When protests turned violent in St. Louis on Friday night, following the acquittal of a white, former police officer for the fatal 2011 shooting of a black man, the Central Reform Congregation unwittingly found itself in the news. Following Shabbat services, the synagogue opened its doors to some 250 protesters, offering them sanctuary from riot police until late in the night, when the police finally gave them the green light to leave without fear of arrest.
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The synagogue’s act of kindness garnered plenty of gratitude from the demonstrators, but also elicited hateful responses on Twitter from neo-Nazis and anti-Semites using the hashtag #GasTheSynagogue.
The synagogue remains undeterred, though, proceeding with scheduled events in the wake of the protests and foregoing extra security beyond what was already in place for the High Holy Days.
It also remains steadfast in its customary quest to repair the world, said Rabbi Susan Talve, founding rabbi of the synagogue – the only Jewish congregation located within the St. Louis city limits.
“We were at the right time at the right place on Friday night, and one of the blessings was that we had had Shabbos first,” said Talve. “We really had a beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat service. We had a beautiful Oneg [Shabbat], and so when we welcomed the protesters into our sanctuary on the heels of being chased by the police, they could feel they were being welcomed into a holy space.”
“Had it not been Friday night,” she continued, “most of us would have been out there – we would have been marching.” Talve said she and her congregants were surprised by the level of riot police deployed.
“It was a very peaceful protest, but when you have over 1,000 people marching together in a residential area, there is bound to be some tumult – and there was,” Talve said. “All of a sudden, we saw people running. Then we saw the police in all of their riot gear chasing them.
“As we saw that, a few of us went out and started to tell the protesters to come in: ‘Come into the sanctuary. We will keep you safe.’ We had to kind of just say, ‘Come on, you can come in here because otherwise you’re going to get arrested or you’re going to get teargassed.’”
Openly welcoming strangers was a founding principle of Central Reform Congregation, which was established in 1984. When the synagogue broke ground in 1999, its founders decided to call the new building a sukkat shalom – Hebrew for “shelter of peace.”
“We were founded on these values of standing with each other in difficult times,” said Talve, “and hopefully being part of the solution and working to cross divides. Working to build bridges. Working to have those courageous conversations. Working not to demonize anyone, whoever they are. I know that sometimes that puts you at risk, but this is the time to believe that crossing those divides, building bridges instead of walls, might make a difference.”
Talve added that the synagogue has long served as a refuge for the local community – allowing people to come in for a drink of water or to use the restroom – and has taken an active role in social justice efforts since its founding. “We really take seriously that notion of radical hospitality and being a shelter,” she said.
The Missouri synagogue’s actions Friday night were a case of living up to that ideal. The protests began earlier Friday, after a judge acquitted a former St. Louis police officer, Jason Stockley, of first-degree murder in the shooting of 24-year-old drug suspect Anthony Lamar Smith.
By the time the night was over, dozens of people were arrested and 11 police officers had suffered injuries, including a broken jaw and dislocated shoulder. Police said 10 businesses were damaged, and that protesters broke a window and hurled red paint on the home of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson.
Friday was not the first time the congregation had become a sanctuary. Like other houses of worship, it also opened its doors following another racially charged incident in August 2014, in which a police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson. As it says on the synagogue’s website, “A desire to heal and transform the world demands that we not flee the problems of the inner city.”
Brown’s killing, along with that of Eric Garner in New York the preceding month, brought national attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. Despite supporting that movement, Talve herself became targeted on social media by some activists in December 2015 due to her support of Israel. One group posted her picture on Facebook with the hashtag “#realterrorist” and the words “supports genocide and international apartheid,” according to the St. Louis Jewish Light.
The synagogue keeps an Israeli flag in its sanctuary, Talve said. On Friday, some protesters came in wearing “Save Palestine” T-shirts, but “there was no disrespect. There was an ability just to hold that space together.”
“The protest community is, for the most part, family,” said Talve, adding that she and her congregants in no way condone violence on the demonstrators’ part. “We stand together against hate. We stand together against violence, in whatever form – whether it’s police violence or neo-Nazi violence or white supremacist violence,” she said.
However, she noted, “Silence is violence, too – especially white silence.” Talve said that if black and brown children are at risk every day in St. Louis, “We need to show up with our white bodies and show them that if they’re at risk, we’re going to put our bodies on the line, too.”
As the new Jewish year begins this week, Talve reflected on the past year, particularly the months since President Donald Trump’s election. “I hope that the marches and protests are really going to give birth to change, that they won’t just be the end,” she said. “My hope for the coming year is that we will do something about all of these divisions and form relationships of trust across divides, so we can work together to take back the country.”
The demonstrations continued Saturday night, resulting in the arrests of at least nine people, and again on Sunday evening, when the protests, including in front of police headquarters in downtown St. Louis, started peacefully but later turned violent. Hundreds of riot police mobilized in downtown St. Louis overnight, arresting more than 80 people and seizing weapons amid reports of property damage and vandalism.