Security has been heightened at synagogues in Charleston, S.C., following the church massacre last week of nine black parishioners by a suspected white supremacist whose website was filled with hatred for both blacks and Jews.
In the wake of the shooting, the South Carolina Legislature agreed to debate the removal of the Confederate battle flag from outside South Carolina’s Statehouse. The flag, long a divisive symbol to many, had remained by law at full-staff following the shooting even as all other flags were lowered to half-staff — something that was galling to many.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley surprised many by suddenly calling for the flag’s removal, a move welcomed by the Anti-Defamation League.
Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said that just as the flag was a “symbol of hate that justified fighting for slavery, it was later used as a symbol for anti-Semitism as well.”
“It became a symbol of white supremacy and the racism of the past that included Jews,” he added, noting that he hopes the shooting will spark renewed calls for gun control “because guns enable bigots to kill.”
Although President Barack Obama has advocated new gun control laws, he said he is doubtful Congress will enact them.
But rather than give up, Barbara Weinstein, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said her organization is concentrating on getting each of the 50 states to pass their own gun control laws. She noted that in May, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed into law a bill requiring background checks on firearm transfers between private parties.
Oregon is now one of seven states — including New York — to require background checks for all gun purchases.
Weinstein said gun violence and hate crimes are “both scourges we have to address.”
Just days before last week’s church shooting, Rabbi Alan Cohen of Synagogue Emanu-El, a 350-family Conservative congregation, said the synagogue board had discussed ways to improve security.
“This incident will only heighten the need for that kind of conversation,” he said. “There is now a sense of vulnerability among members of the Jewish community.”
Rabbi Cohen said that for the first time a plainclothes officer was in attendance during last weekend’s Shabbat services, and that a policeman sat in a police car outside the synagogue as he left the morning minyan Monday.
Rabbi Moshe Davis, spiritual leader of Brith Sholom Beth Israel, a 200-family Modern Orthodox congregation, said his board also “reassessed our security” and hired an off-duty police officer to provide protection during last weekend’s Shabbat services.
“He told us that given the circumstances surrounding the [church shooting] there was no reason for added security, but we had him there anyway,” Rabbi Davis said. “We wanted to make sure we did everything possible to make our people feel secure.”
At Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, a Reform congregation and the largest of the three congregations with 520-families, security guards were posted at the synagogue last Shabbat as they are every week.
“We also have panic buttons around the synagogue and under the bima that go directly to 911,” said Rabbi Stephanie Alexander, the congregation’s senior spiritual leader.
Unlike the other two congregations, which held Shabbat services as usual, Rabbi Alexander said her congregation’s “leadership determined that the most significant way we could support [the community] was to be present when the community gathered together as one.
“So rather than holding our Friday night service at 8, we convened at the temple at 5 p.m., lit Shabbat candles, joined in song, and then walked the four blocks from our synagogue to the [College of Charleston] arena. At least 150 walked with us and other congregants met us there. We are proud to have had a sizeable Jewish presence, and I was honored to offer words of comfort to the community.”
In her invocation, Rabbi Alexander, 39, recalled the work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and asked, “Why haven’t we eradicated the hate? Why haven’t we stopped the violence? We search, but we search together.”
She noted that when the shooting occurred last Thursday night at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, she was on a bus tour of civil rights sites in the South that was organized jointly by her synagogue and two area churches. They filled three buses and were between Memphis, Tenn., and Montgomery, Ala., when they learned of the massacre. She and the clergy of the two churches, Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III and Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, left the tour and flew back to Charleston. She left behind her 7-year-old son and husband, Rabbi Aaron Sherman.
“We had been to Atlanta and Selma, Jackson and Memphis,” Rabbi Alexander recalled in her invocation. “We’d stood in the precise locations where great leaders had been shot, and walked down the very roads where communities had marched and lifted one another up. At some point in this whirlwind, I’ve lost the ability to differentiate between what’s been preserved in black-and-white and what is happening in living color. I had hoped against hope that we had left behind the racism that could spur such violence and destruction.”
An interreligious service of solidarity was also held last Friday night at Temple Israel of Lawrence, L.I. Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, the Reform congregation’s spiritual leader, said it was organized to show support for the families of the victims “and to make a statement for our nation as a whole that the carnage [was] brought about by the lack of proper legislation involving hand guns … and because racists of all types still exist.”
And an interfaith community prayer vigil was scheduled for this week in Silver Spring, Md., that was organized in part by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
On Monday, Rabbi Davis said, “Charleston was and still is in a state of shock.”
But since the arrest of the suspected gunman, Dylann Roof, 21, of Lexington, S.C., within hours of the shooting that Roof reportedly said he hoped would trigger a race war, Rabbi Davis said a “sense of unity” had fallen over the community.
“People of all races and religions are coming together to stand against racial prejudice and hate,” he said. “The guy was a racist and a white supremacist. I’m not surprised to learn he also hated Jews.”
An online racist manifesto said to be written by Roof and filled with grammatical errors — he dropped out of high school after repeating the ninth grade — asserts that the “issues with jews [sic] is not their blood, but their identity. I think that if we could somehow destroy the Jewish identity, then they wouldn’t cause much of a problem. …
“Just like n***, most jews are always thinking about the fact that they are jewish. The other issue is that they network. If we could somehow turn every jew blue for 24 hours, I think there would be a mass awakening, because people would be able to see plainly what is going on. I dont [sic] pretend to understand why jews do what they do. They are enigma [sic].”
In commenting on the events of the last week, Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said the “teachable moments out of this unspeakable tragedy are about the unfinished conversation in America about race and bigotry. There is something deeply broken in our society when extremists of any stripe repeatedly act out their hatred in these dystopian scenes.”
Hadar Susskind, director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, said last week’s church massacre was “different from some of the other horrible shootings that have happened in that it is clearly racially motivated and very much connected to our work on racial justice.”
Those thoughts were echoed by Marjorie Dove Kent, executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, who said the “issue of institutional racism” has been brought to the fore by the shooting.
“The real issue here is white supremacy and it rests on a hatred of both blacks and Jews,” she said. “This is a place of alignment for all to rally against. … For the last 25 years our group in partnership with other organizations that are led by people of color have been working on some of the major issues affecting our city and country. Now is a powerful moment for the Jewish community to invest in those relationships.”
Jacobo Mintzer, president of Synagogue Emanu-El who was born in Argentina and lived in New York City before moving to Charleston, said the one thing he has learned in his travels is that “there are always people with hatred in their hearts.”
“Hatred is everywhere and it is often directed towards the people believed to be the most vulnerable,” he observed.
Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, N.J., flew to Charleston for a one-day visit as a representative of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a modern Orthodox group.
“In addition to feeling sympathy, we wanted to show in a concrete way our solidarity,” he said.
He said he went to the Emanuel AME Church and found it closed. But he said he spoke with people outside the church “and tried to express our condolences and sympathy.”
“I was very encouraged by the tone of the talk I’ve heard here,” he said. “I didn’t hear bitterness. There is a lot of goodwill and a desire to come together.”