A Charlottesville synagogue hired security guards after local police refused to post a detail at their building during a far-right rally last weekend, a communal leader said.
“The police department refused to provide us with an officer during morning services,” Alan Zimmerman, president of Congregation Beth Israel in the Virginia town, wrote in a blog post earlier this week.
Far-right activists gathered in a park one block from the synagoue that Saturday morning, chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans and intimidating counterprotesters and passersby. After the rally was dispersed by police, a 32-year-old counterprotester was killed when a car driven by a suspected white supremacist plowed into a crowd of pedestrians.
“On Saturday morning, I stood outside our synagogue with the armed security guard we hired after the police department refused to provide us with an officer during morning services. (Even the police department’s limited promise of an observer near our building was not kept — and note, we did not ask for protection of our property, only our people as they worshiped),” he wrote in the post on ReformJudaism.org, which was titled “In Charlottesville, the Local Jewish Community Presses On.”
Zimmerman, like other eyewitnesses, described intimidation by participants or supporters of the far-right rally.
“Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, ‘There’s the synagogue!’ followed by chants of ‘Sieg Heil’ and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols,” Zimmerman wrote.
For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the synagogue, he added.
“Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them, either. Perhaps the presence of our armed guard deterred them. Perhaps their presence was just a coincidence, and I’m paranoid. I don’t know,” Zimmerman wrote.
Zimmerman also wrote that John Aguilar, a 30-year Navy veteran, volunteered to stand watch through services Friday evening and Saturday morning, along with the armed guard.
A man in a white polo shirt, a uniform of some of the marchers, walked by the synagogue a few times, arousing suspicion. Zimmerman later noticed the man wore the same shirt as James Fields, the alleged killer of Heyer.
“Apparently it’s the uniform of a white supremacist group. Even now, that gives me a chill,” Zimmerman wrote.
When services ended, “my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups,” Zimmerman also wrote. “This is 2017 in the United States of America.”
Charlottesville police did not respond to a request for comment.
In a separate interview, Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin, rabbi educator at the synagogue, noted that members of “Antifa,” the anti-fascist street movement, also defended clergy and houses of worship during the rally.
“There was a group of Antifa defending First United Methodist Church right outside in their parking lot, and at one point the white supremacists came by and Antifa chased them off with sticks,” she told Slate.
Other members of the clergy gave similar accounts to Slate, praising left-wing counterprotesters for protecting them from far-right protesters.
“Based on what was happening all around, the looks on [the faces of the far-right marchers], the sheer number of them, and the weapons they were wielding, my hypothesis or theory is that had the Antifa not stepped in, those of us standing on the steps [of Emancipation Park] would definitely have been injured, very likely gravely so,” Brandy Daniels, a postdoctoral fellow in religion and public policy at the University of Virginia, told Slate.
President Trump blamed the violence at the rally on “many sides.”