I was offered the opportunity to travel to Charleston, SC for the weekend through the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU, and in the short 11 hour period from when I received the invitation to when I left for the airport, I had all kinds of thoughts. I was expecting it to feel complicated, as a white person, to go there after the tragic shooting at Emanuel AME church. I understand the complexities of my white privilege, particularly when responding to a tragedy in the African American community, one that is not my own personal tragedy. I wondered what it would be like as an outsider, a Jew from New York, coming to Charleston - was it my place to even be there?
Certainly there will be conversations to be had about combatting racism and gun reform, but from the moment we arrived in Charleston what we found was a tremendous outpouring of love. People thanked us for joining them in solidarity with the message that hate will not prevail. When I spoke with Reverend Don on the phone, a leader in the Charleston community, he was moved to tears with what it meant for a white Jew to stand up against racism. I realized the power of being an outsider in this situation: those I asked how they were doing had not yet been asked. People needed the opportunity to share and process their personal grief and their pain and their shock, and it was easier to do so with someone who wasn’t directly part of the community.
While this was the sentiment expressed in personal conversations, the lack of public, communal mourning was somewhat shocking to me, as I expected to see more tears and pain. While I spoke with Mark, a Jew who knew 3 of the victims killed well, tears welled up in his eyes when he told me that it was just too heartbreaking to speak about. Yet, in public spaces the message was one of joy and love. Pastor Jason preached in front of Mother Emanuel the message that anger is easier to feel; love is complicated and difficult. He implored us all to feel love and joy because they will overcome hate. He preached that Charleston is the Holy City, and so to be a real Charlestonian is to be one who rises to the holy challenge of ultimate love and joy.
I’m still not sure that it was my place to be there. But what I am sure of is the power and meaning in the individual interactions and the role that I played in adding to the fabric of what was happening in Charleston. The African American religious leaders who were preaching and leading the crowds in song and prayer were clear that this wasn’t just for the African American community or just for the Christian community. It was important for them that all different peoples, of different races and religions, unite in the message of love and unity. I introduced myself to Pastor Jason as a rabbi from New York and told him that I had come as an ally to his community. He hugged me tightly and replied, “if you hate hatred, and if you love love, you’re just part of us.”