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Confronting Hate: How the Jewish Community of Charlottesville Finds a Path Forward at Moments of Crisis

Curator Phyllis Leffler
Curator Phyllis Leffler stands in front of the image of a swastika which was painted on the wall of Congregation Beth Israel in January, 1960. Leffler says the violence and white supremacy that erupted in Charlottesville in 2017 had historical precedents and lays out some of that history in the exhibit at the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society. (Photo: Peter Solomon/VPM News)

For members of Charlotteville’s Jewish community, the 2017 white supremacist rally was larger and more violent than anything they had previously witnessed in their city, but there is a long history of anti-Semitism in the community. Phyllis Leffler examines that history in “From Civil War to Civil Rights: The Jewish Experience in Charlottesville,” an exhibit at the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society on display until March 2020.

One of the most dramatic images in the exhibit comes from an article in the Charlottesville Daily Progress in January, 1960. It shows a police officer pointing to a swastika painted on the brick wall of the city’s only synagogue - Congregation Beth Israel. The Nazi symbol is actually drawn backwards, says Leffler, a retired history professor from UVA and President of the Southern Jewish Historical Society

“It's not the way the swastika should be drawn. So whoever did it didn't really know what they were doing,” she said.

Swastikas were also painted on local churches, the University Hillel and the private residence of a Charlottesville podiatrist. Leffler says it was part of a rash of activity by hate groups including the Klan and the Seaboard White Citizens Council to intimidate those who spoke out against massive resistance. 

“I mean, these were the groups of people who for decades had been lynching African Americans and had also targeted Jewish businesses if they were empathetic to African Americans,” said Leffler. “So when that symbol appears, it is a danger symbol. It's like, ‘watch out.” You know, if you step out of line, you'll be the next people to be targeted.”

According to Leffler, most of Charlottesville’s Jews weren’t active in the civil rights struggle at the time. The synagogue only had a few dozen families. They didn’t have a full-time rabbi to act as a spokesperson. (Congregation Beth Israel finally hired a full time rabbi in 1979). 

“Jewish families, like they did in many, many places in the south, feel like they need to keep a low profile, you know, regardless of how they might have felt about it,” Leffler said. 

Charlottesville’s Jews didn’t face the same degree of discrimination as African Americans, but some institutions did discriminate against them. UVA had a quota on Jewish students and generally avoided hiring Jewish faculty. Leffler argues that when this began to change it had a big impact on the Jewish population. 

“The only thing that saved this community and it's allowed it to become so robust was the changing attitudes and values of the University of Virginia because in 1960, as the university is going through a major growth phase, they are also changing their policies about restrictions on Jews,” said Leffler. 

The central role of Congregation Beth Israel is mentioned frequently in the exhibit as a kind of barometer for the state of the Jewish community in Charlottesville.  The synagogue’s membership now reaches 400 households and it became a focal point in August 2017 during the white supremacist and neo-Nazi rallies that terrorized many residents and left one woman killed and more than a dozen injured. 

Alan Zimmerman, the former president of the congregation, says that after the Unite the Right Rally, the synagogue’s numbers grew. 

“I think for some people in Charlottesville and in central Virginia - Jewish people - it made them take another look at their identity and who they are and made them want to feel pride and express themselves and express solidarity and to find their Jewish identity,” said Zimmerman

The exhibit is also complemented by a slide show that examines Charlottesville Jews who have worked to support marginalized communities like African Americans and immigrants. Zimmerman says this kind of reaching out is an expression of Jewish values. He sees it as the congregation’s most significant response to the events in 2017. 

“It's not about building higher walls, and it's not about locking doors and it's not about guns,” said Zimmerman “It's about values and reaching out to people and making connections with people. That is the way to respond.”

This is something that journalist Alexandra Horowitz also explored in a film called Reawakening, which is being shown in conjunction with the exhibit. Horowitz captured Beth Israel Senior Rabbi Tom Gutherz addressing an interfaith group called Charlottesville Clergy Collective formed after the Dylan Roof murders in Charleston. Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin who joined Standing Up for Racial Justice and Black Lives Matter is filmed leading songs at demonstrations. The filmmaker says the rabbis encourage the congregation to follow their lead and to think about issues of racial justice. 

“They've become more involved in the greater Charlottesville community because, at the end of the day, the hate isn't directed against the Jewish community alone. I mean, the hate that we saw in 2017 is directed against many groups,” said Horowitz. 

Jews have lived in Charlottesville since prior to the nineteenth century and their response to hate and antisemitism has evolved with the times. The exhibit captures some of this change: the unprecedented threats in 2017 generated the desire to be more engaged and outspoken on issues outside the walls of the synagogue and the boundaries of the Jewish community.