This is one of seven profiles of American Jews who fascinated us in 2021. Click here to see all seven and read an explanation of our Forward Shortlist.
Congregation Beth Israel in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, was a magnet for journalists who covered the aftermath of Unite the Right, the white supremacist rally in 2017 that included chants of “Jews will not replace us.” I and others returned to the synagogue this fall, during the civil trial in which 24 far-right groups and individuals were found liable for $25 million in damages to nine plaintiffs who were injured or suffered emotionally during the violent two-day event.
The Reform community’s leader is Rabbi Tom Gutherz, who was eager to refute a story that circulated widely four years ago about congregants fleeing out the back door of the synagogue carrying Torah scrolls.
“There’s a trope there,” said Gutherz, who took the helm at Beth Israel a year before Unite the Right. “There’s something about the way people like to think about Jews.”
Gutherz, 64, wants you to know that Charlottesville’s Jews were not afraid — they did not cower as white supremacists marched outside the sanctuary, nor did they flee.
They showed up to pray knowing full well what was in store, and many left the synagogue that morning to join the counter-demonstrations. They left through a side door because it was more convenient.
Meet Tom Gutherz, the Charlottesville rabbi fighting back against the far right
But Gutherz, who sports a shock of gray hair, plays the guitar and milked cows on an Israeli kibbutz before becoming a rabbi, said that Unite the Right was a wake-up call in a different respect.
“Our community — all of America — was woefully undereducated about how well organized this movement was,” Gutherz said. “Now we know.”
The rally gave Gutherz and Beth Israel a head start in learning about the connections between discrimination against Blacks and Jews, and deepened the congregation’s commitment to racial justice work years before the murder of George Floyd made it a priority across the Jewish community. Still, despite the plaintiffs’ success in holding the organizers of the rally accountable, Gutherz has no illusions that hate is being driven out of the country.
“If anything it’s percolated,” Gutherz said.
In his own words
We asked the seven fascinating people on our Forward Shortlist to answer a few questions unrelated to the work they do.
What do you eat for breakfast? Granola with oat milk and whatever fruit is in season.
What app on your Smartphone can you not live without?
The swim-lane reservation at my gym.
What’s your earliest Jewish memory? My parents turned our modest outdoor back porch into a faux sukkah — I think construction was not their thing — and the whole neighborhood would drop in to join us.
What’s your favorite holiday? Passover — so much good singing! And there are always leftovers!
Who is your hero? The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: A person who embodied a deep spiritual life, a passion for justice, effective and daring resistance to oppressive power structures, a vision of the beloved community, and an unyielding commitment to the “truth-power” of non-violence.
Tell us about a book you read, movie you watched, TV show you streamed or podcast you listened to in 2021 — or one of each! I’ve been listening to NPR’s “Invisibilia” podcast this season, about friendship and its many variations. Always find something interesting there and I like the way they tell a story. And I am loving “Call My Agent” even though I don’t speak a word of French.
What’s one thing you always do (or try to) on Friday night or Saturday? Always in shul or on Zoom or home with a nice glass of red wine for Shabbes.
What’s your New Year’s Resolution? Read more novels!
To view the full Forward Shortlist, click here.
Tom Gutherz: Rabbi Fighting the Far Right