The first weeks of spring are usually a happy and busy period for the small Jewish community of Brunswick, Georgia. Every year, the city’s historic synagogue, Temple Beth Tefilloh, hosts a Jewish food and culture festival that is open to local residents and nearby communities, drawing as many as 2,000 participants – a large number for a community of some 16,000.
This spring, however, there are no festivals in Brunswick. The synagogue’s annual festival was canceled because of concerns over the coronavirus. But for the past week, the community has been facing a man-made crisis unrelated to the pandemic. At its heart is a horrific video documenting the death of African American resident Ahmaud Arbery, 25, who was chased and shot by two armed white residents.
“Usually around this time of year, we are celebrating; right now we are grieving,” says Rabbi Rachael Bregman, who is the first female rabbi in the synagogue’s 130-year history. “This is a very difficult time for everyone in our town,” she says. “The whole world is talking about what happened here, but at some point the news will shift to something else. But for us, this wound will remain for a very long time.”
The history of the local Jewish community stretches back to the days of post-Civil War Georgia: On the nearby island of St. Simons, which was settled after the war by emancipated slaves, there was a constant presence of Jewish merchants. This led to part of the island being called “Jewtown” in official documents. That community grew and expanded over time, leading to the foundation of the local Reform synagogue in 1886.
“Our synagogue is located in the downtown area of Brunswick, which is predominantly home to the African American community,” Bregman tells Haaretz in a phone interview. “It’s next to the local school and built in similar architecture to other buildings in the downtown area, and it just blends into the area. People feel very comfortable with the synagogue just being there, another part of this town.”
In recent days, Bregman says, she has been in contact with clergy leaders in the area, including colleagues in the African American community. She believes her synagogue has a role to play in helping the wider community deal with the tragedy.
“After the neo-Nazi demonstration in Charlottesville three years ago, and after the shooting in Pittsburgh in 2018, the wider community hugged us and supported us – including our friends in the African American community. Now it’s our turn to do the same for them, because they’re going through something very painful.”
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Arbery’s shooting in February has made national and international headlines in recent days, even in the midst of the wall-to-wall pandemic coverage, after a video surfaced showing the actual shooting. “It’s so awful and painful to watch, you just can’t ignore it,” Bregman says. “I don’t know who can watch that and not feel anger, sadness and fear.”
‘History of corruption’
The shooting took place on February 23 in the neighborhood of Satilla Shores, just outside of Bushwick. Arbery, a former high school football star, was jogging not far from his home when he was pursued by two white residents: Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis, 34. The older McMichael had served as an officer in the local Glynn County Police Department and later worked for the local district attorney, Jackie Johnson. However, according to recent reports, his law enforcement certification was suspended in 2019, after he repeatedly failed to take mandatory training, and he retired last June.
Initially, the McMichaels told Glynn County police that they suspected Arbery was conducting break-ins in the area, and that they shot him after he tried to take away their gun. The incident received little national media attention at the time, and the case went nowhere for months. No arrests were made and the police seemed to accept the explanation offered by the McMichaels.
That all changed last week after a video documenting the shooting was released on a local radio station’s website. The footage, taken by an unnamed person who was driving behind the McMichaels’ car during the chase, shows Arbery jogging in broad daylight, without any tools, equipment or anything that might warrant any suspicion regarding break-ins. It also casts doubt over the claim that he struggled to take the gun from the McMichaels. Only after the video made headlines all over the world were the McMichaels arrested on May 7, when they were charged with murder and aggravated assault.
“There are two elements to this scandal,” Bregman says. “The first is the racial aspect of the shooting, and the fact that we all know a young white person jogging in the same street would never face this kind of threat. The second scandal is how the investigation was conducted and the fact that only three months after the shooting we’re now seeing the video – and you can’t help but wonder if that’s not a direct result of the fact that the older McMichael is a veteran of the police force.”
Bregman says she loves living and working in Brunswick, which she describes as a “beautiful town on the coast, with magnolia and live oak trees and a smell of the ocean and lots of charm.” The synagogue she leads includes several dozen families, but is “open to the entire community, not just Jewish members, and we have deep and strong cooperations with churches and groups from all over town.”
Despite her clear love for the place, Bregman says she wasn’t totally surprised by the ugly turn of events that is dominating the headlines. “There’s a history here of corruption around protecting the police force and putting officers above the law,” she explains. “It makes residents unsafe and hurts people’s trust in the local authorities. This case is just the latest example of a larger problem, and we need to solve it in order to make things better for everyone in Brunswick.”
Meredith Magnus, a local resident for 15 years and a former vice president of the local synagogue, tells Haaretz that “the actions of the McMichaels are not indicative of our community. Ahmaud Arbery’s death is a tragedy for his family that all of the condolences in the world cannot repair. It is a tragedy for mankind.”
Just like Bregman, however, Magnus talks of a “systemic” problem that is plaguing local law enforcement. “The bigger story is that Mr. Arbery’s death is not the only one that has, in my opinion, been mishandled due to the relationships between suspects, law enforcement and the judiciary,” she says.
One name that kept coming up in conversations with local residents was Caroline Small, a 35-year-old mother of two children who was shot to death by two Glynn County police officers in 2010. She was unarmed and in a low-speed chase with the police officers, before they cornered her and fired eight times through the windshield of her car, even though she did not present any risk to the officers who shot her. “You can’t help but compare these two cases,” Bregman says.
The local press described Small as a petite white woman who had struggled for years with drug addiction and mental health problems. Brad Schrade, an investigative reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, published a lengthy report on her case in 2015. His investigation – titled “Did Caroline Small Have to Die?” – showed how the officers who shot Small were cleared of any wrongdoing with the help of the local police department and Johnson, the district attorney.
That help, according to the report, included interfering in a state-led investigation in order to protect the local officers, tampering with the crime scene and creating misleading evidence. In June 2018, Lt. Robert C. Sasser – one of the officers who shot Small and ended up not being punished or disciplined – killed his estranged wife and her boyfriend, and then committed suicide.
“There are obvious differences between the Arbery and Small cases, but I’ve definitely been hearing from people, particularly in that part of Georgia, that they’re seeing some similarities and that perhaps there’s some sort of a pattern here,” Schrade says.
In the Small case, Schrade notes, the local district attorney’s handling of the case led to an exodus of assistant DAs who resigned because of how troubled they were by the alleged cover-up. “Four of them resigned, and one said flatly: ‘It was a murder and it was covered up by the system.’ The system clearly failed to bring any kind of sensible justice in that case, and no one was ever held accountable,” Schrade says.
The two shootings, Schrade adds, were both captured on video. And in both cases, the footage raises “serious questions about how the case was handled by the local authorities. That’s why I think for some people in that community, it all feels like a replay of a terrible movie they’ve already been through – but this time there is also an added element of race, which makes it even more explosive.”
Media outlets in Georgia have returned to Schrade’s investigative work in recent days as the comparisons between the Arbery and Small cases have gained more attention. Much of the local coverage has focused on Johnson, the local district attorney, and her office’s handling of the two cases. Her office released a statement earlier this month denying any wrongdoing.
Bregman tells Haaretz that as long as “a cloud of corruption” hangs over the local law enforcement agencies, it will be difficult for the community to heal from the wounds caused by the Arbery shooting. “You can’t feel safe when you don’t trust the authorities that are supposed to uphold the law and protect the citizens,” she says.
Magnus says that the way to restore trust is to have a “scrupulous” investigation conducted by the Department of Justice, an investigation that in her view should look not only at the Arbery case, but also at how the Small case and subsequent case into the two police officers were handled. “I trust the U.S. Department of Justice and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to look into this,” she says. “I would not trust anyone with personal or professional ties to local authorities.”
An investigation is “necessary” in order to uproot the corruption, Bregman says. However, treating the other aspect of the Arbery shooting – the racism – would require much more work on behalf of the community itself, she notes.
“It’s something we all have to continue working on every day, and we need to be honest about where things stand,” she says. “There are lots of beautiful and heartwarming cooperations between people in our community. But at the same time, we live in a reality of separate enclaves, of ‘white neighborhoods’ and ‘black neighborhoods,’ of people going to different grocery stores. We can’t pretend that all of this is only a problem of the past.”
Rabbi Saul Rubin, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Tefilloh, will soon celebrate his 90th birthday. In a conversation with Haaretz, he tries to offer an optimistic view, despite the “very sad and outrageous events that we are witnessing.”
Rubin says he remembers living and working in the South in the days when “you still had segregation everywhere – in theaters, in libraries, in transportation and education. There was no such thing as eating together, working together. And of course, having interracial marriages – something that today is very common – back then was out of the question. For a lot of people, these are things they read about in the history books. But in my generation, we lived through it.”
As a young rabbi, Rubin led a Reform congregation in the town of Gadsden, Alabama, that was firebombed in an anti-Semitic attack in 1960. The attack was conducted by a 16-year-old Nazi sympathizer who was never punished for his crime, even though he wounded two worshippers as they fled the shul.
“One thing I learned during my career working as a rabbi in the South is that where there is racism and prejudice against black people, there is usually also anti-Semitism,” Rubin says. “That’s why events like this are also important for the Jewish community. I love living and working in the South. But we have a responsibility, as Southern Jews, to put an end to this hate and violence.”