Faith leaders create regional group to encourage tolerance

Staff writer

Unite the Right was a wake-up call for David Katz.

The rally brought white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other fringe right-wing groups together in August 2017 in Charlottesville. The rally turned deadly when a counterprotester was killed after a white supremacist drove his car through a crowd.

In one widely photographed scene, white supremacists held a nighttime march across the University of Virginia’s campus, holding aloft torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

For a young father and Rabbi watching about 120 miles away in Williamsburg, it was a ominous display of bigotry.

“All of a sudden it was right in front of us,” Katz said. “It was no longer something we hoped we had been moving past. I got emails from congregants (saying things) like ‘I felt like I was sitting in Munich in 1939 watching what was going on.’”

It was an important moment for the budding Historic Area Religions Together, a new multi-faith community group that brings together Williamsburg’s faith community to foster dialogue and tolerance. A project that's been in the works for years, Katz felt it necessary for the group to take a more visible profile and redouble its efforts to get off the ground after events in Charlottesville.

A call to action

The idea of such an organization had been on the minds of local faith leaders for years. More recently, an increase in hate crimes and displays of bigotry across the country has made the idea less an intellectual exercise and more a bid to protect the safety of people, Katz said.

“In the last couple of years there’s been so much polarization in our country and our culture. It’s been my contention that a real grassroots way to counter that is for different communities with different traditions to get to know each other,” Katz said as he sat in his office inside Williamsburg’s only synagogue, Temple Beth El, on a rainy afternoon earlier this month.

Across his desk sat a friend and fellow member of Historic Area Religions Together Daniel Willson, senior pastor at Williamsburg Baptist Church.

“We feel there needs to be a faith voice in the community. A united one, a diverse one. Something to model unity and diversity,” Willson said.

The pair met at a vigil to honor the victims of the racially motivated Charleston church shooting, where a man shot and killed nine black parishioners in 2015.

Katz has been the Rabbi at Temple Beth El since 2010. As far as he knows, there hasn’t been a local organization like Historic Area Religions Together, though faith communities have held individual multi-faith events in the past.

Based on reported incidents, hate crimes appear to be on the rise nationally.

Last year there were 7,175 hate crimes reported, according to an Federal Bureau of Investigation report released this month. Data used in the report is voluntarily submitted by law enforcement agencies. There were 16,149 agencies that participated, though only 2,040 reported hate crimes occurred.

In 2016, there were 6,121 incidents of reported hate crimes, according to an Federal Bureau of Investigation report. About 15,250 law enforcement agencies provided data, though only 1,776 agencies reported hate crimes happened.

The previous year there were 5,850 hate crime incidents reported by approximately the same number of agencies out of a similar number of participating agencies as 2016. In 2014, a slightly lower number of agencies — 1,666 departments — reported 5,479 incidents of hate crimes, according to FBI data.

The events in Charlottesville were the last straw. Katz publicly announced the existence of Historic Area Religions Together when he spoke at a Merchants Square demonstration against the hatred displayed in Charlottesville the day after the rally.

Another recent tragedy looms large in the organization’s brief history. It organized its first vigil to honor victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in October. The man arrested in the shooting deaths of 11 people made anti-Semitic comments during and after the shooting. More than 200 locals gathered for a vigil led by Katz and other faith leaders at the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists sanctuary.

Up close and personal

So what’s the value in a chat between a Baptist and a Jew? Familiarity squashes the ignorance that can breed contempt, Willson said.

"When you are in relationship with someone who is different than you, it is harder to trade in the kind of stereotypes that often emerge for people who are different from you,” Willson said. “When we are not in relationship with each other, it becomes easier to say almost whatever you want about them, whoever ‘them’ is.”

The organization meets monthly and held its first meeting in May. Those monthly discussions among faith leaders aim to foster understanding and community. Katz has about 36 people on his meeting email list.

In addition to Jews and Baptists, the organization has gathered together leaders from several churches, including Methodists and Presbyterians, as well as a black Christian congregation, Buddhists and Unitarian Universalists. Katz continues to reach out to other religious communities such as Mormons and Muslims.

“It isn’t about pretending everyone is the same, rather about recognizing and accepting differences,” Willson said. “We want to observe the beauty of each other’s religion.”

Beyond gatherings of faith leaders, the organization wants to craft a calendar of regular events open to the congregations and wider public, respond to tragic events and engage congregants. It planned its first such gathering, a multi-faith Thanksgiving service, Monday at Walsingham Academy. The event featured prayers, poems and songs and a chance for followers of different faiths to talk to one another over refreshments in a holiday shared by all Americans regardless of faith, Katz said.

The group also wants to eventually bring specific congregations together to get to know one another in order to bring neighbors of different faiths a little bit closer.

“It’s about to accept, to know and to not fear that which is different,” Katz said. “We’ve got to know each other in order to protect each other.”

Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.

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