After nine people were killed by 21-year-old gunman Dylann Roof during a prayer study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Thursday, many, including the local Jewish community in Charleston, S.C., reached out to comfort and support their neighbors and publicly denounced the act as a hate crime against the African-American community.
Rabbi Stephanie Alexander from Congregation Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston had been on a bus tour through the South with a members of three area churches when they heard about the tragedy, she said. They had just spent the day at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis which made the news even more “surreal.” The bus traveled from there to Montgomery, where Alexander and two other clergy immediately flew back to Charleston. Alexander attended the vigil happening that evening.
“Inside was packed to capacity, it was overflow crowd onto the street outside,” she said. “We could hear the singing outside as we listened to the speakers inside. It was a really a diverse group of Charlestonians who came to show support, and draw strength and healing as well.
“[Emanuel AME] lost their pastor — their leader and guide and spiritual center,” said Alexander. “At the moment the most important thing we can do is be the visual Jewish presence for the community as we all gather together as one.”
Prayer vigils and gatherings have been happening throughout the city and the country since the shootings. The Charleston community has offered support to the victims and their families.
“This is just the beginning because the huge loss isn’t going to disappear with the media coverage,” said Judi Corsaro, CEO of the Charleston Jewish Federation. She said for the long term, her organization plans to implement curriculum from the “Remember Program for Holocaust Education and Genocidal Awareness” to area middle and high schools.
“There’s work that needs to be done with tolerance, and an integral part is reaching out to the community and using the lessons of the Holocaust to promote tolerance and acceptance of diversity,” she said. The Federation has set up a donation link on their site. “We’ll be there every step of the way,” she said.
But, Corsaro said, “For greater Charleston this is a wake-up call. When something like this happens we have to be more aware.”
Many national Jewish organizations came out in support as well. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York expressed “solidarity with and deep sorrow” for the congregants in Charleston. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism said in a statement, “houses of worship are places of safety, comfort and inspiration. For the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church to have become last night a place of such horror, tears at the heart of every person of faith and goodwill.”
Jacobo Mintzer, president of Synagogue Emanu-el in Charleston said in a written statement, “Today, we are all members of the Emanuel AME Church of Charleston.”
“The hateful actions that took place last night at Emanuel AME Church are a horrendous tragedy that is being felt throughout the Charleston community. Jointly, with other members of the Jewish community, Synagogue Emanu-El strongly condemns these criminal and hateful acts,” he said.
The mayor’s office will hold an interfaith community service organized in the 5,100 seat TD Arena at the College of Charleston on Friday.
“[The synagogue is] about 5 or 6 blocks from Emanuel [church]” and just a few blocks more to the arena, said Alexander. “And even though this program is running through Shabbat, we’re invoking Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel,” a rabbi who walked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement, who was questioned why he chose to walk instead of stay home to lead and pray with his own community. He answered he was “praying with my legs,” said Alexander, which she will invite her congregants, about 520 households, to do tonight. The participants will light Shabbat candles at the synagogue then walk to the interfaith service together. Her congregants also offered their space to the church as a place to hold their services on Sunday.
“I’m hopeful the Jewish community will be a real visible presence,” she said, “which will be meaning for us and powerful for the community as whole.”