I was in Charlottesville on Saturday. I felt called to go because white supremacy is a hateful ideology that has murdered millions throughout history and continues to kill.
I went because my family and ancestors suffered at the hands of anti-Semites throughout history, because I bear their scars on my DNA, because the Jewish day school where I teach received a bomb threat this spring, and I cannot let Nazi flags fly in my state without response.
I needed to go as a rabbi because I am tired of conservative white Christians controlling the narrative of what it means to be religious in this country, and using that narrative to drive out, silence and forcefully assimilate non-Christians and the religious left.
I am proud that I was able to go as part of the group sent by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call For Human Rights, and that the clergy-led response against hate can show this country what theology really looks like. I was immediately heartened to see the number of clergy of all denominations in their religious garb. A Muslim women in her headscarf, a handful of rabbis in their tallitot and many, many denomination of Christian clergy in their collars, stoles and robes.
A group of clergy started the morning off at Emancipation Park, where the white nationalists gathered. Volunteers wandered about the First United Methodist Church supplying water and emotional and spiritual support, and a few clergy were stationed at hospitals around the city, prepared for emergency chaplaincy.
I chose to serve in a support role, bringing water and snacks to protesters (a role Congregate C’ville, an interfaith group, called “care-bears”), rather than participating in any of the direct actions, including the very non-confrontational clergy-led response. I’m still within a six-month sort of probationary period from a previous political arrest (the result of another T’ruah action) and was nervous about being involved in any “unlawful assembly” at this time. I believe this choice also helped keep me safe from violence.
When I got in to Charlottesville, I immediately checked in at the church and gathered the supplies to bring out to people. Together with some other “care-bears” I know through IfNotNow, I walked the few blocks toward Emancipation Park. The crowd of anti-racist protesters was huge, and the white nationalists were mostly confined within the park. I wasn’t able to see much going on inside the park, but I could clearly make out Identity Evropa, Nazi and Confederate flags.
One of my fellow care-bears said she saw a Kekistan flag, a concept I’m vaguely familiar with as a racist rallying banner of the alt-right online culture, but not an image I would recognize. Twice while we were milling through the crowd handing out waters, clumps of white nationalists walked up the steps into the park, greeted with much cheering and thumping of flagpoles on the ground from those in the park. They appeared to take a conspicuous route past the counterprotesters, to announce that they had arrived.
We had been there about an hour when the police closed Emancipation Park and things got chaotic. My fellow care-bears and I would follow the sounds of shouting or the thump of a police helicopter, or get information from Twitter and texts from friends around the city, to locate counterprotesters and provide them with water.
At one point, we came across a large group, containing many of my friends involved with more radical anti-fascist organizations, marching down toward the downtown mall, and we handed out all our supplies to them as they stormed past. We headed back to the church to restock, and had no sooner filled our bags than we heard about the car that had rammed into a crowd of anti-racist activists gathered at the mall. By the time we got there, the ambulances had already arrived.
We handed out more water and snacks to the traumatized folks who had witnessed the terror attack, and when we were out, again returned to the church, only to learn that the church had just been put on lock down. A white nationalist with a gun tried to harass and intimidate the sanctuary workers, and were scared off by antifa — anti-fascist activists — who had ringed the parking lot of the church and were regularly running off would-be aggressors. Again, we had narrowly missed a terrifying moment. It seems that happens to me often, and I am so, so grateful for those near-misses.
I felt a similar providence at the Disrupt J20 protests, where I joined others in protesting the inauguration of President Trump and found myself to be in the right places at the right times and narrowly avoided violence multiple times throughout the day. It could be coincidence but being a spiritual person, I choose to believe it was by the grace of God.
And I thank my God, the bountiful spirit of the universe, who in inscrutable ways has watched over me and granted me abundant kindness by shielding me from great harm.
I can’t speak to why this same gracious God did not protect Heather Heyer, who was killed when the car, driven by a 20-year-old white supremacist, mowed through the crowd of demonstrators. She, like so many before her, died standing up against hatred and bigotry. All I can do is repeat the words uttered in the book of Job in the face of unfathomable loss: “God gives, and God takes, Blessed is God.” That does not mean her death is acceptable. Her life and her fight will not be in vain. Her memory will be for a blessing. We will not forget her and we will keep fighting back against white supremacy.
The Torah portion that Jewish communities around the world will read this week includes the commandment to rejoice at appropriate times. I say that because although now is not that time, that time will come. Now we mourn the loss of life white supremacy has wrought and we pray for the healing of mind, body and spirit of all those harmed by this weekend’s events and others like them.
But next week we go back to work, and some day, we will win this fight, and we will have reason to rejoice, to celebrate, to feast — and we will do it together.
Rabbi Lizz Goldstein is a rabbi in Northern Virginia and a proud member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.