Charleston shooting sets off chain reaction in faith communities

With vigils, prayer services and visits to each others’ congregations, America’s believers are spreading solidarity in the face of hate

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

People raise their hands as a show of unity as thousands of marchers meet in the middle of Charleston's main bridge after nine black church parishioners were gunned down during a Bible study, Sunday, June 21, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
People raise their hands as a show of unity as thousands of marchers meet in the middle of Charleston's main bridge after nine black church parishioners were gunned down during a Bible study, Sunday, June 21, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Jews around the United States joined in solidarity events to comfort survivors and protest the brutal attack that claimed nine in the Holy City last week.

However this time the Jewish communities were not mourning their own. The slaughtered in this holy city — a nickname given to Charleston, South Carolina, due to its proliferation of churches — were African-American Christians, members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

During Bible study at Charleston’s iconic “Mother Emanuel” church Wednesday, nine African American congregants were shot at point blank by Caucasian 21-year-old Dylann Roof from Columbia, South Carolina, a town two hours away.

Ahead of his attack on Mother Emanuel, it is thought that Roof loaded up a 2,500-word manifesto of hate on a website that emerged Saturday. In its error-riddled text, he repeatedly singled out the Jewish community and its “agitation of the black race.”

In a paragraph headed “Jews,” Roof played into a Elders of Zion-esque conspiracy theory in writing: “The problem is that Jews look White, and in many cases are White, yet they see themselves as minorities. Just like n******, most jews [sic] are always thinking about the fact that they are jewish [sic]. The other issue is that they network.”

‘We Jews know persecution first hand. We can identify with what’s going on’

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Charleston’s rabbis were on the forefront of showing interfaith solidarity.

“We Jews know persecution firsthand. We can identify with what’s going on,” said Rabbi Yossi Refson, who heads the Orthodox Judaism’s Chabad of Charleston & The Low Country. According to Refson, originally from England, the city’s clergy already have many longstanding interfaith friendships, and they were in close contact following the murders.

“We want to show our congregations that there is one unified voice and that we reject this type of violence,” said Refson in a Sunday phone conversation with The Times of Israel. “Our message to our congregations and the community has been now more than ever that we’re not to let this incident define who we are, rather the response. And the response is so overwhelming,” he said.

People join hands in a moment of silence as thousands of marchers meet on Charleston's main bridge in a show of unity after nine black church parishioners were gunned down during a Bible study, Sunday, June 21, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
People join hands in a moment of silence as thousands of marchers meet on Charleston’s main bridge in a show of unity after nine black church parishioners were gunned down during a Bible study, Sunday, June 21, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

As an Orthodox Jew, Refson cannot participate in interfaith prayer, which, he said, has “some halachic prohibitions.”

But he did stand outside the church for Thursday’s vigil, and was invited to and participated in a solidarity march Sunday night on Charleston’s Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.

“There are other ways to show solidarity versus prayer services,” said Refson.
“The Jewish and African-American communities have a warm and long heritage together. Unfortunately, the anti-Semitism of the shooter also creates a bond.”

Some 3,000 people were needed to create a human chain on the Ravenel bridge Sunday night, and the organizers easily met that goal. While individuals linked arms on the two-mile bridge, dozens of boats in the river below sounded air horns while passing cars honked in support.

‘The Jewish and African-American communities have a warm and long heritage together. Unfortunately, the anti-Semitism of the shooter also creates a bond’

(Interestingly, the Ravenel bridge was named after a former state lawmaker who was a vocal Confederate flag supporter. Since photographs of Roof holding the flag were found on his website, there have been renewed calls for the Confederate flag to be removed from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds.)

And while there are seeds of discontent throughout the city, the clergy has to date succeeded in actively quelling any sparks of violence. Earlier, on Sunday morning at Mother Emanuel’s first church service since the shooting, the interim pastor, Rev. Norvel Goff said, “We are serving notice on every evildoer.”

“Some wanted to divide the races: black, white and brown,” said Goff, but it is time to work together. He said his community “will join hands and begin to work together to forge a new partnership — not them against us — but we are the children of God who will be marching on to victory.”

Those who pray together, stay together

Elsewhere in America, Jewish and Christian communities have sought solace together in prayer.

“This last week was a difficult one. Even though we’re in Detroit, not South Carolina, it’s the sort of news that shakes people across the country,” said Rabbi Mark Miller from Michigan’s oldest Jewish congregation, the Reform Temple Beth El.

Pastor Kenneth Flowers and Rabbi Mark Miller offering prayer for the children at an interfaith prayer service on Sunday June 21, 2015 at the Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit. (courtesy)
Pastor Kenneth Flowers and Rabbi Mark Miller offering prayer for the children at an interfaith prayer service on Sunday June 21, 2015 at the Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit. (courtesy)

In the immediate aftermath of the lethal hate crime, Miller reached out to Rev. Kenneth Flowers of the Greater New Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit and invited his community for Friday night dinner and services in the Detroit suburb Bloomfield Hills’ synagogue. Within 24 hours everything was arranged.

As with many African-American-Jewish endeavors, the relationship between Flowers’s church and Miller’s synagogue is built on mutual values — and shared experiences.

“Racism and anti-Semitism still dwell in America,” said Flowers in a Detroit Free Press article this weekend.

It is the duty of the clergy, said Miller, to change this reality.

“As religious people in particular, we have to stand up and say we have a different vision of the world… We’re not going to fix this problem and make it go away, at least not tomorrow,” said Miller in a conversation with The Times of Israel Sunday. “We believe that when we stand together we create a world that is better.”

‘We believe that when we stand together we create a world that is better’

The rabbi said some 250 attended the Friday night event, about 100 of whom were not from the congregation, and called it a “wonderful experience.” Miller’s synagogue and the church have already participated in numerous interfaith initiatives; inviting the parishioners to the temple was just another step in an ongoing relationship.

Miller said there are “as significant issues of racial divide in the Detroit area as anywhere in the country; there are people working very hard to bridge that,” including his congregation and Flowers’.

“Pastor Flowers gave a rousing sermon indicting a lot of what’s going on in our society, and also a message of hope that we can, together, get through this,” said Miller. On Sunday, Miller and some 25 congregants attended Flowers’s church, where Miller spoke.

At a Sunday June 21, 2015 prayer service at the Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church. From left: David Handleman (past president of Temple Beth El), Heidi Budaj (ADL Regional Director), Pastor Kenneth J. Flowers, Rabbi Mark Miller, and three of the church's associate pastors. (courtesy)
At a Sunday June 21, 2015 prayer service at the Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church. From left: David Handleman (past president of Temple Beth El), Heidi Budaj (ADL Regional Director), Pastor Kenneth J. Flowers, Rabbi Mark Miller, and three of the church’s associate pastors. (courtesy)

Across the country, in the city of brotherly love, Reconstructionist Rabbi Julie Greenberg, a well-known activist and part of a multi-faith social justice movement, sat on the altar at a Thursday night vigil at an American Methodist Episcopal Church, Mother BethEl.

The rabbi of Philadelphia’s Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir — Heart of the City delivered remarks alongside other members of the clergy to an overflowing congregation. “The room was packed — even the balcony was overfull. There was lots of media, and lots of police,” Greenberg told The Times of Israel.

Leaders in a Vietnam war protest stand in silent prayer in Arlington National Cemetery, Feb. 6, 1968. Front row, from left: Rev. Andrew Young, executive vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Bishop James P. Shannon, Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Minneapolis and St. Paul; Rabbi Abraham Heschel, professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York; the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Arlington Amphitheater are in background. (AP Photo/Harvey Georges)
Leaders in a Vietnam war protest stand in silent prayer in Arlington National Cemetery, Feb. 6, 1968. Front row, from left: Rev. Andrew Young, executive vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Bishop James P. Shannon, Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Minneapolis and St. Paul; Rabbi Abraham Heschel, professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York; the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Arlington Amphitheater are in background. (AP Photo/Harvey Georges)

Greenberg based her remarks on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote, “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

“We know we cannot drive out darkness with dark,” she told the assembled, “But we commit tonight to stand together with love.”

‘We’ve prayed together, we’ve marched together, we’ve mourned together and now we’re organizing together’

She said the vigil is not a one-time thing for her and her multi-faith partners. “It’s not like we just showed up because this tragedy happened,” Greenberg said. The real response, she said is a protest for a fully funded education system that took place in Harrisburg the following day.

“We’ve prayed together, we’ve marched together, we’ve mourned together and now we’re organizing together,” said Greenberg. “There isn’t a one-day response; this is about building relationships,” said Greenberg.

Roof’s alleged goal in his massacre was to spark a race war. But for Miller and other clergymen, the racially driven murder has so far mostly presented an unfortunate opportunity to create and solidify interfaith bridges.

“When something like this happens, it reinforces the idea that people are different… In a religious sense, at the core, we are all the same and come from the same spark of God,” said Miller. “We have more in common than what divides us,” he said.

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