Rabbi Avi Friedman of Congregation Ohr Shalom-The Summit Jewish Community Center had to wait until after Shabbat on Aug. 12 to hear about the violence that stemmed from the white supremacist, neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va.
When he turned on his TV after sundown, the rabbi said he was disturbed to learn that President Donald Trump blamed “many sides” for the violent actions that took place, he said, “rather than single out guilty parties among the white supremacists, who had been among his strongest political supporters.”
As Friedman stood on the large lawn outside the Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit on Aug. 14, he was about to take part in one of at least 16 rallies held in New Jersey in the last few days to denounce the right-wing attacks in Charlottesville which culminated in the murder by automobile of counter-protester Heather Heyer by white nationalist James Fields of Ohio.
The rally was sponsored by the adjacent Christ Church, an affiliate of American Baptist Church and the United Church of Christ. The overflow crowd forced the move to the Catholic institution’s lawn next door.
Marc Disick, former rabbi of the now-defunct Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston, who will serve for the next year at Temple Sinai in Summit while the two congregations complete a merger,” acknowledged that the president’s rhetoric was harsher two days after Heyer’s death. Trump said, “Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
But to the rabbi — and to many others gathered outside the monastery — the delay “gave the Nazis a victory. They knew for 48 hours the president did not condemn what should be reprehensible.”
Placing blame on the president for cultivating a climate of racist hatred was an overarching theme among many of the 300 to 400 protesters gathered in Summit, as well as many of the other New Jersey rallies that have been held since the bloody events near the University of Virginia campus.
Jews joined Christians, Muslims, and others to bear interfaith and interracial witness against the white supremacist terror.
While standing outside a Catholic monastery, Disick told NJJN before the rally, “I am not at a church. I am with God’s children of many stripes and many colors and many faiths standing against voices too painful to hear without reacting.”
Trump, he said, “has relied on some of the most despicable people in our country.”
Rabbi Hannah Orden, the Reconstructionist leader of Congregation Beth Hatikvah (CBH) in Summit, told NJJN, “It is shocking and heartbreaking to see neo-Nazis and white supremacists in a rally,” in particular their having chanted “Jews won’t replace us.”
“The response to people like that needs to be completely non-violent,” Orden said. “We need to listen to what is bothering them and try to find some common ground.”
Later, Orden and Friedman shared the microphone to lead a prayer. They alternated reading lines that said, in part, “Our souls are wasting away. Everyday so many of us are living in fear. Black, brown, female, queer, trans, Muslim, differently-abled bodies are dying. Oh God, whom we have forgotten. We have so often failed to see you in the faces of our sisters and brothers.”
Grace Gurman-Chan of Berkeley Heights, director of education at United Synagogue of Hoboken, said, “It is time for us to stand tall and let the rest of the world know we don’t tolerate this.”
Pam Schachter of Summit, a CBH member, told NJJN, “As a daughter of a German refugee who escaped during the Holocaust, I am horrified and I am scared. It was terrifying to see the Nazi flags on our streets, but when we take away anyone’s First Amendment rights, we erode them for all of us.” She said that Trump’s initial silence was an implicit “endorsement of their activities.”
Opening the rally, Charles Rush, senior minister at Christ Church, told the crowd, “We are not going to stamp out hate, but we can surround it with thousands of communities like ours who say, ‘We are in this for a better future, for a future of inclusion and diversity.’”
The Rev. Blake Scalet, pastor of St. Joseph Lutheran Church in Summit, spoke of “a nightmare of racist violence” that “has left us angry and afraid.” He urged “a vision of restoration and reconciliation and love” to replace a “reality of toxic racism and hate.”
Besides the various speeches, there was a candle-lighting ceremony and singing of hymns as well as protest songs performed by members of the Christ Church choir. Among the most moving was an a cappella rendition of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free,” a modern gospel song composed by jazz pianist Billy Taylor. It was performed by opera singer Stacey Robinson, a church member who led the choir.
After closing prayers, those in attendance slowly walked away in silence, holding their candles aloft.