It was after dark on Sunday night. Rabbi Julia Andelman looked out at the flickering candles and felt some small stirrings of hope.
Hope was hard-won and perhaps illusory just then. Rabbi Andelman was standing in front of a group of more than 200 people, brought together just late the evening before to respond to the situation in Charlottesville, Virginia — to the tiki-torchlit march by neo-Nazis, KKKers, and other white supremacists that ended in death — 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed and 19 other people were injured, some critically — by a terrorist-driven car.
The rally was organized by Teaneck Women Together, a group that began to form right after the presidential inauguration and coalesced a few weeks later, in late January, rallying crowds in response to the first presidential ban on immigration from seven majority Muslim countries.
Sunday’s rally, which attracted people from Teaneck and surrounding towns, chose not to concentrate on the hatred, racism, anti-Semitism, and violence to which they were responding, but instead to focus on the shared values that drew Jews, Muslims, and Christians, believers, and nonbelievers, to the same municipal square.
In what sounds like a walking-into-a-bar joke but wasn’t at all funny, Christian clergymen, an imam, and Rabbi Andelman all spoke — as did the mayor of Teaneck, Mohammed Hameeduddin — and each clergy member led the group in a song.
Participants were encouraged to hold candles; each light was small but there were very many of them.
Rabbi Andelman, who lives in Teaneck, is a member of Congregation Beth Sholom there and the director of community engagement at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Like all the other speakers, she had a very short time to pull her thoughts together.
“It was beautiful, standing outside, and when I was speaking it was very powerful, looking out at the sea of candles in the dark,” she said. “It was really symbolic of what we were trying to do. It is a dark time in the world, and we are trying to bring our lights together.”
Her talk was about Tisha B’Av, just a few weeks ago. “The abiding lesson of that day is sinat chinam” — baseless hatred, the hatred that pitted Jew against Jew and led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. “I talked about how, when my 5-year-old asks me why I am fasting, I don’t talk about praying for a third Temple. I talk about how we all need to get along, and to be good to each other.” That was the lesson at the rally too. No complicated theology, but the simple need for compassion and goodness.
Whenever there are Nazi flags and the Ku Klux Klan is rallying, especially when the rally becomes violent and results in the loss of human life, it is incumbent on us to stand up and say that it is not acceptable.
– Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin
“I was looking at the candle in my hand, looking out at all the candles, forming this one light. And the wax was dripping on my hand, and it was burning, and people offered me another candle, but I said no, I didn’t mind holding this one, because it is reminding me that we can’t get too comfortable.
“We need to feel this.”
Songs united the gathering. One of the Christian ministers led the group in “Amazing Grace,” Rabbi Andelman said; when it was her turn, she sang “Yehi Shalom.” The song doesn’t have many words — Yehi shalom becheilech shalvah be’armenotaich — but they can be tongue-twisters for people who don’t know them. Rabbi Andelman said she was moved by how many people picked up the words, and how many sang along with the music, written by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
The words, she added, are from Tehillim — specifically, its Psalm 122. “Let there be peace in your walls, serenity in your palaces.” “I repeated the words, and I said, ‘May they be palaces of justices and love and unity.’ And I said ‘Amen.’”
Lucria Ortiz of Teaneck is a member of Teaneck Women Together’s leadership team and one of the rally’s organizers.
The first march in Charlottesville was on Friday night, and the protests that culminated in murder happened on Saturday. That night, women in Teaneck began to organize. “We connected pretty much via text and email, Ms. Ortiz said. “We just started formulating what our response should be. Thankfully, there are a lot of other organizations around the country and in New Jersey organizing at the same time, and we were able to assess what they were doing.
“We thought it best to have a vigil instead of a protest, she continued. “We thought that in lieu of the onslaught of images of violence, we need to be able to bring people together and feel a sense of healing and togetherness with other people in the community.
“So we started connecting with members of the community. One of our folks is very connected to the leadership of our town, so we were able to secure a permit and inform the police. We thought that the best route was to assemble a diverse roster of faith leaders. We thought that they’d be the best at bringing solace, inspiration, healing, and helping us try to make sense of things.”
Because Teaneck is so community-oriented, finding a roster of speakers wasn’t hard, even on such short notice, Ms. Ortiz said. “Given the wonderful history of diversity and progressiveness in Teaneck, and the culture that allows us to live together and coexist on a daily basis, we just started to use our networks. And we were able to get in touch with a rabbi and an imam and two black Christian leaders and someone from the Latino Alliance in Bergen County.”
But the need for it is terrible, she added. “I think that people have thought that this kind of violence and hate was a thing of yesteryear. People are at a loss for how to respond to it, how to grasp it. To me, it is best to come together with like-minded people, to try to make sense of it.
“We thought that a vigil was appropriate because several lives were lost, and we want to pay homage to that, and to allow for something very peaceful and quiet. There is a lot of anger on the other side. A lot of hate. Countering that with more anger and hate didn’t make a lot of sense to us.”
Teaneck’s mayor, Mr. Hameeduddin, also spoke at the rally. “Whenever there are Nazi flags and the Ku Klux Klan is rallying, especially when the rally becomes violent and results in the loss of human life, it is incumbent on us to stand up and say that it is not acceptable,” he said. “To say that this is not what our country stands for.
“There are a lot more of us than there of them,” he said. “So the question comes down to how we take these fringe groups and marginalize them. How do we make sure that we don’t allow their message to spread?
“There is a need for dialogue,” he continued. “So many groups are being attacked. Illegal immigrants, Black Lives Matter, the LGBT community, the eruv in Mahwah — everyone has rights. Everybody’s success is intertwined. The American experience is intertwined. Infringing anyone’s rights is infringing everyone’s rights.
“Everyone has to realize what the stakes are. This is getting very dangerous.”
The night of the rally, Mr. Hameeduddin said, was “such an emotional night.
“We — a lot of people, a lot of us — are searching for the right answers, for where to go, for what to do. We want to make sure that hate doesn’t find a home anywhere.
“That is what I most want people to understand. Hate should not have a home anywhere in America.”
Marc Meltzer of Teaneck, a Beth Sholom member, was there. “I appreciated the profoundly diverse make-up of the crowd, even though it was somewhat hard to make out in the darkness,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing for many people to disrupt their Sunday night get-ready-for-the-week routine, but people showed up, many brought kids, and they came to be counted as a response to the hatred that was manifest on Saturday in Charlottesville.
“It’s important to have outlets to come together across and apart from our regular communities and groupings, and Teaneck Women Together and Teaneck have been excellent in providing for that,” he added.
The rally against the immigration ban — the committee’s first big public action — was during the day, so once the formal part of the program was over people were encouraged to stay and talk to each other, to reach out to people they’d never talked to before, people from other ethnic or religious groups. It worked, Rabbi Andelman said; she and her family spent a long time talking to a Muslim family. This time, because it was late and dark, and because fewer people brought children, there was less opportunity to make new friends. But “I happened to be standing next to a pastor who had brought her 8-year-old daughter, and we chatted for a bit.”
After the rally was over, a man in the crowd who had brought a musical instrument — “it was dark, and I couldn’t really see what it was, and he wasn’t an official part of the program,” Rabbi Andelman said — began to play “America the Beautiful,” and then another, similarly patriotic song. “It was sweet,” she said. It fit with the general tone.
“There was comfort and hope and healing, and channeling anger,” Rabbi Andelman said. “There was a lot to talk about, and a lot to focus on. There was some exhortation to action, but mostly it was about comfort, and it was about unity.”