Highland Park Council President Susan Welkovits, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, told the crowd of more than 500 gathered on Aug. 13 to protest the violence the day before in Charlottesville, “As you can imagine, I have very little patience for neo-Nazis.”
“The Nazi disease must be stopped and we are going to stop it,” Welkovits proclaimed. “We must come together no matter what color or religion to show we are united against hate.”
Hers was one of the many voices raised at the Reformed Church of Highland Park to denounce the violence, anti-Semitism, and racism displayed by the alt-right, KKK, and neo-Nazis at the Unite the Right rally in the Virginia town that left one dead and dozens wounded. Among the speakers were Middlesex County Freeholders Charles Tamaro and Shanti Narra, Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin (D-Dist. 18), and a host of community leaders.
Later, instead of the tiki torches carried by the white nationalists protesting the removal of a statute of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the multi-ethnic and religiously diverse crowd went outside to the parking lot, lit candles, and sang the Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”
When asked what they stood for or against, cries of “I’m against hatred and for peace,” and “I’m against racism and for justice” were heard. There were also shouts supporting refugees and immigrants and criticizing President Donald Trump for his reactions to the violence.
Finally, the crowd streamed onto Raritan Avenue (Route 27), lining up for blocks along the sidewalk. Others gathered across the street to watch, and drivers of cars passing through downtown honked their approval.
The Vigil Against Hate: Stand in Solidarity with Charlottesville was organized by the ACLU People Power Middlesex County and the New Brunswick Area NAACP.
Welkovits, who said she had lost family in the Holocaust, said that no one had the right to tell “a Jew, Muslim, or person of color” they weren’t American, and she praised National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster for calling out James Fields, the driver of the car that plowed into a group of counter-protestors — killing a 32-year-old woman — for committing “an act of domestic terrorism.”
“We must realize the alt-right, white supremacists, anti-Semites, bigots, and others of that ilk walk among us,” warned New Brunswick NAACP president Bruce Morgan. “They are sitting next to us daily. We must be aware they are there. We cannot ignore them.”
He asked those gathered to pledge they would stand up and confront bigotry wherever they encountered it.
“We must fight for unity with every fiber of our being,” said Morgan. “We must confront a president and administration and make them understand we the American people will not tolerate such behavior from them. We must confront all representatives, down to our local officials, and let them know we cannot and will not accept them ignoring our needs. We must ensure we fight bigotry and injustice in our workplaces, schools, houses of worship, and homes.”
Tamaro cited Lithuanian Holocaust survivor Sol Lurie of Monroe Township as an example of someone who turned what could have been an embittering experience into an opportunity to educate others about the importance of tolerance.
He said Lurie, who survived six concentration camps and ghettos as a teenager and watched his relatives die, now visits area schools “and talks about love, not hatred,” in an attempt to instruct younger generations.
“We have to do something about this hate or it will just go on and on,” said Tamaro.
Fellow Freeholder Narra, who emigrated from India at age two and is a naturalized citizen, noted, “I’m tired of people in this country, in this state, telling people like me we don’t belong, because this is our country.”
“I am a Hindu woman and I reject anti-Muslim hate with every fiber of my being,” she said to rousing applause, and added that all ethnicities and religions are part of the fabric of America.
Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner, a Highland Park resident and chaplain at the Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living in Somerset, told NJJN he came to the rally “because as Jews we have a responsibility to love someone as we would want them to love us. If we want people to stand up for us we have to stand up for others. Together as a community we have to transcend our differences.”
Highland Park Councilman Josh Fine pointed out the Charlottesville rally had “overt anti-Semitism,” including protestors marching through the University of Virginia chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”
At Reform Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, men dressed in fatigues carrying semi-automatic rifles stood across the street while Nazi websites posted a call to burn the building. To be safe, congregants had removed their Torah scrolls and exited through the back of the building after services, according to a post by its president Alan Zimmerman.
Fine said he was motivated to attend because “we must stand up together to oppose hate wherever it rears its ugly head.”
“Every individual is created in the image of God so we as a community have a responsibility to stand up for them,” he said.
Steven Nagel, a resident of Edison and member of Neve Shalom in Metuchen, said he came both as a Jew and member of a larger community.
“We all feel pain after Charlottesville,” he said. “The least I can do is stand up and support my neighbors and brothers and sisters of every religion, color, and ethnicity.”
Laura Leibowitz, a Piscataway resident and member of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, said she came because she thought “it was important to not just post stuff on Facebook, but to actually show your face and show you stand for progressive beliefs in Middlesex County and New Jersey.”
Lindsay Holeman of Highland Park was blunt in her assessment of why she came.
“I have to be here as a human being, but also as a member of the Jewish community,” she said. “Jews have a responsibility to speak out and raise their voices for others. It is so great to see this many people standing up for what’s right.”