For some Philadelphians, tuning back into the real world as Shabbat ended on Aug. 12 proved to be a horrifying scene.
Social media was flooded over the weekend with images and videos of hordes of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members carrying tiki torches, holding flags emblazoned with swastikas and waving Confederate flags as they marched in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 11 ahead of the “Unite the Right” rally the next day. It began as a protest of the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Counter-protesters came out carrying messages of tolerance and love. It took a deadly turn as demonstrator Heather Heyer, a Charlottesville resident, was fatally struck as a car plowed into the crowd, injuring 19 others. Two police officers were also killed in a helicopter crash.
Political leaders on both sides of the aisle posted statements condemning the night’s message — specifically calling out the outright display of white supremacy.
Even as we protect free speech and assembly, we must condemn hatred, violence and white supremacy. #Charlottesville
— Bill Clinton (@BillClinton) August 12, 2017
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) August 12, 2017
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) August 12, 2017
Trump sort of heeded Rubio’s urge on Monday afternoon.
Before issuing a more severe statement on Aug. 14, in which he declared that ‘‘racism is evil,” Trump had posted a tweet Saturday simply saying: “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!”
He had blamed the violence in another statement on Saturday that he read before a scheduled bill signing for the Department of Veterans Affairs on “many sides” before pivoting to talk about jobs and employment.
There is only one side. #charlottesville
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) August 12, 2017
In Philadelphia and beyond — the community gathered at the Historic Chester County Courthouse in West Chester — the Virginia events led to some forming community vigils and standing in solidarity with the Charlottesville community.
More than 100 people gathered at Julian Abele Park in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood as the sun set Sunday evening.
Some wore shirts that said “Black Lives Matter” as speakers like Nyasha Junior, assistant professor in the department of religion at Temple University, and Maria Pulzetti, who had been in Charlottesville just a day before talking to students about mass incarceration, read short but powerful statements.
Children drew on the sidewalk with chalk — a scribbled “IMPEACH” appeared above yellow and pink peace signs — while the community sang along with Rabbi Yosef Goldman from Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel and musician Ami Yares.
Solidarity vigil at Julian Abele Park in Graduate Hospital, included speakers and songs pic.twitter.com/WB56s4r4Um
— Marissa Stern (@marissastern) August 13, 2017
The vigil came together in under 12 hours, as Miriam Steinberg-Egeth, director of the Center City Kehillah, noted she put this together while at the zoo with her kids that morning.
When she didn’t find any scheduled rallies or vigils in Philly by Sunday morning, she contacted friends and activists she works with to organize one. They learned there would be a larger gathering at Thomas Paine Plaza at City Hall that night, too.
They kept the vigil “community-based” and short so that families with younger children could attend and those who wanted to go to City Hall, too, would have time get there before its 8 p.m. start.
“We just want people to know that they’re safe in their community and that there are other like-minded people who are also outraged and want to not be silent,” she said, “and even if a vigil is sort of the lowest level in some sense of speaking out, it’s a chance for people to gather and feel connected and not feel alone and scared, which I think a lot of people are feeling right now.”
Seeing flags with swastikas and images of people holding their hands in a Nazi salute was jarring for some. Marchers also employed Nazi slogans like “blood and soil” and “Jew will not replace us.”
“I was sickened,” said Abbey Frank, assistant director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. “As a mother of three children who are 17, 14 and 10, and my 20-year-old niece was with me — this is stuff I’d never thought they’d see and don’t want them to see.”
She spoke about the Jewish value of “love your neighbor as yourself” at the Graduate Hospital vigil and again at City Hall, where hundreds of people gathered holding signs repeating the last Facebook post on Heather Heyer’s page, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
“I hope it shows this community that we can work together both as Jews and non-Jews,” Frank added, and hopes the vigil demonstrates that people can come together to show that “love is stronger than hate and that most people are good, and that’s what we need to strive for.”
The notion of community was key for Rabbi Annie Lewis.
“It’s a way for community to gather, to hold one another, strengthen one another for all of the work that lies ahead,” she said.
Lewis pointed to the significance of Tisha B’Av, which the Jewish community recently observed, and she spoke about comfort at City Hall.
“We mourn the destruction of the temple and all of the traumas that have been fueled by causeless hatred, and we’re now in a period where we’re supposed to be finding comfort,” she explained, and planned to point out in her speech that “we cannot be comforted while all of this hatred is going on and we won’t be comforted until we’re able to act together for justice and for love.”
Nearby Fitler Square residents Meghan McNally and Ben Keys brought their 3-year-old daughter to the vigil.
They wanted to show her that “you can actually do something,” said McNally, “and be a part of something [other] than just what’s happening day-to-day in our lives.”
“We’re disgusted by what’s happened in Charlottesville and we wanted to show solidarity with those who are suffering today and those who are mourning the loss of one of their own,” added Keys. “We’re frustrated with this culture of hate that’s really been on the rise and that’s been fermented by the bigot in the White House, so that’s why we’re here tonight.”
For McNally, the incident in Charlottesville should serve as a wakeup call.
“Aside from just being horrified by the fact that that was even allowed to happen in the way that it did yesterday, it’s depressing,” she said. “It’s 2017. It’s not supposed to happen anymore, but it does and we need to do something about it. We can’t pretend that that hatred isn’t there anymore.”
Graduate Hospital residents Alanna Raffel and Hope Wolfe have tried to be more involved in local activism in the last eight months, since Trump was elected.
Being a part of a neighborhood vigil was a more intimate way to feel connected.
“It was important to get out and connect to other people after what happened,” Wolfe said. “It’s always good to have community and I’m really appreciative that our neighborhood did something because it feels more like a community than going to a huge rally at City Hall.”
“I feel like it’s as much to support our community as it is to show the rest of the world what we care about,” added Raffel, who went to City Hall after the vigil ended.
More than 200 people filled Gorgas Park in Roxborough on Sunday evening as well, holding candles around a gazebo while people of all backgrounds made speeches and sang.
Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein opened the proceedings by leading a Holly Near song. She had just come back from Charlottesville, where she went after the national organization T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights called for rabbis to come down and offer support.
“The rabbis and the many other spiritual leaders who went to Charlottesville had many roles to fulfill,” she said. “Some on the frontlines and the protest. Some as witnesses. And some as protectors and nurturers.”
She recalled finishing Shabbat morning services at a congregation when groups of neo-Nazis passed by, seemingly not realizing they were passing a synagogue.
When she tried to go to a cafe where many of the clergy were gathered, her path was blocked and she instead witnessed “various groups of white supremacists, primarily young men, marching down the street after their rally had been declared unlawful.”
She saw journalists be pepper sprayed and taken to medical tents. She saw an older white woman wearing a tie dye shirt that said “LOVE” standing right in the midst of the street “where the white supremacists were marching through.”
“The torchlit march Friday night that got so much press was not the real news,” she said. “It was the violence that was perpetrated by these young men in the name of hate. The real news was the many inspiring leaders, young and old, who gathered to stand up to this hate.”
Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and founding member of T’ruah, was in Charlottesville on Friday with Rabbi Klein.
As an avid protester since the Vietnam War, he is no stranger to scenes of potential violence. But the level of hatred in Charlottesville was unprecedented.
“The hatred was spewing with a viciousness I’ve never seen,” he said. “I think the Jewish community needs to understand it’s all part of a package for these folks. My parents were Holocaust survivors. My grandparents were killed by the Nazis. I didn’t feel I had a choice but to be here.”
He noted that this should serve as more than a time to just sit and observe.
“It’s very important that everyday people realize this is moment to stand up for love, decency and the rights of all people to be safe,” he said. “It’s not a moment to sit and watch the news. We know historically unless people stand up in a moment like this, democracy is in danger.”
Jon Marks and Liz Spikol contributed reporting to this story.
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0740