2017-12-13 / Featured / Front Page

Amid security concerns, Jewish group holds interfaith event


Rabbi Patrick Beaulier stands in front of First Congregational Christian United Church of Christ, where his congregation will host an interfaith potluck dinner and Hanukkah festivities on Friday. 
JENNY McQUEEN Rabbi Patrick Beaulier stands in front of First Congregational Christian United Church of Christ, where his congregation will host an interfaith potluck dinner and Hanukkah festivities on Friday. JENNY McQUEEN With a punk rock past and tattoos crawling up both arms, it’s safe to say Patrick Beaulier isn’t your typical rabbi. In fact, he wasn’t even raised Jewish.

Aside from celebrating Christmas and Easter, the Atlanta native grew up in a home that largely eschewed religion. It was only after fronting punk bands – and gaining eight tattoos in the process – that Beaulier converted to Judaism.

Today, Beaulier is the spiritual leader of Chesterfield’s Bonay Kodesh, an independent congregation that numbers roughly 100 and holds services at various locations, including congregants’ homes and space borrowed from Christian churches. Beaulier is known for his uplifting, charismatic presence among his congregants, but even he is concerned about the current political climate.

During 2016, the year that saw then-candidate Donald Trump use heated rhetoric regarding immigrants and Muslims on the campaign trail, hate crimes reported to the FBI rose 4.6 percent over the previous year. While reported hate crimes against Muslims saw a 19 percent spike in 2016 over the previous year, people of the Jewish faith continued to be the biggest targets of religiously motivated hate crimes in the U.S .

Considering these statistics, the recent mass shooting at a church in Texas, and August’s violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville – which saw neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching in the streets – Beaulier’s congregation abandoned early plans to conduct its first outdoor menorah lighting this Hanukkah season.

“Given the violence that’s happened recently, and the rise of anti-Semitism, the normalization of Nazism, as scary as that is, [we decided] we’d have to think about things differently,” Beaulier says. “Safety is our No. 1 priority. We as Jews are already used to having to think about that all the time.”

Instead of an outdoor menorah lighting, the congregation will hold an indoor interfaith event this Friday to commemorate the holiday, inviting the people of Chesterfield to get to know one another and learn about Hanukkah.

It’s a hopeful gesture that comes amid a heated political environment, when Jewish communities across the country are navigating a world in which verbal intimidation, threatening letters and desecration of their cemeteries is becoming increasingly common.

Nearly four years ago, Heather Nees was one of many in Chesterfield to receive a Ku Klux Klan pamphlet on her front lawn, stating that the hate group’s mission was “exalting the Caucasian race and teaching the doctrine of white supremacy.”

The flier left an impression.

“At that time, my youngest was in high school. He brought the letter in,” says Nees, a real estate agent. “It’s very disturbing to have to explain that to your kid.”

Nees, who helped found Bonay Kodesh in 2014, was reminded of the fliers this summer when the Unite the Right rally descended on Charlottesville. The rally culminated in the violent death of a counter protestor, and afterward, President Trump received criticism for his initial reticence to condemn white supremacists.

“For me, personally, it’s sickening. And, as a mom, it’s terrifying,” says Nees of Charlottesville. “You feel that this can’t happen here, we’re in America, it can’t happen here, and then it does. And then you have politicians who don’t denounce it, or they take a couple of days to say something. It’s stupefying.”

Charlottesville’s violence and accompanying images of swastika flags and tiki torches aren’t the only reason Jews and other minority groups might be feeling uneasy these days. Reported hate crimes usually decline in the last quarter of the year, but hate crimes rose at the end of 2016. The Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish non-governmental organization, reported earlier this year that the first quarter of 2017 saw an 86 percent spike in attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions over the same time period the previous year.

And these figures only include reported crimes. A report from the U.S. Department of Justice found that between 2011 and 2015, about 54 percent of hate crimes were not reported to police, meaning that the actual number of crimes could be much higher than reported.

Jack Levin, professor emeritus at Boston’s Northeastern University, says hate crimes are often spurred by current events.

“It’s very hard to track hate crimes over a period, but there does seem to be an undercurrent of hate that has spread since 9/11,” says Levin, author of multiple books on hate crimes and violence. “Every time that there’s some threatening incident involving a vulnerable group, we find that hate crimes increase in response.”

Religiously motivated hate crimes skyrocketed after the terrorist attacks in 2001 over the previous year. While Muslims experienced a 1,600 percent spike in hate crimes against them in 2001, anti-Jewish hate crimes still made up 55.7 percent of religiously motivated offenses. Of the 1,273 religiously motivated hate crimes reported in 2016, 684 – or 53.7 percent of them – were anti-Jewish.

Levin links the recent rise in hate crimes to Trump.

“Our leaders have too often used hate speech in their messages to the American people,” Levin says. “When hate is expressed at the top, hate crimes occur at the bottom, and I think that’s what’s occurring now.”

While Nees says her experience in Chesterfield has been largely positive, in light of recent events, in the interest of safety, she urges her children not to bring up their faith around strangers.

“It’s just the political climate,” she says of the precaution. “That’s not the world I want to live in.”

Growing up in Sacramento in the 1990s, Rabbi Ahuva Zaches was introduced to anti-Semitism early: during the summer between her sixth- and seventh-grade years, white supremacists firebombed her synagogue.

While Bonay Kodesh is Chesterfield’s lone Jewish congregation, Zaches’ congregation, Or Ami, stands right on the county line in Bon Air. Regarding Charlottesville, Zaches says she isn’t surprised to see white supremacist and anti-Semitic rhetoric rearing its head.

“It’s always been here. It’s not like it came out of nowhere,” Zaches says. “I think a lot of our youth grew up with the idea that discrimination against Jews was basically a thing of the past. … It’s been interesting trying to navigate this increase.”

Zaches, too, cites Trump as a factor in the rise of hate crimes.

“It definitely allows white supremacists to say, ‘the president is agreeing with us, or at least isn’t openly disagreeing with us,’” she says. “Sometimes if you’re vague enough about what you say, anyone can assume that you endorse their beliefs, and I think the president hasn’t been aggressively denouncing white supremacy.”

Or Ami hasn’t changed any of its planned Hanukkah events, but it has installed more security cameras in the wake of Charlottesville. And while Bonay Kodesh isn’t holding an outdoor menorah lighting this year, the holiday spirit seems undeterred as members prepare for this weekend’s celebration.

This Friday, Bonay Kodesh will host an interfaith potluck dinner and Hanukkah festivities at First Congregational Christian United Church of Christ, including a latke judging competition. The congregation’s hope is that by inviting the public to the event, they’ll foster understanding with people of different backgrounds.

“People who want to experience some food and culture can come and learn what we’re about,” Rabbi Beaulier says. “No religion required.”

As for the age-old threat of hate, Beaulier thinks dialogue, education and getting to know one another are key to improving things going forward. “I am optimistic that love wins,” he says. “It takes a long time – it takes a very, very long time – to turn people’s hearts, but I am up to the challenge.” ¦

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