Charlottesville Jewish Community Hired Security Before Weekend’s Far-right Protest

'This is something we never had to do in the past. Seeing those people marching in our town with rifles, it was unbelievable'

Flowers and other mementos are left at a makeshift memorial for the victims after a car plowed into a crowd of people peacefully protesting a white nationalist rally earlier in the day in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday, August 12, 2017.
Steve Helber/AP

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The Jewish community of this Virginia town hired security last week — for the first time ever —  in the run-up to the far-right violence that led to the death of a counterprotester over the weekend.

“We hired security because of these events, something which we never had to do in the past. It was sad but we had no other choice,” said Rabbi Tom Gutherz, who leads Congregation Beth Israel, a synagogue in the center of town.

Congregation Beth Israel is only 200 feet from Charlottesville’s downtown mall, where an Ohio man, James Alex Fields Jr., is suspected of ramming his car into left-wing protesters, killing Heather Heyer, a local paralegal.     

Congregation Beth Israel, a synagogue in central Charlottesville, Virginia on August 13, 2017.
Amir Tibon

The congregation is also within short walking distance of Emancipation Park, where the far-right activists began their rally. “We are right at the heart of all this balagan,” Gutherz told Haaretz, using the Hebrew word for “mess.”

The congregation is housed in a beautiful red-brick building built in the late 19th century. It is affiliated with the Reform movement but also offers services in the spirit of the Conservative movement to appeal to as many people as possible. Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin, who joined the synagogue staff last year, said the community consists of around 300 families, while 170 children attend the congregation’s religious Jewish school.

Gutherz has been with the congregation since 2005. Before that, he worked for 12 years at a congregation in the nearby city of Lynchburg.

Overall, during his 24 years as a rabbi in Virginia’s more rural parts, he has “never witnessed anything even close” to the events of last weekend. “I’ve witnessed anti-Semitism before in the form of a bad word here and
there, but I can’t recall anything in the magnitude of what happened here since Friday,” he said.

Like many other Charlottesville residents who spoke with Haaretz over the weekend, Gutherz said the most disturbing aspect of the white nationalist  demonstrators was their brandishing of rifles.

“To have those people show up in our town with automatic rifles, it was truly unbelievable,” he said. “I’ve never seen this form of violent, neo-Nazi hatred before. It’s not part of our experience living in this area.”

Despite the tension over the weekend, and the need for heightened security, the Beth Israel community insisted on holding Shabbat services as planned, with only a minor change in prayer scheduling because of the crowds outside during the demonstrations.

“It was clear to us that we were not going to be intimidated. We held Shabbat services on Saturday morning and had kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evening,” Gutherz said, referring to the pre-Sabbath get-together. “These people are not going to keep us away from our own synagogue.”  

While the white nationalists were chanting hate slogans outside, the people inside the synagogue were “singing songs of love, peace and kindness,” Schmelkin said, adding that “there were Jewish folks from out of town who came to take part in the counterprotests, and many of them joined our services in order to express support for our community. I thought that was very important. We have to support each other in times like these.”

The synagogue’s leaders are involved in an interfaith group that seeks to increase religious cooperation in and around Charlottesville. Gutherz said this mission is now more important than ever.

“Solidarity is the answer to this hatred,” he said. “Most of the people who came to our town to share their racist ideology are not from around here and they don’t represent this community. If we stand against them together, they will fail.”

Over the weekend, a number of national Jewish groups published strong condemnations of the violence and racism displayed in Charlottesville. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote that “the vile presence and rhetoric of the neo-Nazis who marched this weekend in Charlottesville is a reminder of the ever-present need for people of good will to stand strong, to speak loudly against hate, and act both to delegitimize those who spread such messages and to mitigate the harm done to the commonweal of our nation and to those that are the targets of hate messages.”

The Conservative movement called on President Donald Trump and other administration officials “to condemn neo-Nazi, white supremacist and alt-right movements by name.” It said “the repeated failure to do so by top U.S. officials has fueled their growth and poses an imminent threat to all Americans as Saturday’s violent rallies showed.”

According to the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, “There should be no doubt that these acts of domestic terrorism were the work of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites whose views and actions are anathema to American values. There were not many sides to the hatred and bigotry on display in Charlottesville, as some have claimed,” it said, referring to Trump’s response to the Charlottesville upheaval in which he condemned the violence “on many sides.”