DC-Area Jewish Community Reacts to Capitol Violence

Photo of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, by Tyler Merbler licensed under CC BY 2.0

By Eric Schucht and David Holzel

Rachel Faulkner had just come home from picking her daughter up from daycare. With a pro-Trump demonstration planned that day at the Capitol, a half-mile away, Faulkner was eager to hunker down with her wife and child.

“Protestors were gathered in our parking lot,” said Faulkner, a staff member of the Washington, D.C., Jewish nonprofit Safety Respect Equity Network. “Some were wearing ‘Camp Auschwitz’ sweatshirts.”

She looked over at the Chanukah window decorations that they hadn’t gotten around to putting away.

“It was the first time I had thought to take down our personal Jewish signifiers.”

Faulkner and her family remained safe as she and the world looked on in horror and disbelief as pro-Trump white supremacist demonstrators stormed the U.S. Capitol. For many Jews, the mob violence stirred up old fears.

“I was horrified,” said Rabbi Adam Raskin of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland, who followed the events on TV. “And frankly, I had images in my mind of fascist takeovers and coups. Certainly, the whole Reichstag overrun by the Nazis and just all kinds of historical flashbacks of dangerous and anarchist mobs overrunning duly elected governments. So it was a very, very frightening, very sad episode that I never thought that I would see in this country.”

In the wake of the coup attempt, D.C.-area rabbis tried to bring comfort to their shocked congregations. On the night of Jan. 6, Temple Micah in the District held a virtual “Prayer for America.” Rabbi Daniel Zemel spoke about the book of Lamentations and quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, an early Jewish proponent of civil rights: “Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.”

“How many times these last four years have we had to gasp our breath, rub our eyes in disbelief, shake our heads and try not to cry or scream or simply decide to both cry and scream?” Zemel said. “Where do we live? How many texts can we summon to try to summon to understand where we are?”

At Temple Rodef Shalom’s “A Gathering for Our Democracy” online vigil, Rabbi Amy Schwartzman called the coup attempt “a dark day.”

“Tears filled my eyes as I watched rioters smash the windows of the Senate, scale the walls of the House, rage against our lawmakers as they huddled, trapped in fear in one of our most sacred places. I am devastated, but sadly not surprised to see my fellow citizens desecrate the symbol of our republic.”

On Monday, Adas Israel Congregation held a noontime gathering on Facebook Live. Rabbi Aaron Alexander said that “healing cannot take place without the recognition of how we got to this moment.”

He said that public officials need to admit that they had “carried out a lie” and needed to regret sincerely “all that has transpired.” That lie, Alexander said, “led to the insurrection at the Capitol.”

On the morning after the attack on the Capitol, students and faculty of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, gathered virtually to pray and reflect.

“Whenever there is something that is viewed as a historical moment in the world or nation or our city, whether it’s momentous as in good or momentous as in tragic, we always try to address it as a community,” said middle school principal Eliana Lipsky. “And for moments that are really confusing, and potentially anxiety or fear producing for students, we try to provide space for students to process what they’ve been hearing through the news.”

Lipsky said students asked, why do people continue to question the election results? Would Capitol Police would have responded in the same way if protestors had been predominantly Black instead of white? Was Trump culpable in the riot? And were the events of Jan. 6 were acceptable, according to Jewish tradition?
Raskin last week tried to comfort and reassure congregants. He emailed guidance to members on how to not frighten children and how to keep up with the events without exposing children to unnecessary fear.

One thing he didn’t want to do was discuss the chaos in his sermon last Shabbat.

“My job is not to repackage the news for people. My job is to teach Torah,” he said last week. “So I think there is a relevant message in the Torah portion that will speak to this issue. But I’m not going to regurgitate things that people already know.”
Rabbi Charles Arian of Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg, Maryland, agreed. He keeps a steady stream of commentary on Facebook and in synagogue emails to members.

“A sermon should be timeless,” he said.

Even those who willingly reach across the aisle recoil from the wanton violence and death that accompanied the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“I was horrified when I saw it,” said Tevi Troy, a former White House aide and the author of “Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump.” “Violent protest is out of bounds. We’ve got to find a way for people to make their disagreements without violence.”

A Republican “from a very young age,” Troy said he believes in the “iron rule” of politics: “When you lose, you dust yourself off and go back to work. You’re still part of the system and you move on.”

With such a schism between Trump supporters and other Republicans, Troy said it is “possible that people who support Trump won’t be in the party. Or it’s possible that it will go the other way.”

Arian, who stayed up into the wee hours of Jan. 7 to watch coverage of Congress certifying the presidential election results, said small-d democrats have some hard work ahead of them.

“Look, I’ve spent a lot of time in Israel, and in Israel, if a restaurant is bombed, you clean it up, and you reopen the restaurant as soon as possible. You do not give the terrorists even a symbolic victory.

“We have to be vigilant,” he added, “that for this country to remain a democracy, it is not self-reinforcing. We, as citizens, have to make sure that this country remains free and remains a democracy.”

Eric Schucht is staff writer and David Holzel is editor of Washington Jewish Week, where this article first appeared.


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