A year after the rally and a decade after my father’s death, we moved within walking distance of downtown Charlottesville—if one could call it that—a stretch of pedestrian walkway called “The Downtown Mall” lined with quaint shops like the Pie Chest and O’Suzannah’s home goods. At first, I found the new and unexpected in every corner of everyday life, from the song of cicadas to the scent of overgrown earth, plants plump from humidity, their waxy leaves as tall as my four-year-old son. The city appeared quaint, small, and shockingly humid. I hungered for New York City, where I had grown up, for New Haven, where I had later rooted my small family. For home.
But I quickly and unexpectedly found a diverse, thriving Jewish community in Charlottesville. This began in our apartment building, where Rachel, a Jewish New York transplant like myself, lived with her husband and son. Her presence comforted me, from our nostalgic discussions of New York City to our shared incapacity (as true New Yorkers) to drive. We walked from home to our sons’ school, cafes, and parks—all the while forging a friendship built on our deep similarities, many owing to our Jewish upbringings.
Within two weeks, I had been invited to coffee on the Downtown Mall by both the former and current head rabbis of the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue. Their kindness made me feel, much like Rachel had, that I belonged.
Until the Unite the Right Rally in August 2017, the broader American populace had known little about Charlottesville’s Jewish community, as little is generally known about Jewish life in the American South and is colored by the assumption that a community’s small size can be equated with invisibility. On that fateful August day, neo-Nazis marched passed Congregation Beth Israel chanting “the Jews will not replace us.” It was a scene from our collective nightmares. Members of the congregation left through the back of the building, cradling a Holocaust scroll in their arms.
“Their goal, then, as now, was like Jews everywhere, following the instructions of the prophet Jeremiah,” Leffler has explained, “‘To seek the peace of the city.’ And I think they did that.”
Today, UVA Professor emeritus Phyllis Leffler gives tours of Jewish Charlottesville, recounting its history, its lasting imprint on the streets of colonial brick and stone. In the mid-18th century, the first two known Jewish settlers, Sarah and Michael Israel, purchased land in Charlottesville. By the 19th century, our city was home to various forms of Jewish commerce. The Jewish community continued to grow, most notably with Jewish German immigration to the United States in the mid-19th century. In 1882, the Jewish community built Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue, which I belong to today, a place of fused Jewish and Southern culture (a place, in that way, very much like myself). “Their goal, then, as now, was like Jews everywhere, following the instructions of the prophet Jeremiah,” Leffler has explained, “‘To seek the peace of the city.’ And I think they did that.”
My late father’s memories of summers with his grandparents in Mississippi prepared me for aspects of moving to the South: the cuisine that he had mastered and loved, river fishing, and to the degree possible, stiff summer air. I had never imagined I’d live in the South, however, let alone that I’d find a rich Jewish community to which I could belong. A small community of hundreds in Charlottesville rather than tens of thousands of families like that in New York is, in many ways, a gift disguised as a challenge—bringing together Jews from different backgrounds, theological leanings, and geographies. We don’t have the luxury of choice, but instead revel in the beauty of uniting difference because we value what we share.
While concentrated on the east and west coasts, Jewish America is, and has long been, flourishing across the country in communities small and large. Within this community over the past year, I have witnessed not only a willingness, but a sense of calling to grapple with our diversity of views and backgrounds, taking seriously our call to repair the world. The synagogue even hired a professional mediator to facilitate an open discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict. This is a community that, by both choice and chance, has had to face the deepest fissures and failings of American life firsthand—with neo-Nazis armed outside of its gates. And it has risen to this painful challenge, building bridges with other faith groups through a local clergy collective and Congregate Charlottesville, focused on seeking faith-based justice.
I have learned in Charlottesville that belonging is not about size but fit: a sense of familiarity and finding home in new places.
I have learned in Charlottesville that belonging is not about size but fit: a sense of familiarity and finding home in new places. Recently, a Jewish deli, Modern Nosh, appeared like a childhood dream off of downtown Charlottesville’s mall. Stocked with the marble rye of my youth and matzah-ball soup, enlivening memories in its clear broth, it transported me to another place and time—our New York City kitchen with my mother—while making this place and this time feel more like home. I, like the Jewish families described by Professor Leffler, have sought and found the peace of this city.
Together in the Jewish community we celebrate new babies with naming ceremonies and together we mourn loss in all of its forms—from the passing of our elders to the brutal attacks on minorities, including Jewish spaces, across the country. No matter our political stances or where we were born, together we are rooted in this city, in its beauty and its sufferings, and in a shared hope for a better world.
At events and services, Rabbi Tom Gutherz and Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin incorporate song into their teachings that move children and adults alike. In fact, when I asked my son what he had learned in the community over the last year, he responded by singing a song, unknowingly quoting the words of Albert Camus, the philosopher on whom his father based his doctoral dissertation. “Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” And that too is what I have learned here, in this Jewish community in the South: that the best of life is not about leading, or following, but forging friendship in its dizzying and uncertain seasons—the unexpected roads that lead us to new and beautiful places we can call home.
Photo by Elisabeth Becker.