Message from Rabbi Penzner

It is with great humility that I have sought to find words for this weekend’s tragic events.
I must begin with a voice from our sacred texts:

Listen to me, you who pursue justice,
You who seek the LORD
Look to the rock you were hewn from,
To the quarry you were dug from.
Look back to Abraham your father
And to Sarah who brought you forth.
For he was only one when I called him,
But I blessed him and made him many.

The Prophet Isaiah (51:1 from the haftarah last Shabbat) spoke to people 2700 years ago who had suffered insult and abuse, who knew violent opponents, destruction and exile. Yet Isaiah comforts them by reminding them of their past, and of the unshakable foundations of their faith. These prophetic words remind our community at HBT (whether you are Jewish by birth or by choice or in sympathy with us) that we are not alone. We may be few in number, but we our past experience reminds us that our people has steadfastly endured many ages of fear, anger and sorrow.

After Charlottesville, we know fear, anger and sorrow. We are quaking in shock at images and words we thought were no longer acceptable in America. The question is how do we respond?

As I’ve said before, first we mourn. We mourn Heather Heyer. We pray for all those survivors who are hospitalized, many of them crowdfunding on line to cover medical expenses.

We remain vigilant. The Boston interfaith community is currently in conversation with the Mayor’s office regarding the possible “Free Speech Rally” that is scheduled for Saturday. Whether the rally occurs as planned, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders will be announcing a unified response later today. The Jewish community is ready to stand up against the racism of white supremacy and the alt-right (see the CJP/JCRC statement from this morning). AND we need to stand as Jews, because we are targeted as Jews. That is, we come to the vigils and protests proudly as Jews, defending our right to be different, to observe Shabbat, and to name the anti-semitism that animates the white supremacists even as we decry their racism and xenophobia.

“Look to the rock you were hewn from, to the quarry you were dug from.”

We remain true to our better selves. When we are faced with opponents like the alt-right, white supremacists, the KKK and neo-Nazis, we must thwart their efforts. But in the process, we must not become like them. Remember the quarry we were dug from; as Jews, we hold to the values of justice, truth, compassion, and peace.

I have no more words. At this point, I want to share the prophetic perspective of two individuals I am close to who were present in Charlottesville on Saturday.

First is a long-time activist, Reconstructionist Rabbi Mordecai Liebling, who stood with a group of 50 interfaith clergy leaders in the street in Charlottesville. I recommend his op-ed, “Fighting What the Nazis Fear.

The second is my niece, Jennifer, who moved to Charlottesville to attend the University of Virginia in August 2007 from Montgomery County, MD where she grew up.  I hope you will take the time to read this abridged version of her personal and very moving FB post. (I have chosen not to censor her language and I’ve added emphasis in bold.) Be sure to read her insights at the end.

“Charlottesville vexed me from the beginning. I was baffled by how liberal and forward thinking the town was within a radius of a few miles, but if you went five miles away in any direction, you were met with some polar opposite, extreme right views that were predominant in those areas. Charlottesville is a little blue dot in a great big sea of red.”

At UVa Jennifer met Jason Kessler, a fellow student who was her age, who is now known as the organizer of Saturday’s “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville.

“I was impressed with how well read he was and his very liberal views. I was surprised to discover how liberal he was because he grew up in Fluvanna County, a rural county to the east of Charlottesville.

“After he graduated, he was having trouble finding and holding jobs. He told me it was because of his social anxiety and he had trouble getting along with certain people. This was 2009, and the economy was in an awful state so I definitely sympathized with not being able to find a job, but was confused as to way he couldn't hold one once he was lucky enough to find one. They weren't great jobs for someone with a Bachelors degree. He worked for a food delivery service for a while. Nothing stuck. He said he was trying to get disability benefits from the government because his social anxiety was preventing him from working. But he was never under any consistent mental health care, despite having access to low cost health care through the UVa Health System. Still, he continued to champion his liberal causes, and I respected him for that.

Jennifer describes how she distanced herself as she watched Jason become more unstable. Meeting rejection in relationships in addition to failure at work, he left Charlottesville but eventually returned with a lot of anger.

Last year, he deleted his facebook again and rejoined as an entirely different person than the kid I met in 2007. Last summer, when a UVa professor was shamed for a tweet equating BLM to the KKK, Jason went to the restaurant that the professor owned, a restaurant that people were boycotting, and proceeded to eat their food in front of news cameras, saying ‘What? It's good food and it's free speech.’ He then attacked Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy, a POC, by claiming he started the boycott and needed to be ousted from office because he did not support free speech. I knew then that Jason was going to troll and go after Bellamy, and that is exactly what he did and continues to do. He tried to file a petition to get Mr. Bellamy fired from his office, after he had already been forced to resign from the Virginia Board of Education and his full time job as a high school teacher, because Jason has a personal vendetta against him.

“My theory is that Jason has shed his ties to the left and jumped onto the Alt-Right train because he has an audience with them. They allow him to write for their publications. He has a platform. At the end of the day, this kid was always looking for a platform that would boost his own voice and ego. And he has found that.

This is a roundabout, long way of trying to describe how insidious and dangerous this Alt-Right movement is. It takes the weak minded and makes them feel strong. I am not trying to defend Jason in any way, shape or form. He is an asshole and I hate the trash he has brought to my town from the outskirts and beyond. I wish I had recognized his weaknesses earlier on and intervened more, but I fear he was a lost cause. The amount of hate, ignorance, and violence he has brought to my home makes me physically sick. He is mentally ill and unmedicated, but is of sound enough mind to take responsibility for the shit he's caused.

“It just makes me sad that he was once a social justice warrior and now he's a monster. He and his ‘friends’ have turned my city into a war zone. I keep playing all of this over and over in my head and wonder how he got to this point. How does someone swing so far in the polar opposite direction so fast? How has society failed him to that degree?

“All of you who are watching the events that have unfolded today in Charlottesville, there is still hope. There are many of us who are not afraid to stand up to these racist assholes. Please consider joining and helping your local BLM or SURJ. I am extremely, extremely proud of all the work SURJ Charlottesville has done and continues to do on behalf of our residents and people of color. They have tried to thwart Jason and his cronies at every turn, mobilizing groups together when Jason and his people were spotted on the downtown mall and telling the racists to go home, organizing peaceful counter protests at his events, legally defending their group members who were arrested after confrontations with Jason, and so much more. But these groups need much more support if we are going to stop these alt-white idiots. Please come help us fight the good fight. Because it's going to be a fight and we need good people at our side. We will bolster your confidence and make you strong and give you the support you need to stand up for justice.

“And if you happen to know any white, insecure, socially anxious, wannabe activists that seem to be falling apart, do not abandon them. We need to take them into the fold, empower them, educate them, and teach them how to influence change the right way for the right reasons.”

Today, Jennifer posted the following statement, expressing her appreciation for the goodness that has poured out in response to the tragedy and to her account.

“I did not expect anyone to read my long rant about Jason Kessler yesterday, but y'all were troopers and not only read it but shared it. Thank you so much. I want everyone to know who he really is and what he really stands for, which is nothing. As I grieve for my community and my home, I have been so, so happy to see such an outpouring of love and support on my newsfeed from around the world. I would never have thought Charlottesville would be trending because of such a horrific event. Charlottesville is a beautiful and special place and we will not sit idly by while these monster descend on us time and time again. We will continue to defend our home with our lives. Keep in mind, Charlottesville may be south of the Mason/Dixon, but what happened here yesterday could literally happen ANYWHERE in the country if it's not happening there already. People of color have already known that they are never safe, and their defenders are never safe. But it's not a time to hide until things blow over because they're just getting started. Take a stand with us. #NotOnMyLawn

From Isaiah to Jennifer, may we hear the voices of the prophets, and may we each contribute, in our own steadfast way, to a better vision of our communities and our country.

Posted on August 14, 2017 .