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Letter from Huntsville: ‘Our souls have been assaulted’

I am the rabbi of Huntsville’s Temple B’nai Sholom, Alabama’s oldest synagogue in continuous use. Over the first two nights of Passover, vandals defaced two congregations in Huntsville, The Etz Chayim Congregation and Chabad of Huntsville, with anti-Semitic graffiti. Although my temple was not attacked, our souls have been assaulted.

As one of my congregants said, “Coronavirus is scary, but this anti-Semitism is frightening.”

By “our,” I’m speaking of this entire Jewish community. But I am also referring to leaders and members of the larger Huntsville community, both civic and religious. Local and federal law enforcement are taking these hate crimes very seriously. The FBI, Huntsville Chief of Police, the mayor, and so many others have strongly condemned the attacks and are actively engaged in the effort to catch the people or person who did this.

From the faith community, the show of support has been no less meaningful. Pastor Rusty Nelson of The Rock Family Worship Center joined his parishioners in vigorously removing the spray-painted hate, thoroughly cleaning up and repainting at both locations.

In an open letter, Pastors Patrick and Andrea Penn of the Dwelling Place Church wrote, “To our Jewish friends in Huntsville and around the world, we at The Dwelling Place condemn this horrendous act of hatred in our community. We are offering up prayers on your behalf. We love you and are standing with you. Please let us know how we can help.”

Pastor David Freeman of Weatherly Baptist Church wrote: “I’m heartbroken that this occurred in our community. Let’s make sure the public knows with no uncertainty that we deplore this violation of our Jewish friends and that we stand in solidarity with them.”

As a community, Huntsville clearly stands united against anti-Semitism in all its forms. I’m new here. But my congregants who have lived their entire lives in north Alabama have told me they’ve never seen nor experienced any anti-Semitic hate crimes like these. There is some solace that the security footage seems to show a lone perpetrator, not an organized group.

Nevertheless these attacks leave so many of us reeling. We feel anger, fear, anxiety, panic, dread, powerlessness, and frustration. But rather than giving in to an unrelenting assault of emotions, Jewish history teaches us, and Judaism expects us, to use all that strengthens us to carry onward: our faith in God, our faith in each other and our community, and our knowing that individually and collectively we have experienced trying times and survived.

The Jewish people have gone through this before, and gone through so much worse. Could the timing be any better – or worse – than now, being in the midst of Passover, a holiday commemorating our deliverance from oppression, and reminding us of the power of human agency? Before God is even mentioned in the Book of Exodus, we’re reading about Moses taking action. The Torah seems to want us to remember that we are blessed with free will and the ability to make choices that define us and our community. It is true that we cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we respond.

So, how have we responded?

The fact that so many of my congregants and their families joined each other for the Second Night Virtual Community Seder and the following evening’s Virtual Shabbat Service were the perfect reminders that Jewish life goes on. We are united in our efforts to overcome these reprehensible acts, and mindful that an attack on any House of Worship is an attack on every House of Worship.

The most Jewish way to live life is to keep living a Jewish life. We will allow no one to prevent us from living our Jewish lives.

Rabbi Eric Berk is spiritual leader of Huntsville’s Temple B’nai Sholom.

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