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Opinion: Jews greet new year fearful of renewed anti-Semitism

James Rosen

Charlottesville, Virginia – It was difficult to join 200 other Jews gathered in Charlottesville for Congregation Beth Israel services on Sept. 29, on the evening of Rosh Hashanah.

Those services kicked off the High Holy Days, which this year will end Wednesday at the close of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

That most solemn of all Jewish holidays is a day of introspection when Jews reflect on their behavior the past year, ask God to forgive their lapses and vow to do better in the coming year.

Standing in the Charlottesville synagogue, I couldn’t help but think about broader societal repentance as well.

Parked outside the synagogue were two police SUVs. In front of the main entry doors stood two armed security guards hired by Congregation Beth Israel.

When I’d attended High Holy Day services growing up and in later years, there’d never been police or private guards outside Beth Shalom in Oak Park near my childhood home outside Detroit.

Even during the tense periods when Israelis and Arabs were at war; even after 9/11 – my synagogue felt like a sanctuary. It had no guards or police.

That feeling of safety, thanks to a welcoming America, vanished two years ago for the Jews with whom I prayed in Charlottesville.

People fly into the air as a vehicle is driven into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.  on Aug. 12, 2017.

On Aug. 12, 2017, a mob of white supremacists under the banner Unite the Right marched in protest of the city council’s recent decision to take down monuments to Confederate Army commander Robert E. Lee and general Stonewall Jackson.

Charlottesville was already on edge. The KKK had held a rally a week earlier, also for the supposed purpose of defending the Civil War statues.

But then the Unite the Right agitators passed Congregation Beth El, and a march ostensibly for historical legacy instantly became an ugly figurative goose step.

Shouting the Nazi slogan “blood and soil,” the white supremacists chanted, “Jews will not replace us!” over and over.

The rally took place on a Saturday during Sabbath services at Beth Israel. Diane Hillman, now president of the synagogue, was among the congregants who left the prayers and rushed to a window to see what the commotion was about.

What she saw — and heard — shocked her.

“It was surreal,” Hillman told me after the Rosh Hashanah service. “I never in my life expected to see such a thing.”

Neither did I – though I, like millions of Americans, would see it, again and again, on TV.

Out for a stroll after Rosh Hashanah service, my fiancée and I stumbled on another jarring site: the narrow downtown street where one of the Unite the Right nationalists had killed Heather Heyer, deliberately running over her with his Dodge Challenger.

Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal from Charlottesville, was among the counter-protesters who had come out to oppose the white supremacists’ rally.

Two police officers, law-enforcement brothers to those I saw outside Congregation Beth El, also died in the violence that erupted that day.

Heyer’s murder site is now a shrine covered by mounds of flowers. Mourners write chalk messages on the surrounding sidewalk and wall.

Heather Heyer was not Jewish, but she met her fate protesting mindless hatred of the sort Jews have faced for millennia. Her death at the hand of a vicious anti-Semite adds her name to my religion’s long list of martyrs who died in defense of their faith.

As Jews prepare for their Day of Atonement, all Americans might reflect on their country led by a man who castigates and mocks Mexicans, Muslims, blacks, the disabled and other groups.

They might recall the courage of Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, the highest-ranking non-commissioned officer held at a German POW camp in 1945 as World War II neared its end.

When Nazi camp commanders ordered all Jewish prisoners to identify themselves, the Tennessean directed all 1,000 of his men to step forward.

“We are all Jews here,” Edmonds said.

Edmonds repeated the response with a pistol held to his head.

The sergeant’s courage saved his life and those of his men. Fifty years later Israel made him the first foreigner to receive its highest honor.

Now, during this period of repentance in a country filled with a threatening racial and religious rancor Americans had thought was behind them, let us step forward and say as one:

“We are all Sgt. Roddie Edmonds.”

James Rosen, a former Washington Bureau reporter for McClatchy, is a politics and national security correspondent.