It wasn’t a coincidence that our live band played the song “Sympathy for the Devil” as congregants entered Yom Kippur services. There was a message to deliver. “At some point in this service,” I told them, “we are going to be asked to offer expiation to a demonic god of the ancient Near East named Azazel. Why doesn’t anyone talk about that on Yom Kippur?”
During the Torah reading, as the name Azazel came up, I pulled out my Chumash and read Leviticus 16:8: “And he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel.”
Explaining how Azazel was an ancient Near Eastern demonic god, I asked, “What in our human capacity would compel God to ask us to give expiation to the devil?”
As I read, images from Charlottesville appeared on the screen above my head. The men in white shirts. The orange flames. The chants of “Jews will not replace us.”
A man rose from the congregation. “That was me,” he said. “I used to hate just like them. I was a neo-Nazi for 20 years.”
“Can you come down here and explain yourself?” I asked.
I had met Logan through an organization called Life After Hate (LAH). I reached out to the group in the wake of Charlottesville, haunted by images of young men with torches at night. As a descendant of an intermarried family of Jews and German Lutherans who fought for Hitler’s cause, these images were a graphic and painful reminder of the evil that lurks in darkness.
So, I invited Logan, an alumnus of LAH, to speak at Open Temple for the High Holy Days and share his story.
He grew up in Orange County, falling in with a “bad group of guys” and quickly finding himself selling drugs to immigrants. He was told by this gang of white supremacists to focus sales on minorities in order to “mess them up.” He shared how he ended up in jail, first for drugs and later for being complicit in a murder. While in prison, he met compassionate Christians. He studied the Bible. And he discovered the power of God’s ability to forgive.
“I have come here today to ask for your forgiveness,” he told us. “I was young and stupid and was taught to hate Jews. I did things I wasn’t proud of. You can see here my tattoos I am trying to get removed. I want to say that I am sorry for who I was and ask if you can forgive me and see me as the man I have become. I am a father now. I have two sons. Their mother and I are married and trying to make our way. It isn’t easy. But I know now that there is a better way to be and I need to raise my sons with that knowledge. Will you forgive me?”
A crowd of congregants descended on him, and through tears and the mixed emotions of relief, fear, compassion and pure acceptance, we chanted the misheberach prayer for healing and forgave him.
The morning of April 28, as the world woke up to the tragedy at the Chabad of Poway, I received this text:
“Once again I am saddened by my past and embarrassed to have ever been involved with idiot groups. I apologize to you and your temple for the actions of the confused idiot in San Diego. I don’t know why but feel I need to apologize for idiots but I do. I hope all is well with you. Much love. Logan.”
Where can we find life after hate, I wondered?
At this very moment, we can find it in Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein’s call for spreading light into darkness, and in the very word for Chabad itself. Chabad is an acronym for chochmah (wisdom), binah (woman’s wisdom) and da’at (Godly knowledge). Rabbi Goldstein upheld the integrity of this acronym through his words encouraging us all toward the light; invoking Lori Gilbert-Kaye’s maternal love and final sacrifice; and reminding us of our potential to redeem the holy sparks through acts of loving kindness.
We can find life after hate also in the words and actions of a former neo-Nazi, a man who had the courage to redeem his own Azazel and turn it into light.
Rabbi Lori Shapiro is the founder and artistic director of The Open Temple in Venice.