At around 5:00 AM on Friday, March 10, someone vandalized the façade of Temple De Hirsch Sinai’s old sanctuary, with anti-Semitic graffiti that denied the Holocaust. Founded in 1899, Temple De Hirsch Sinai is the oldest and largest Jewish Reform sanctuary in the Pacific Northwest. Less than a month earlier, on February 27 the Stroum Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island received a bomb threat. With a view to the nation, CNN reported in March that in the winter of 2017 over 100 threats were made to centers of Jewish life, including schools for children, in the United States.
At 5:00 PM on Friday, August 11, members from Temple De Hirsch Sinai and the surrounding community, including Father Mike Ryan from St. James Catholic Cathedral, and leadership from Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry, met together at the old sanctuary in order to rededicate the space. Students from the local Northwest School of the Arts unveiled a mural, which showed fingers of light from an unseen sun, protruding through dark trees. The mural was painted over the spot of the incendiary comments. At the rededication, public statements were made to the effect that every person present – young and old alike – were as sinews in the body, as constitutive members of community life, and that this is how community is enfleshed each day. Whether one lives in Seattle, Washington or Charlottesville, Virginia, when pain hits the body, communities must choose resistance and a clear present and future alongside one another.
There are plenty of reasons why people gather at places of defilement. Last April, community members from throughout the area listened to courageous leaders in their sanctuary at Curry Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; a day prior, on a Sunday, the Church had unlocked its doors before worship, and entered the sanctuary to the smell and sights of spray painted swastikas and racist graffiti on the back wall of the sanctuary. “This is our home and we’re not going anywhere,” one of those leaders told me, in response to the graffiti: “Our response is to go forward, not back.” People gather. As an expression of resistance, to do so is to put a chink in the armor of ideologies, so ravenous today, that aim to create dread, and to untangle the web of trusted relationships in local contexts by fabricating reasons for mutual suspicion.
The First Amendment Right of Freedom of Assembly and of Speech, assume a citizenry that aims to live amid recognizable and agreed-upon values, and assumes that the good and the decent in human character are forces for constructing a commons of citizens of goodwill. Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly are not meant in the long term to be shields that protect hate speech. Following events in Charlottesville and Seattle this past weekend, do we intend for the First Amendment to protect the aims of private citizens dressed in riot gear, lifted from the dystopian script of Game of Thrones or with the perpetual warring moral barometer of Clash of Clans?
Our Republic requires responsible public discourse. It must. And people must gather in dedication of their values or in a rededication of their sacred sites wherever those values are defiled. It is a horrible thing, that this past weekend, Heather Heyer was peaceably assembled and exercising her First Amendment right to Free Speech, in the streets of Charlottesville, when she was killed by an American white supremacist affiliated with ‘Unite the Right’, who used his car as a battering ram. This weekend in Charlottesville is now part of our national moment, and how and why we assemble.
This past Friday, when Heather was still alive, the community surrounding Temple De Hirsch Sinai assembled in order to rededicate space, and to express, above all, the value of gratitude. Rabbi Daniel Weiner noted in the spring of this year that the community was “grateful,” for each other, for the support of law enforcement, for not shirking in the face of a shared grievance. Gratitude is also a public virtue. It too will not be shouted down by hate.
Photo from the Temple De Hirsch Sinai rededication