As a Jewish musician sang a prayer for healing, Beth Epstein started to cry.
She didn’t realize how broken she felt until now.
Two weeks ago, neo-Nazis marched past her synagogue on Shabbat chanting “Sieg Heil” while on their way to a white supremacist rally at Emancipation Park, one block away.
Epstein, 51, remembers looking out the window from the room she was now sitting in at Congregation Beth Israel and glimpsing a swastika. Later that day, 32-year-old Heather Heyer would be killed when a man with ties to the neo-Nazi movement allegedly plowed his car into a crowd. Two state troopers who had been monitoring the demonstrations via helicopter would also die that day.
Congregation Beth Israel is the sole synagogue in Charlottesville, and although the sounds and sights of bigotry and hatred that stirred fear in worshipers as they prayed that day remain fresh, the community is now focused on moving forward.
More than 250 people — many more than the usual Shabbat congregation at the Reform synagogue — showed up Friday night to draw inspiration and comfort from prayer and from music performed by artists who journeyed there from around the country.
“My general feeling is that the Jewish community will come back stronger from this threat just like America will,” said Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer, a member of the synagogue who attended the service.
The white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched in the town Aug. 12 had chanted threats aimed directly at Jews: “Blood and Soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!” They held signs reading “the Goyim know,” a slur referring to non-Jewish people, and “the Jewish media is going down.”
The synagogue had felt that day that continuing to hold weekly services was important, but leaders took certain precautions, said synagogue President Alan Zimmerman. Services started an hour early, and leaders of the congregation moved Torahs, including a Holocaust scroll they knew was irreplaceable, to a congregant’s home for safekeeping.
As the ralliers raged, Zimmerman stood outside the synagogue with an armed security guard hired because Zimmerman was concerned for the safety of his congregants praying inside, he said. Men wearing fatigues and armed with semiautomatic rifles passed by, Zimmerman said, and he recalled hearing one shout: “There’s the synagogue.”
“I had no choice but to be out there,” Zimmerman said. “I’m not suggesting I could have done anything, affected anything, but there was no other place that I could be at that moment.”
Zimmerman felt close to crying, he said, as he later told the roughly 40 people gathered in the synagogue that it would be best for them to leave through the back door after services and to travel in groups.
Signer said he had requested a police car and an officer at the synagogue that day, but the department was unable to meet the request, the mayor said. There has been intense scrutiny over what many have criticized as an inadequate police response to the eruptions of violence throughout that day.
“I am very frustrated and have called for accountability for those failures here,” Signer said. City Manager Maurice Jones countered in an Aug. 17 statement that police were stationed within just a few blocks of the synagogue that day.
As worshipers attended services, Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin of Congregation Beth Israel stood on the steps of the First United Methodist Church gazing out at the chanting ralliers, as she sought to drown out the hate with music. Wearing her prayer shawl and carrying a guitar, she played more than 20 songs with themes of love and kindness. Despite the outward displays of hate, Schmelkin said she was reassured by the other clergy supporting her, including Rabbi Tom Gutherz, also of Congregation Beth Israel, who was attending services that day, and the broader Jewish community. “We aren’t alone,” she recalled thinking.
Two weeks on, she said, “I’m now thinking of ‘How do we heal? How do we start to heal as a Jewish community?’ ”
Schmelkin, Zimmerman and Signer were in the congregation Friday evening enjoying prayer, songs and poems of hope. The artists had traveled to the service in Charlottesville from Los Angeles, New York City, Cleveland and Chicago to help the community with a gift of music.
“Our reaction to violence and our reaction to hatred is that we sing louder and we make better music and we just, we throw more love at it, ” said Los Angeles musician Julie Silver, paraphrasing remarks from another Jewish musician, Leonard Bernstein.
“Good and evil exist in the world,” she said. “We just have to make sure that our good shines, and that’s the best we can do.”
Although Jews are always aware that anti-Semitism exists, the brazen chants from that weekend seemed to have brought that threat to the forefront of the their collective conscience across the country, said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
In the days after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, the anti-Defamation League tracked instances of anti-Semitism, including a man urinating at a Philadelphia synagogue, a swastika drawn on a California high school campus and a bomb threat written on dorm walls at Washington State University.
“What Charlottesville did was really shake our community to realize it’s not simply a historical memory or a small thing,” Jacobs said. “People woke up, as this is something we need to be paying attention to.”
Wendy Tanson traveled from Chapel Hill, N.C., with her husband, James Falek, on Friday to participate in the musical service and reflect on what happened. Recent threats to Jewish communities nationwide, such as vandalism at the Boston Holocaust memorial, have shown Tanson, 54, that what happened in Charlottesville can happen anywhere.
“This synagogue specifically was threatened in a profound way two weeks ago, in a way that shouldn’t happen in 2017,” Tanson said. “We felt it was important to be here and stand up and be counted.”
The events of Aug. 12 have reverberated for others who attended the healing service Friday.
Dana Mich, 30, said she has been thinking a lot about her grandfather, who survived the Holocaust. Jan Dorman, 60, said that during walks on the downtown mall, she pictures the violence she saw on the news vs. what she knows about the city she’s lived in for decades. Sara Rimm-Kaufman, 47, recalled waking up in the middle of the night before the Friday service, worrying that the synagogue would be a target for anti-Semitic acts this Shabbat.
After a formal prayer service, Silver led the congregation in songs of hope. People stood up, linked hands, smiled and danced around the room, and Silver thought: “We are a resilient people.”
“We have a strong, vibrant Jewish community here,” said longtime congregant Fred Epstein, 50.
His wife, Beth Epstein, agreed. Although she was brought to tears earlier in the service, she joined in the dancing by the end. “I hope it continues,” she said. “It’s really special.”