“Why don’t we gather up closer?” Rabbi Elliot Skiddell told a crowd of about 200 people who surrounded the stairs outside Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth on Aug. 17. “We can love one another a little bit more.”
Scores of attendees from across the South Shore gathered in response to the violence that grew out of a “Unite the Right” protest in Charlottesville, Va., the previous weekend, and joined local officials and clergy in denouncing racism and hatred.
“We are here tonight to be heard, and to remind ourselves and each other of the power and the responsibility that each of us has every day,” said Emma Travers, co-founder of a Rockville Centre group called Raising Voices USA, who organized the vigil. “We have to use our voices and encourage others to use theirs for the common good.”
Rockville Centre Mayor Francis X. Murray; State Sen. Todd Kaminsky; Skiddell; the Rev. Scott Ressman, of the United Church of Rockville Centre; and the Rev. Robert Grimm, of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, were among the speakers.
“I think there are people looking around, wondering what country they’re living in right now, and they will hopefully see tonight and say, ‘That’s right, we do have values of inclusiveness…,’” Kaminsky told the Herald afterward. “We were Republican and Democrat. We were Christian and Jewish. We were black and white, and we came here together to talk about the country we want to live in. I think it’s very important to do that.”
Raising Voices USA formed in the days after last November’s presidential election to help guide residents with a newfound interest in civic engagement. As the protests and violence in Charlottesville unfolded, Travers said, she saw a need for people to come together and hear from one another and from local officials.
“Hate and violence do not represent American values, have no place in our nation and will not be tolerated in this village of Rockville Centre,” Murray told the crowd.
Ressman said that after watching the reports from Charlottesville the previous weekend, he had decided to divert from his prepared sermon that Sunday. He discussed his upbringing in “a 99.9 percent white” suburb of Buffalo and said he didn’t have his first African-American friend until college.
He added that a small group of people spewing racist epithets do not define the country, but nonetheless urged people to do more to show their opposition to such hatred.
“I want to challenge you,” Ressman said. “…Whether a friend of yours or an acquaintance of yours or a co-worker says something racist or does something that you don’t agree with, you may have to open your mouth and risk a friendship.”
East Rockaway resident Robin Wieder, whose mother-in-law is a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor, said she was disgusted by President Donald Trump’s failure to explicitly condemn the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville. “To see people marching through the streets, saying that ‘Jews will not replace us,’” Wieder said, “and to see a man in the White House who is legitimizing them and calling them fine people, makes me want to throw up.”
Wieder was just one of several in the crowd who told the Herald they were disappointed by Trump’s response to the violence. “The values that are being espoused by the White House and by the fringe elements are abhorrent, and they’re against what Americans believe in,” East Rockaway resident Barbara Sklar said. “People need to understand that we will not sit idly by while a couple of hate-mongers define who we are.”
The vigil was held in memory of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was killed when a car plowed into a group of demonstrators opposing the rally, and two Virginia State Police officers who died in a helicopter crash while on their way to the scene.
“I don’t know how history will remember Charlottesville, or the Muslim ban, or Ferguson or Flint …,” Rockville Centre resident Arielle Kane told the crowd, “but when my kids ask me, ‘Where were you when Charlottesville erupted?’ I’ll tell them this: I pulled out my placard and joined one of the over 700 protests that broke out across the country the next day. And the day after that, I banded together with these wonderful civically engaged people in my community and organized this vigil to show our support and solidarity for all victims of oppression and violence.”
Grimm offered a closing prayer before the crowd sang “This Land is Your Land,” clapping in unison during the song’s final verse.
“I wanted to be around people who are like-minded, to feel the support and to try to do something together as a group,” said Lynbrook resident Dinah Mark, adding that she had been angry and scared since the election, and describing the violence in Charlottesville as “mortifying.”
“I really feel that if all of us, on a daily basis, marched in the streets and demanded that this country gets back on the right path, it would have to happen,” she continued. “This country was created by a revolution. Unfortunately, I think it’s time for another one.”