Wittney Skigen was helping her sister move in to her college dormitory in Phoenix on Aug. 12 when white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other groups took to the streets of Charlottesville, Va., where Skigen attends the University of Virginia.
Skigen, a Vienna resident, became more upset as the protest of the city’s effort to remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee turned violent, resulting in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer and two Virginia State troopers, along with several injured counterprotesters.
“It was hard because we were moving my sister into college and there were a lot of distractions so I wasn’t able to just sit and watch it,” she said. “But I checked my phone for updates every free second that I had. I texted my friends that I knew were in Charlottesville to make sure they were safe.”
Skigen, a junior and the vice chair of U-Va.’s Jewish Leadership Council, returned to campus this week. She and other students interviewed for this article say they are determined not to let the tragedy define their experiences as students this year.
At the same time, they do not want to ignore the national conversation about racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of hate that the attack in their college town has intensified.
“I think people are tense,” she said. “I think people are worried. [The protests are] still a national discussion. The celebrities that I follow on Twitter are still tweeting about it. It’s not going to go away.”
Acts of hate are not new to Charlottesville. Skigen’s her off-campus apartment building was vandalized last fall with a Star of David and the word “Juden.”
“It very much resembled 1930s Germany-type graffiti, so that was pretty disturbing to see,” she said.
Skigen said another Jewish student in the building called the police, who opened an investigation, but have not found the culprit because there were no security cameras. Building staff washed off the graffiti by the end of the day.
Still, Skigen said she has never felt threatened at U-Va. because she is a Jew.
“I don’t know in general whether I would say Charlottesville is an accepting place, but I would say it’s a safe place for Jews,” she said.
Skigen was part of a group of 14 from the school’s Hillel that attended a campus candlelight vigil on Aug. 16 on the lawn in front of the Rotunda — a historic centerpiece of the university. She said the vigil was organized by word-of-mouth, but still attracted thousands of students.
“It was very powerful to be part of that,” she said. “I had no idea how big it was. I could see a little bit behind me, but when we got up to the Rotunda at the end of the lawn and we stood there for 30 minutes as people were still filing onto the lawn, there are people I know that didn’t even make it to the lawn.”
Sophomore Zoe Sadugor said the most powerful moment of the vigil came when everyone began singing U-Va.’s alma mater song, “The Good Old Song.”
“We were singing ‘The Good Old Song’ and standing there with everyone with our lights … just knowing that we’ve sang that song in the past, but that was the most influential time I’ve ever sang it,” she said.
Sadugor, who is from Rockville, said U-Va. is one of the “most positive and inclusive” communities she has been a part of — but she “would be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid to go back.” She said even though most of the white supremacist protestors were not from Charlottesville, the mere thought of neo-Nazis near the place she goes to school scares her.
“How can I feel it’s my home if I’m not wanted there?” she said.
Sadugor said that, as a Jew concerned about anti-Semitism, she can sympathize with black students who walk by the statue of Lee.
“People say, the statue is part of our history, but when an African American walks past, it says, ‘You’re not wanted,’” she said.
Senior Andrew Siegel agreed that the statue, which is slated for removal, does not belong on campus.
“Lee represented slavery,” said Siegel, of Bethesda. “That is what the Confederacy stood for.
“I think that having a statue like his out there celebrates a guy that stood for slavery. There are other places to have that statue, like in a museum.”
Siegel, a member of the group Hoos for Israel, said he feels safe now that he has returned to campus but thinks the U-Va. community needs to discuss the bigotry in their backyard in order to heal.
“The majority of students weren’t here yet [during the protests], so we need to talk about it,” he said. “We need to make sure people feel safe.”
Part of that discussion will take place at the Brody Jewish Center, the university’s Hillel, said executive director Rabbi Jake Rubin. Rubin said in addition to Hillel’s regular events this fall, the campus organization is planning programs that will include the black and LGBTQ communities.
“As far as planning, we’ve had a lot of conversations about reaching out to other groups that were targeted and are reaching out to them to do community building,” Rubin said.
“We’ve had conversations with the ADL and have talked with them about programs for the Jewish community and the larger community.”
Rubin said all students were “shaken” by the protests, but the candlelight vigil last week was a sign of students’ optimism and resilience.
He said there are about 1,000 Jewish students on campus. According to U.S. News, the university had more than 16,700 undergraduates during the past academic year.
“There were thousands of people there with lit candles who wanted to make a statement,” he said. “We want to strive to continue to be better.”
But the aftermath of the deadly protests in Charlottesville still leaves many with questions.
“People are curious to see what happens next,” Skigen said. “What’s the university going to do, what’s the town going to do and what are we going to do?”