It was a surreal moment. Approaching the Robert E. Lee Monument in the center of Charlottesville, Va., a young black woman, Aliya, joined her white friend Tom in placing a placard in front of the statue. Covering the words “Robert E. Lee” the placard read: “The Heather Heyer Memorial.” Heather Heyer was the 32-year-old woman who was murdered when a car driven by a white supremacist rammed into a crowd of counter protesters at a white nationalist rally.
Together with my colleagues Rabbis Shmuel Herzfeld, Etan Mintz and Uri Topolosky, we asked if we could join in. Together we stood, singing “We Shall Overcome.” White supremacists try to divide America, declaring “it’s us vs. them.” We were humbly responding — it’s us, all of us, we, together.
We had come to Charlottesville to express solidarity with the beleaguered Jewish community and with all of Charlottesville’s citizens. Sitting with Rabbi Tom Gutherz, rabbi of Charlottesville’s Congregation Beth Israel, we were overwhelmed by his story. He shared with us that he had received a call last Friday from municipal officials telling him they had picked up information that the synagogue was under threat. The rabbi asked for protection and was told that not enough personnel was available.
He continued by sharing with us that on Saturday, the Sabbath morning, three neo-Nazis were standing in front of the synagogue with semi-automatic weapons as congregants assembled for prayer. The rabbi again asked for protection, but none came.
His account echoed an article posted by synagogue president, Alan Zimmerman, where he stated: On Saturday morning, I stood outside our synagogue with the armed security guard we hired after the police department refused to provide us with an officer during morning services.
Incensed, we walked a few blocks to the Charlottesville City Hall, insisting that we see the city manager, Charlottesville’s highest government official. One of the assistant city managers, Mike Murphy, spoke to us. Rabbi Herzfeld chastised the Charlottesville Police for not offering the synagogue protection. I added, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that with many, many hundreds of neo-Nazis marching through the streets of Charlottesville on Friday night with KKK type torches, declaring ‘Jews will not replace us,’ the synagogue needed to be guarded.” That protection should have been automatic, without any request coming from the synagogue at all.
From our perspective, the lack of police protection deserves an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.
We made our way to the University of Virginia Medical Center. Rabbi Mintz had served there years ago, and knew the supervising chaplain, Mildred Best. Mildred shared with us that the open lobby where one enters the hospital had been transformed into a closed emergency center during the hours of crisis on Saturday. She arranged that the full chaplaincy staff join us in a prayer service. It was important that we show support to the spiritual healers who had been there, offering help during the crisis. Even the healers need healing.
Fifty years ago, I started singing this song with millions of others during the dark days of the civil rights movement. Never would I have imagined then that decades later we would still be facing similar times, singing the same melody, the same simple but piercing words.
We gathered around as Rabbi Topolosky, on his guitar, led us in Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s heart-wrenching song of one word — “Ruach.” Ruach literally means “wind” but more deeply refers to the image of God, a spirit that unites all of humankind. Some of the chaplains were in tears. We held hands as our visiting group offered the blessing: May the Lord guard your going out and coming in; May the Lord offer renewal of body and soul for all the injured.
Our final stop was meeting with the Chabad rabbi at the University of Virginia, Rabbi Shlomo Mayer. Raised in Romania, he described how late on Friday night, after the white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, he was awakened by a loud noise. For an instant, he said, “I thought I was back in Romania with the Jewish community under attack.” As it turned out, the noise was not a danger. But the rabbi told us that the fear he was feeling was palpable.
As I left Charlottesville, my mind wandered to the moment, perhaps the most piercing of the day, where we stood at the very spot where Heather was murdered. Flowers and notes were everywhere. As I looked up, I could see a police car blocking the intersection. If only the police would have placed a car there on Saturday — Heather would still be alive. We chanted the prayer for the dead.
And then we began to sing “We Shall Overcome Some Day.” Fifty years ago, I started singing this song with millions of others during the dark days of the civil rights movement. Never would I have imagined then that decades later we would still be facing similar times, singing the same melody, the same simple but piercing words.
Then and there I offered a silent prayer: O God, we shall overcome someday. “Someday” no longer works for me. America cannot wait. The world cannot wait.
We need more Aliyas and Toms, more Mildred Bests. We need white, black, brown and yellow, Jewish, Christian, Muslims singing together — we shall overcome — not some day, but today, today, today.