On August 11-12, 2017, neo-Nazis marched proudly past our synagogue and on the streets of our city, bringing their message of hate and showing the world that white supremacy is alive, proud, and unashamed.
Emboldened by the foul political climate that has encouraged division and the expression of bigotry, they came here with their insignias and their racist and anti-Semitic slogans. They came ostensibly to protest the removal of Confederate statues from our public squares, claiming that “we” are trying to erase “their” history.
In fact, the opposite is the case. It is the long history of their movement, and its legacy in all aspects of our life, that has been concealed and hidden. At first, many in our town wanted to dismiss these events as the work of outsiders, people who came from somewhere else to disturb the calm of our quiet university community.
But the ideology these people represent is not from somewhere else. It can be found, in more or less virulent form, in every town in America. The violence we experienced in Charlottesville in 2017 has moved our community to take a more critical look at our history as a nation and as a community.
We are starting to realize that there is almost no significant event in the American story that cannot be examined through the lens of white supremacy, an ideology that changes form in every generation and yet always yields the same fruit. We are gaining some clarity about how this history created and maintains the racial inequalities that are still a blemish on our country. We have only begun to start telling the truth to ourselves and to one another. We are working to build and strengthen alliances in our community to resist and dismantle the worst consequences of this national problem.
On July 8, 2018, I joined one hundred people from our town in our Community Civil Rights Pilgrimage from Charlottesville, Virginia to Montgomery, Alabama. The group was a cross section of our community—public officials, clergy, activists, university professors, high school students and teachers, white and African-American, young and old, low-income residents and others from our city.
We began by gathering some earth from the site of the lynching of John Henry James on the outskirts of our town in 1898, discovered only this year. James, on his way to court to face trial for a charge that was most likely untrue, was pulled from a train by a mob and lynched a few yards away at the side of the railroad tracks. Although the incident was reported in the local papers, and though the mob spent several hours at the site—unmasked—no one was ever charged for the crime. His gravesite is unknown. We do not know if he had any descendants.
We wanted to give John Henry James a place in the memory of our town.
We wanted to start telling the truth about the past of our city as a necessary step in mending its future.
Our pilgrimage lasted six days, stopping in Appomattox, Danville, Greensboro, Charlotte, Atlanta, Birmingham, and Montgomery. In each of these places, we stopped at museums and memorials that either told or concealed the story of the unfinished struggle for freedom and equality in our country. We met with activists from the past and the present, seeking to gain wisdom and insight from their courage.
One of the places we stopped was the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
On March 7, 1965, it was the site of a vicious attack on a march of peaceful protestors —later known as Bloody Sunday— who were planning to march to Montgomery, the state capital, to assert their right to vote. At the time in Dallas County, Alabama, where the bridge is located, only about one percent of African Americans were on the voting rolls, even though the Civil Rights Act had been signed nearly a year earlier.
Our group crossed the bridge together on foot. We experienced a strong sense of connection being in that place together. Our walking, hand-in-hand, felt like a commitment to one another and to carry on the struggle—to create a different future. It reminded me that our tradition has many stories of crossing over, that history itself is a movement from here to there, from the unredeemed world of hatred and violence towards a world of justice, bounty and compassion. And that each of us must find our place in that history.
On the other side of the bridge, there is a small monument made of 12 large stones.
On it is a quotation from the book of Joshua. It comes from the moment the people of Israel bring the Ark of the Covenant across the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land. The people are instructed to make a mound of twelve stones. The text (Joshua 4:21) reads:
When your children shall ask you in the time to come saying: ‘What mean these stones?’ Then you shall tell them [this story of] how you made it over.
The monument can imagine a time, which certainly seems far-off to us now when children will not know the reason bridges are crossed and marches are made. We will have arrived in our own promised land, a time when justice prevails in our country.
In the Biblical story of river-crossing, the language of the text is a little unusual. It tells us that at the end of this event, the ark was on one side and the people on the other and that as soon as all of the people had crossed, the Ark of the Lord and the priests came to the other side while the people watched.
The rabbis, trying to understand this text, make this remarkable claim (Sotah 35b):
The Ark does not need to be carried at all. The Ark can carry those who think they are carrying it. It is not the people who carry the Ark, but it is the Ark that carries the people.
Our six-day journey culminated in a moving ceremony during which we delivered the jar of soil we had carried all the way from Charlottesville to join over four thousand others held at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. Each jar is a reminder of how, in the words of the EJI, lynching reinforced a legacy of racial inequality that has never been adequately addressed in America. Each jar stands for many more lives affected by white supremacy and its program of dispossession and terror.
We gathered there, representatives of the Charlottesville community, conducted a brief service with song and prayer, and said aloud the name of the man whose death we were recognizing: John Henry James.
At that moment, I was thinking of the teaching about the ark. It is not the people who carry the Ark, it is the Ark that carries the people. It struck me that it was not we who were carrying the soil; the soil—which represented our desire to speak more truthfully about our history, to face the future with a commitment to make amends, and to move towards justice and healing—was carrying us.
I want to believe that this desire for righteousness can carry our Charlottesville community and our nation into a better land.
I want to believe that the end result of last year’s violence and hatred will be a powerful awakening in the Jewish community—that it will galvanize us to carry our share of the burden in dismantling the racial injustices we see in our education, police and criminal justice systems, culture, and neighborhoods.
Those of us in the Jewish community who are identified as white will need to wrestle with the privilege which we enjoy. We will need to take responsibility for the long history we have inherited in this country, even if some of our own direct ancestors arrived only recently. We will need to confront our own blindness and lack of understanding, including our insecurities about the place of our Jewish community in an America that is changing in ways we do not yet fully comprehend.
When we remove the Torah from the Ark this coming Shabbat, we will sing these words:Vayehi bin’soah ha-aron, vayomer Moshe:
When the Ark would move, Moses would say:
‘Rise up O Lord and scatter your enemies
Let your enemies flee before you’
The Torah we carry through our congregations represents the holiness that can always be in our midst. It represents our aspiration to let a spirit of righteousness be the center of our life. It represents our need to be courageous and vigilant in confronting the enemies of justice and right.
It represents our desire to understand, to uncover, and speak the truth about our present and our past—to discern what it is that is required of all of us.
Rabbi Tom Gutherz has served Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Virginia since 2005, first as rabbi educator and now as its senior rabbi. He is engaged in interfaith and social action work through IMPACT and the Charlottesville Clergy Collective.