi Schmelkin, last week about the terror felt inside the building that Shabbat, how people had to slip out a side door after services, about the ways in which Jews, in 2017, were in lockdown at a multi-faith service on Friday night, by people bearing flaming torches and chanting “blood and soil.”

I wasn’t at CBI on August 12. The day before, as helicopters circled over our neighborhood, and white supremacists were stopped openly carrying semi-automatic weapons at our local Walmart, we hustled our kids to meet friends for a night of Shabbat camping on the Virginia shore. Maybe that was the wrong decision. When children are involved it gets tricky. But when I learned early Saturday morning that there had been 400 men chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us,” on the University of Virginia grounds, my first thought was for CBI; that it would not be safe. We didn’t hear about the Torah scrolls until the next day.

It has been a painful summer in tiny Charlottesville. They marched with fiery torches in June and the KKK showed up in July. We stood at the park when the KKK came, 1,400 locals shouting down 40 sad men in robes and it seemed like a bad movie. But by the time Richard Spencer and his friends crawled in last week, with rocket launchers and AR 15s and explicit threats of violence, the fear was visceral. You can ask any of our children what it means to have Nazis saluting and parading through their neighborhood. My younger son wrote a letter to his rabbis, the day before the march began, pointing out that we had already lost: “We have been told that the choice is between starving them of attention, and putting skin in the game, and showing up to counter protest. We now know the problem: The problem is that whichever choice we choose, the white supremacists still get attention and we don’t.” It was a body blow to read my own son’s words, patiently explaining that long before the white supremacists came to our town, we had lost by either ignoring them, or by paying attention.

Because we were in the middle of preparing for a big cross-country move in the days before the white supremacists came to town, we were packing up our household, wrapping forgotten dishes and books. And I was aware, in ways I’d never imagined, that my grandmother’s candle sticks had seen this sad movie before: panic, senseless hate, frightened children, and cries that “you don’t belong here.” I don’t know how this story ends. I only know that something in my forearms told me that my candlesticks and I had been here already.

A week after the white supremacists marched, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, came to CBI with a message of love and solidarity. Our friend Liv had a triumphant bat mitzvah. Folks from far away sent the synagogue sheet cakes of support.  You think this couldn’t happen at your synagogue in 2017. I didn’t think it could happen at mine.

 Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate, and hosts the podcast Amicus.

Dahlia Lithwick
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