Two years can be a long time to hold fast to a commitment, but that has not stopped a small but stalwart group of members of Tifereth Israel Congregation from gathering every Friday, rain or shine, for their Vigil Against Racism.
The vigils began in June 2020, largely in response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, said Susan Vitale, a member of the Conservative congregation in the District.
“It was a group of many different houses of worship, up and down 16th Street in D.C., that wanted to have a visual of people holding posters and meditating and a lot of other activities to bring attention to this issue,” said Vitale. “Tifereth Israel was one of those groups.”
“To see this absolutely undeniable, horrifying murder of a person by someone who is supposed to be upholding the law was just so profoundly tragic and upsetting,” she continued. “We just felt like this is the biggest issue that our country has.”
Two years later, the vigils consist of participants standing in front of the synagogue for an hour on Friday. They hold signs, including a large banner that reads “Black lives matter,” for passing motorists to see.
At this point, the group has no plans to stop the vigils, Vitale said.
“To be honest, we didn’t want to be like the white people who showed up and seemed to care, and then just went on to some other topic,” Vitale said. “This is a crucial issue. It’s so profound, it’s such a part of our society for centuries, where racism has been a horrible stain and terrible, terrible situation for people.”
“And it’s not going away,” Vitale continued. “It’s still an issue after centuries of what seems to be progress, we’re still seeing horrible instances of racial discrimination and injustice, and I think we just feel like it’s important to keep that message out there. … I think we just felt like stopping was just unthinkable.”
A core group of six typically attends, with others participating from time to time, Vitale said. She added that the group has received positive feedback from residents of the neighborhood, thanking them for their consistency and persistence on the issue. They also receive encouragement from passing motorists.
“A fair number of people will honk their horn, I guess signifying that they’re happy and they agree with the message that we’re promoting,” said Vitale. “Some people will wave, some people will raise a fist, some people will open their window and yell, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! Black lives matter!’”
The group also receives some negative reactions from passersby: a thumbs down, an extended middle finger or someone yelling, “All lives matter,” she said.
What’s the goal? Vitale hopes the vigils may help even a few people to reexamine their stance on issues of race in America.
“What would be really nice is if maybe, even if it’s one or two people who see us there week after week, maybe they’ll start thinking, ‘Why are these people making such a big deal out of this,’’’ said Vitale. “And maybe hope that this would make them examine this issue in a new light, and maybe be more aware of [this] kind of injustice, and hope that they also would work in some way for change.”