'Who'd Believe That Nazis Would Force Jews to Sneak Out the Back of Their Synagogue in America?'

Charlottesville congregation hired own security after police denied protection; 'We didn’t feel secure,' says Congregation Beth Israel rabbi

White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the 'alt-right' with body armor and combat weapons at the 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville, August 12, 2017.
CHIP SOMODEVILLA/AFP

NEW YORK – As armed members of neo-Nazi groups and militias descended upon the small city of Charlottesville, Virginia, last Friday for a “Unite the Right” rally, leaders of the only synagogue in town asked the police department to provide police protection to their members.

The police department refused, according to synagogue president Alan Zimmerman, writing in ReformJudaism.org. Zimmerman, an attorney, noted that the synagogue then hired its own security officer.

Charlottesville city spokesperson Miriam Dickler said in an exclusive interview, “While there was not a police officer stationed at the synagogue itself there was an officer on the corner and another 32 officers a block away.”

“There were snipers on a rooftop between two parks where we had people gathered whose responsibility was that two-block area, including Beth Israel, and they had a line of sight to the synagogue the entire time,” she said.

A statement sent to Haaretz by Charlottesville City Manager Maurice Jones added, “We also had a group of Virginia State Police officers who were walking a four-block radius between two of our parks on a route that passed the synagogue on several occasions throughout the day’s events.”

Jones said the “city is dedicated to protecting all of our residents. We are disgusted by the hatred we experienced on August 12th and will continue to take the steps necessary to keep our community safe.”

Synagogue leaders were unaware of the police plans even during the hours in which they felt directly threatened, with three visibly armed men standing outside the historic brick building and staring down congregants who entered to attend services.

In an interview Thursday, Tom Gutherz, the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, told Haaretz that it was a frightening experience for many congregants.

“There were three men standing outside, we don’t know who they were. There were all kinds of people in all kinds of battle fatigues and you didn’t know who they were. Anyone can carry a gun in public in Virginia, it’s an open-carry state. You really don’t know who’s in front of you. We don’t always know what their motives are.”

Demonstrators carry confederate and Nazi flags during the Unite the Right free speech rally at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA on August 12, 2017.
Emily Molli / NurPhoto

After services ended around 11 A.M., the number of “Unite the Right” participants streaming to Emancipation Park, a block from the synagogue, swelled. Many of the protesters were armed and some carrying Nazi flags screamed anti-Semitic slurs at the synagogue and those around it.

“We didn’t feel secure,” Gutherz told Haaretz. Synagogue members exited through the back door. “Things were really starting to happen outside. We felt it was better for everybody’s safety to go out the back door,” he said.

Gutherz could not explain why he and synagogue president Zimmerman were not made aware of the city’s plan to protect them. “Sometimes there’s a difference between the perception of security and the reality of security,” he told Haaretz.

Zimmerman did not respond to a message from Haaretz.

The synagogue canceled a planned gathering for that evening, which would have been held on a member’s front lawn. They had planned to make havdalah, marking the end of Shabbat, and watch the Perseid meteor shower, Gutherz told Haaretz.

Rabbis Etan Mintz, Tom Gutherz, Uri Topololsky and Avi Weiss at Charlottesville's Congregation Beth Israel.
Shmuel Herzfeld

The synagogue held a meeting Monday night so community members could talk about their experiences from the weekend. “We prayed a little bit and everyone shared what they saw and what they felt,” Gutherz told Haaretz. “It was very moving. We have a bat mitzvah this weekend,” he said, and other meetings during which community members can discuss their experiences are in the works. “We are getting back to business of being who we are,” he said.

Several Orthodox rabbis from Washington D.C. and New York traveled to meet with him early this week to show their support and, outraged by what they heard, went to meet with city officials.

“It’s completely unacceptable when there’s one synagogue in a town and a group of Nazi supporters with weapons is standing outside the synagogue, staring at the Jews as they walk in, and they ask for police protection and don’t get it,” Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld told Haaretz after his visit to Charlottesville. Herzfeld is rabbi of Ohev Shalom-The National Synagogue in Washington.

“Who would ever believe that Nazis would force Jews to sneak out the back of their synagogue in the United States of America?” said Herzfeld, sounding stunned. “Where is this coming from? But it’s here.”

Charlottesville City Manager Jones, Charlottesville’s police chief and its mayor, Mike Signer, who is Jewish, met with synagogue leaders Gutherz and Zimmerman on Wednesday.

Afterward, Gutherz told Haaretz, “Going forward, we have full confidence that they will take whatever steps they need to protect the community. They did apologize. We were able to convey the feelings of our community and they were very receptive.”

Though “at the time it didn’t feel that way, I don’t have any doubt that the synagogue was well watched,” he said.

On Monday Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas Jr., told news media that “I have regrets. We regret this tragic day.” Three people died during the “Unite the Right” events August 12. One was a local counter-protester, and two were police officers whose helicopter overseeing the rally crashed.

Signer’s office did not respond to an interview request.

Other Orthodox rabbis who visited Charlottesville early this week with Herzfeld were Rabbi Avi Weiss, who founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat and traveled from Riverdale, N.Y.; Rabbi Etan Mintz, who in earlier years lived and worked in Charlottesville as a hospital chaplain and at the University of Virginia Hillel and now leads a synagogue in Baltimore; and Rabbi Uri Topolosky, leader of Beth Joshua Congregation in Rockville, Maryland. All three of the other rabbis served over the years as assistant rabbis to Weiss, who then led the modern Orthodox synagogue Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Weiss is renowned for his decades of political activism.

“I went to express solidarity with a community that feels so alone and vulnerable on every level,” Weiss told Haaretz.

“Our synagogue has been inundated with support,” Gutherz told Haaretz. “Ordinary people are stopping by to say, ‘If you ever need us to stand outside give me a call.’ We’re feeling overflowing with support,” he said.

The out-of-town rabbis’ first stop was the Charlottesville hospital, where they met with the 10 hospital chaplains and stood together, led by Topolosky, singing a song composed by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, “Ruach,” whose lyrics are about the wind as the image of God, Weiss said.

Then they went to the synagogue to meet with Gutherz, and after that to the Charlottesville city manager’s office. While City Manager Maurice Jones, who supervises the police, was not available, the rabbis met with Assistant City Manager Mike Murphy, said Herzfeld. “He said to us, ‘I’m unaware of any of this.’ I said to Murphy, ‘Your response is completely unacceptable and dangerous.’”

Herzfeld told Haaretz he is planning to ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions to have the Department of Justice investigate police handling of synagogue security.

At the end of their day in Charlottesville the rabbis went to the statue of General Robert E. Lee that served as a focal point for the right-wing demonstrators last weekend.

When they arrived “there were two people there wearing tallitot [prayer shawls]. They had a sign saying they had their higher memorial and they put it right in front of the Robert E. Lee sign,” Weiss said. “We asked if we could join them, and we were singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ ‘We shall overcome some day’ is not enough for me at this point,” said Weiss. “It should be ‘We shall overcome today.’”