The Jewish Light Lost from Conflict in Charlottesville

Initially, I was hesitant to move to Charlottesville. Being left behind was a prominent Jewish community in Minneapolis, of which my partner and I had both invested into and reaped the benefits of over the course of four years. Despite the lack of a certain chutzpah that a Jewish community brings, Charlottesville quickly won me over and we moved shortly after. It was an area where I was comfortable openly expressing my progressive, liberal beliefs as well as my strong Jewish values. Due to these values, my partner and I attended Shabbos services our first weekend in Charlottesville’s one shul. It was a wonderful way to connect to our new Jewish community and meet fellow Jews in the area. Although a small population, the congregation was lively, welcoming, and extremely tight-knit – we knew very quickly that we would be regulars in this temple.

Unfortunately, there an unsettling announcement that took place at the end of the service.  The following weekend would bring the Alt Right Rally and a large number of White Supremacists to the area. Being in such close proximity to where the protest was planned to take place, the Synagogue decided to move services an hour earlier to keep its members safe. I was taken aback, however not completely surprised because of the compromises that shuls and JCCs constantly have to make to keep its congregants in good hands. A dark spot in the service, however, it was quickly pushed back as our fellow Jews came up to introduce themselves to us and give welcome to the community.

My partner Julian and I have recently been taking small steps to become more observant Jews. One specific mitzvah that we have chosen to embark on is the observance of Shabbos. For the past few weeks – including this last Friday – we have lighted our candles, made the berachot, and left our phones in a junk drawer until the next morning (taking on the full 25-hours is intimidating for first timers, so we have stuck to the first night for now). Our ignorance to the happenings of last Friday was brought to light as soon as we turned the TV on Saturday morning. Images of white men and women thrusting Tiki torches in the air on the pavilion less than a mile away from our apartment rendered me speechless. The brief video broadcasts shouted out the anti-Semitic messages proudly chanted by the protestors. Without thinking twice, Julian and I left the city limits to enjoy our day on tubing on the James River.

On our venture out of Charlottesville, we passed multiple gaggles of men with guns strapped across their stomachs, helmets, shields, and Nazi-style swastikas littering their image. We drove faster.

By the time our lazy float on the water ended – a nice Shabbos reprieve – we were inundated with news that Heather Heyer, a counter-protestor, had been killed by a White Supremacist. My stomach dropped as the reality of the situation settled in. As we made our way home, we passed numerous police cars bright with flashing lights – a bad sign to come home to. When we finally got back to our apartment, we were greeted by an email from the University of Virginia stating that Charlottesville was in a state of emergency. I was rattled, however, it was Julian’s birthday so I wanted to make an effort to take our minds off the situation. Naturally, the avenue I chose was food. Putting on a brave face, I brought us to Belmont, a cute neighborhood dense with restaurants making it nearly impossible to park on a usual weekend. This day was different. The small cluster of cafes resembled a ghost town; the only people present was an apparent bachelorette party that looked as if the bride had just become a widow. With all of the regular attractions closed for safety, we settled on an Indian restaurant a few miles north of town.

On our way back home, Julian had me stop in front of an iconic Charlottesville spot. He wanted me to take a picture of him with his kippah visible so that he could show how he was still proud to remember Hashem, even in the face of racism. My hands fumbled as I raced to take a few shots of him on my phone. I was already scared that he was an open target, and when I saw a few people in the next field over I made us run back to the car. We quickly sped away.

The events that occurred in Charlottesville were horrific, but they were not unexpected. There were Nazis in riot gear, armed White Supremacists, and violent outbursts that ended in at least three fatalities by the end of Saturday. However, another conflict was occurring below the surface that was staring at Jews directly. The Jewish community knows all too well the coded racism and attack on identity that infected both sides of the Alt Right Rally over this past weekend.

Needless to say, Charlottesville was a dangerous place for Jews during the demonstrations, but the report-laden aftermath has continued the terror conjured through the protests. Being from Minnesota, where the Boycott Divest Sanction (BDS) movement barreled its way – unsuccessfully – through the University system, I have had a first-hand look at how thinly-veiled anti-Semitism has flown under the radar of media outlets and their consumers. In this situation, it took the form of misquoted chants spewed by Alt Right members. For example, the protesters were heard yelling “Jews will not replace us”, yet multiple media sources reported an incorrect “you will not replace us” (or further perverted, “we will not be replaced”).

The problem with this, beyond the obvious journalism error, is that this is the exact type of choice wording that propelled the BDS movement in Minnesota without the gentile population calling out its inherent anti-Semitism. Phrases like “anti-Zionism” – used and defended by the BDS movement – deflect the racism towards Jews to more socially acceptable atrocities (like the ever-trendy denouncement of Israel). Even if unintentional, this behavior was repeated in the Women’s March – an example of great progressive intentions hijacked by Linda Sarsour with anti-Israel (and thus, anti-Semitic) propaganda. Or at the incorrectly-named “Apartheid Week” (put on by Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Minnesota) aimed at promoting the “apartheid” occurring in the Jewish State of Israel, always conveniently being scheduled for the week of Pesach when the majority of Jewish students are home for the holiday. Or even further, at the 21st Annual Chicago Dyke March, where a woman (Laurel Grauer) waving a Gay Pride flag with a Star of David in the middle (called a Jewish Pride flag), was asked to leave because the flag “’made people feel unsafe’, and [the] march was ‘anti-Zionist’ and ‘pro-Palestinian.’” The march barred three Jewish women from carrying their Jewish Pride flags, in total.

All of these instances are examples of how peaceful, progressive movements have been hijacked by anti-Semitic messages. Circling back to this past weekend, the counter-protesters intending to correct the Alt Right’s wrongs, were waving Palestinian flags – without any sign of Israeli flags – insinuating that the counter-protest was anti-Zionist. Or even the fact that the entirety of the Alt Right Rally occurred during Shabbos. Add this to the Nazi symbolism of the demonstrators (and, you know, the call for death of all yehudim), and where does that leave the Jews?

As the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe resurrected the Chasidic movement out of the depths of HaShoah, we too shall resurrect our Jewish pride out of the darkness from this past weekend. I thank G-d for placing us in Charlottesville so that we can continue our work for the Jewish community in a place that needs it now more than ever. Although I may never again feel completely safe expressing our Jewishness in Charlottesville, my faith in Hashem and the permanence of the Jewish people remains unshaken. And hopefully, our bit of work here can help us come that much closer to bringing Moshiach. Am Yisrael Chai.