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Charlottesville Jews Are Stuck With Town’s Infamy After White Supremacist March

The letters and emails began arriving at Congregation Beth Israel, in Charlottesville, Virginia, days after the city turned into the symbol of America’s new battle against white supremacy in the Trump era. It took that long for Americans to grasp the deeply anti-Semitic nature of the events that rocked the nation — until news emerged that the congregation had celebrated Shabbat on August 12 while Nazis marched past their synagogue.

The letters, the notes of support, the phone calls, mostly from Jews across the country and the world, expressed concern, shock and mainly solidarity with the Charlottesville community. “All of them have touched our entire community in making us feel part of a larger world Jewish community,” said Alan Zimmerman, the synagogue’s president. “I’ve been humbled by just feeling part of a larger, stronger community.”

Almost five months later, Charlottesville’s Jewish community still finds some solace in the sense of solidarity that emerged after the events, but by no means is the summer’s trauma gone and forgotten.

“You hear a lot in the news now on ‘post-Charlottesville’ — there’s no post-Charlottesville for us,” Congregation Beth Israel’s Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin said.

A Reform synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel has some 380 member families, about half the Jewish families in Charlottesville. It’s one of America’s oldest Jewish houses of worship. A typical Shabbat will bring 40-50 people to services. After the August rally, the synagogue has seen a slight uptick in membership, as some Jewish residents of the city felt an urge to join.

On that Saturday morning, Zimmerman stepped out of the sanctuary to get a better sense of what was taking place outside the synagogue. It’s located only a block away from Emancipation Park, formerly known as Lee Park, the site of a soon-to-be-removed statue of Robert E. Lee and the epicenter of that day’s rallies.

“There was a group of 40 people or so coming, marching down the street, and there was a large Nazi flag with a swastika on it leading the group,” he recalled. “I could hear one or more people yelling out ‘There’s the synagogue,’ and I could hear them shouting out anti-Semitic slurs. They were offering up Nazi-style salutes as they walked by. It was a really jarring thing to see in my hometown, right outside my synagogue.”

The threat of overt anti-Semitism did not end with the rally. In October, as congregants celebrated the holiday of Sukkot, “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer and a small group of supporters returned to Charlottesville for a brief late-night tiki torch show of force at the foot of the Robert E. Lee monument. In August 2018, white supremacists plan to come back to the city to mark the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville events. And then there were all the other incidents, at least 35 of them in 2017, serving as a reminder to the city’s community that the problem did not end when the Nazis were chased out of town.

“This is an ongoing problem for us, for everyone,” Schmelkin said. “These people, some of them are from here, others go back to wherever they’re from. It’s a problem for everyone.” Schmelkin was just outside her synagogue when the Nazis marched by. In the following days she tried to console congregants as they tried to make sense of what their town and their synagogue have gone through. Her message to concerned synagoguegoers was “that we have to drown out their hate with love and that we are not alone,” she said. “This is not the 1930s in Germany… we have all these people here who are looking out for us, and it’s our job to do the same for other communities: blacks, immigrants, refugees. Not just to look inwards.”

In December, family members celebrated Hanukkah as they’ve done every year, with the traditional menorah competition, where every family walks away with a prize and a Rock Shabbat filled with Hanukkah songs.

But not all is the same. Since the summer, stricter security measures have been put in place, and members feel a greater sense of awareness of threats they had never paid much attention to before August 12. The courthouse where James Fields, who killed one and wounded 35 others by plowing his car into the crowd, will stand trial is only a few blocks from the synagogue. In December, Fields was charged of first-degree murder.

Charlottesville’s Jewish mayor, Mike Signer, who was the first official to [call out] (https://www.politico.com/story/2017/08/14/charlottesville-violence-trump-mayor-responds-241608) President Trump for creating the atmosphere that allowed white nationalists to march into the city, is now trying to restore confidence to Charlottesville. Signer, who was a target of anti-Semitic attacks by organizers of the rally, is now facing criticism over his role in leading the town during the riots. This follows a damning report about Charlottesville police’s incompetence in dealing with the events, which recently led to the resignation of the city’s police chief.

Congregation Beth Israel had also felt that the local police had not been as responsive as they could have been when leaders of the synagogue asked for police help before the Nazis marched in. Since then, Zimmerman said, communication with the police has improved.

But while Charlottesville’s Jewish community understands that threats did not end when Spencer and the white nationalists left town August 12, activists also see the events as a wake-up call that led to a positive new mobilization against hate groups across the nation. The Anti-Defamation League has worked to identify participants in the white supremacist rally. The group, which has seen a surge in donations in recent months, also announced, days after the Charlottesville events, a partnership with the United States Conference of Mayors to help fight racism and hate on the local level.

“We believe that the response to Charlottesville is what will ultimately control the hate,” said Doron Ezickson, ADL’s director of the Washington, D.C., region, which includes Charlottesville. “We will look back at Charlottesville as a seminal moment in the new civil rights movement.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter, @nathanguttman

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