Thomasina Jones and Beatrice Arreola sat on the side steps of Congregation Rodeph Shalom with a pile of markers and white poster board.
As the friends decorated their signs with messages denouncing bigotry and racism, hundreds gathered at the corner of the synagogue for the start of a citywide rally dubbed “Philly is Charlottesville March and Rally.”
The crowd quickly grew to thousands and marched from the steps of the synagogue down Broad Street until they reached Arch Street United Methodist Church.
“I want this rally to show that we are against racism and just what happened down in Virginia,” Arreola said.
Jones came in from Delaware to attend the rally, organized by Philadelphia interfaith group POWER. She hopes that the rally showed that whatever bigotry has been ignited, Philadelphians are there to meet it.
“We’re here to show that as much as anybody tries to take it here, no — we’re gonna meet you there,” she said. “We will absolutely meet you there. Do not think you can be emboldened. There are more of us. We’re not gonna sit quietly.”
To her, the president’s promise to protect people he said he would have not been realized.
He won, she said, “primarily by running on a campaign that exploited white people’s bias, bigotry, desperation, anger and fear. His voters consist of mainly low-income whites with no college education. He peddled to them that he would look out for them and he preys upon their beliefs, hatred, and/or circumstances.
“Not only do I,” she continued, “a low-income white woman, with no degree, not support his policies or who he is as a person — from his campaign through to today — but what amazes me more is the fact his voter base believes he actually cares for them.”
Shortly after 7 p.m., the group of all ages, races and religions started moving from the synagogue down Broad Street.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit of Mishkan Shalom was front and center, holding the POWER sign as the group began moving.
As co-chair of the clergy caucus of POWER, Zevit was happy with the amount of other organizations that wanted to join in once the march began gaining attention leading up to it.
“We have been working at these issues for a long time and we are raising up now how some of the institutionalized racism and white privilege has affected and contributes to some of these inequities,” he said, pointing to issues like mass incarceration — particularly of people of color — education, socioeconomic disparity and racial justice.
There is more work to be done, he noted, and the conversation about anti-Semitism present in Virginia and in these issues cannot be ignored.
“Jews are not just presenting as white in our society,” he said, “so it’s different if you’re Jewish and you’re a Jewish person of color or Sephardic or other lineages, so it’s not all one brushstroke, but we can’t be quiet about that as well. … We can’t really deal effectively with white supremacy and neo-Nazi sentiment and institutionalized racism without also dealing with anti-Semitism. We can’t be a strong ally to those who are outside the Jewish community as well as within if we don’t tackle all of these issues because they’re all intertwined.”
Rabbi Eli Freedman of Rodeph Shalom, who held up a yellow star that said “Juden,” gave remarks before the marchers began heading out on their route, reminding them that “Sadly, anti-Semitism, bigotry and hate are not confined to the South.”
Indeed, synagogues in Philadelphia have been vandalized, their windows broken and smashed; headstones have been toppled; anti-Semitic graffiti has appeared in public parks and on storefronts. This week, a 23-year-old man was arrested in connection with urinating on the walls of a synagogue.
“We stand tonight as extremists of love and justice,” Freedman said.
On the route down to the church, marchers — which also included elected officials such as Councilwoman Helen Gym and Democratic District Attorney nominee Larry Krasner — held signs that read “Nazi gonna happen here” and “Whose side are you on?”
“Silence is complicity,” read another.
Someone else fashioned a swastika out of tiki torches overlapped with the universal “no” symbol (a circle and line through it) — in contrast to the torches used less than a week ago.
Chants of “Black Lives Matter” and “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA” reverberated through the streets.
Jewish-themed signs bearing the messages of “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” and “Shalom” could be found abundantly.
Walking in the crowd with their young daughter in a stroller, Rhalee and Yoav Perry wore double-sided signs with messages relating to the Holocaust.
For them, the events that transpired in Virginia triggered some personal connections.
“Our daughter and my husband [are] both descendants of a Holocaust survivor, so we can’t fail them and we can’t fail the larger community in Philadelphia,” Rhalee Perry said.
Yoav Perry’s father, Eli, ran from the Nazis in Europe with his older sister, Etta, hiding in the forests until they reached Israel. His grandfather perished in Auschwitz.
The back of Yoav Perry’s sign asked, “Me next?” The words were written above a yellow “Jude” star. Rhalee Perry’s presented an urgent message: “Never again is now.”
“I think people need to wake up and realize something needs to be done now — not tomorrow, not the next day,” Rhalee Perry said. “I mean obviously we’ll continue tomorrow, we’ll continue the next day, but it needs to start now. This is out of control.”
“Putting it simply, it took Hitler about seven years and this guy’s only been seven months and look at it,” Yoav Perry added.
In addition to the accessories of signs and banners, many marchers sported kippahs, some even wore tallit.
“In my own world, it’s been very easy to feel awash in my own reactions to the circumstances,” said Zachary Wiener, a chaplain who marched wearing a tallis. “It’s also felt very easy to feel washed away by everyone else’s reactions that I see on Facebook, so I had to make a promise to myself that I would match whatever I was writing on Facebook with actual deed on foot in the streets like here in this protest.”
He heeded his directive with a sign that read “Pray with your feet, not with Facebook.”
“I wanted to invite all of the people that I know who might not know how to act next to move off of writing something as a status and start joining communities of people who are starting to make a change and to get loud and get together,” he said.
As the group reached the church — whose pews were filled to capacity — remarks from speakers and clergy inside were broadcast to the crowd standing outside City Hall, close to a barricaded and protected Frank Rizzo statue (itself the target of many chants and signs reading “Down With Rizzo”).
Speakers urged Philadelphians to take action for their own city as well, for causes such as education and raising minimum wage.
Javier Flores García, who has taken sanctuary inside the church for months, spoke through a translator, saying, “We need to keep fighting, not just for ourselves but for the generations behind us.”
Rabbi Mordechai Liebling relayed stories from his time in Charlottesville last weekend, as the torchlit protesters took to the streets where they chanted such things as “Jews will not replace us” and Nazi slogans like “blood and soil.”
“Can we still dream?” he asked the crowd, who emphatically responded, “Yes!”
“Do we know what justice looks like?” “Yes!”
“Can we work together to bring about justice?” “Yes!”
“There [was] real hatred,” Liebling said of the Charlottesville march. “I have never seen that level of vicious hatred publicly spewed in the street like that, and I have been going to demonstrations for 50 years.”
White supremacy, he added, “is not hidden. It is overt in the way our system is structured. Stand up against white supremacy in the city of Philadelphia.”
For Rabbi Zevit, looking at Philadelphia is a critical step towards progress.
“Let’s not lose sight of the work we need to do here around racism and mass incarceration, around economic dignity and education, apartheid in our own city and state,” he said.
“I feel that this was a step along that way, but there’s plenty more to do.”
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