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Charlottesville’s Jewish community uses dialogue to combat white hate, 5 years after Unite the Rig

Outside of the Congregation Beth Israel  synagogue in Charlottesville. (Hawes Spencer)
Outside of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Charlottesville. (Hawes Spencer)

On Friday night in Charlottesville, Va., an interfaith group of religious leaders will hold a service called Unite the Light.

The name is a play on Unite the Right, the neo-Nazi march in the city that took place exactly five years ago and sparked violence that led to the death of a counter-protester. Chanting antisemitic slogans, the marchers walked right past the city’s only synagogue: Congregation Beth Israel.

Half a decade later, Charlottesville’s Jewish community is still processing the events of August 2017.

“I grew up as a child watching these old black and white newsreels of the rise of Hitler and of the Nazi Party,” says Rabbi Tom Gutherz of Congregation Beth Israel. “They always had the sense of being sort of history and far away. And yet to see and to hear and to be face to face with this kind of hatred, and to have it screamed at you and to see it marched by, probably was really quite shocking.”

Congregation member Diane Hillman mentally returns to Saturday morning Shabbat service on Aug. 12, 2017. Then-president Alan Zimmerman suggested members exit the synagogue through the side door because of the violence escalating in the streets, she says.

Hillman stood on the synagogue’s steps and watched the marchers go by.

“The groups marched by and scream profanities and antisemitic slurs at the synagogue and a block away, [there was] conflict. Confederate flags marching down the street,” Hillman says. “And those images have stuck with me and probably will always be with me.”

The white nationalists who marched at the rally largely travelled from outside Charlottesville. The city’s removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee prompted the Unite the Right march. Smack in the middle of the city, the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society overlooks the park where the statue stood for a century.

The building is classically-designed with white pillars in front. It stands as an example of how Charlottesville — like most southern cities — has a complicated racial past, says historical society president and Congregation Beth Israel member Phyllis Leffler.

A patch of dead grass marks where the Robert E. Lee statue once stood. The statue’s fate is currently tied up in the courts. (Hawes Spencer)

The historical society’s McIntire Building was the site of Charlottesville’s first public library. Philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire donated the money for this building — and the Lee statue — in the 1920s.

“So what do you do with Paul Goodloe McIntire? It’s the question being asked about lots of people who were supporters of the Lost Cause,” Leffler says, “who were segregationists, who probably carried a lot of internal racism, but also did generous and good things for the city.”

Leffler sits at a table surrounded by boxes of historical papers and photos that tell her a mixed story of Charlottesville and antisemitism.

People often think of Charlottesville as a religiously tolerant city in part because of Thomas Jefferson and his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. But Jewish residents were long a tiny minority in the city that tried to stay beneath the radar, Leffler says.

“The long-term Jewish history of Charlottesville is one in which Jews were perceived as white and did not rock the boat. They were fully incorporated into the life of the city,” Leffler said. “When Jews did rock the boat or take contrary views to the mainstream views, they were less welcomed.”

In the early 20th century the Ku Klux Klan in Charlottesville spewed their hate toward both Black Americans and Jews.

“You could go back to the 1920s and look at the Klan rallies that were held in this city and the efforts to encourage people to join the Klan,” Leffler says. “And you could look at the notices that were posted around town in which they said, ‘If you are white and Christian, we welcome your joining with us and we welcome your membership. No foreigners allowed.’”

Jewish residents understood clearly that they were not welcome, Leffler says.

Nearly 100 years later, the Unite the Right rally reminded Charlottesville’s Jewish community of its vulnerability. White supremacists chanted “into the ovens” referencing the Holocaust, Leffler says.

Leffler started recording oral history interviews with members of the Beth Israel synagogue such as Gerald Donowitz.

“I thought that Nazism was dead. I thought antisemitism was dead,” Donowitz says. “And it wasn’t. It was, like, ‘holy God, I was really wrong.’”

Five years later, the events of 2017 are more than a reminder: They are a prompt for a new set of questions.

“The Unite the Right rally became a trigger, to look more deeply into the whole notion of white supremacy and what it means for this community,” Leffler says.

To Leffler, the rally became a precursor to later expressions of white supremacy, including the events of Jan. 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol.

The idea of a common struggle between Jews and racial minorities now has Congregation Beth Israel enhancing its work against white hate. Rabbi  Gutherz is working with an interfaith group of religious leaders in Charlottesville to promote dialogue.

Friday’s Unite the Light event is meant not only to uplift, but also to prompt uncomfortable questions about what Charlottesville’s Jewish community failed to see.

“After the Unite the Right rally, the city wanted to say, ‘Hey, hey, hey, this is Charlottesville. We’re a nice quiet university town. These people all came from out of here. This is not us,’” Gutherz says. “African American colleagues said, ‘Well, hang on a minute, you may never have seen this hatred walking in the street. You may never have heard this violence or encountered it yourself — but we sure have.’”

In that message lies a challenge to the Jewish community: Should they see themselves as privileged or as vulnerable?

“Both of those are true,” Gutherz says. “Both of those are aspects of my life and my experience.”

Going forward, Beth Israel member Hillman says the community plans to take on stark, and sometimes measurable, racial inequities in Charlottesville that were barely discussed for the longest time.

“It’s coming down to the practical aspects of that. So where do kids go to school? Which schools do they go to? … Where do people live,” Hillman says. “And there are huge differences across the city that are being exposed in a way they never were before. We never talked about them before.”

But Hillman says progress has been slow so far.

“I’m starting to see glimmers of awareness that we are not what we thought,” she says. “It could take 10 or 20 years. It probably will, but at least we’re not hiding from it any more.”

Or, in some cases, no longer hiding from their own Jewish identity — an easy thing to do for years in Charlottesville.

“If people are going to hate me and want to kill me and want to replace me because I’m Jewish, maybe I should be a little more Jewish,” Donowitz says.


James Perkins Mastromarino and Jorgelina Manna-Rea produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Eileen Bolinsky and Catherine Welch. Welch also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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