Light from an iPad screen glowed on Rabbi Howard Nacht’s face as he recounted recent anti-Semitic hate crimes on Long Island and across the country to a hushed crowd of 100 Wantagh, Seaford, Bellmore, East Meadow and Levittown residents on Saturday. They stood in circle around a flagpole on the lawn of Wantagh Memorial Congregational Church on a cool evening, peering through the darkness at Nacht. Some edged closer to hear his prayer.
The group fell silent when Nacht repeated a chant that white supremacists shouted on Aug. 11 as they marched to a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E Lee in Charlottesville, Va., the night before a scheduled Unite the Right rally: “Jews will not replace us.” Nacht paused before raising his voice over the low hum of cicadas.
“These things, and these thugs, do everything,” he said, his voice growing louder “Everything that is destructive to the fundamental values of the United States of America. They did this openly, without masks and hoods, as though this was acceptable, everyday behavior.
“It is not, my friends,” he continued. “It is not.”
Faith leaders from across five communities also offered their reflections on the violence in Charlottesville and hate crimes across the nation at the Wantagh Clergy Council’s interfaith vigil. Group members said that they organized the event to show that hate, bigotry and prejudice have no place in their communities and the country.
The Rev. Christopher Hofer, rector of the Church of St. Jude, in Wantagh, and vicar of St. Michael and All Angels, in Seaford, said that residents of all faiths and walks of life were welcome to attend the peaceful gathering, noting that Long Island is becoming more diverse every year.
“All of our area congregations and respective religions denounce neo-Nazis, white supremacists, the KKK and any group that promotes intolerance instead of love,” Hofer said. “By coming together in prayer, we show those who wish to promote a hate-filled agenda that there is no room for hate in our communities.”
The Wantagh Clergy Council comprises St. Jude’s, St. Michael’s, B’Nai Torah, Wantagh Memorial Congregational, Congregation Beth Tikvah, St. Frances de Chantal Roman Catholic Church, St. Markella Greek Orthodox Church, Christ Lutheran Church of Wantagh, Bellmore Presbyterian Church, First Presbyterian Church of Levittown and Temple Emanu-El of East Meadow.
Rabbi Daniel Bar-Nahum, Temple Emanu-El’s spiritual leader, said that he and his congregants took part in the vigil to embrace the values that unite people of different faiths — justice, love and compassion. “I think that’s what God wants us to do,” he said. “So much right now seems to be about pointedly trying to divide us and to split us apart and to highlight all of our differences. When we can come together as neighbors to say that we stand for justice, American values and values of many faiths, that’s important.”
The Rev. Ron Garner, pastor of Wantagh Memorial Congregational, said he thinks more people turn to their churches when they see bigotry and violence in the news. He noted that the Wantagh Clergy Council members thought residents might seek comfort and guidance after the Unite the Right rally, at which Heather Heyer, who was protesting against white supremacy, was killed.
Garner led the ceremony by asking attendees to sing the national anthem and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. He encouraged them to be agents of reconciliation and instruments of peace.
MaryJean Murphy, who has lived in Wantagh for 52 years, agreed that residents must spread peace. She knocked on neighbors’ doors with her friends, encouraging them to come to the vigil.
“If we don’t protest all of this violence and hatred in the world, then it won’t stop,” she said. “Change has to come from us — the little people.”
Murphy and her friends — Isabel Gavilan, Aileen Scott and Mary Quidore — heard about the vigil at a Mass at St. Frances. While they waited to receive candles for the service, Scott and Quidore shook their heads while talking about how uncivilized they thought the Unite the Right attendees were.
Gavilan, who moved to the U.S. from Cuba in 1969 and has since earned American citizenship, said she was familiar with how prejudice and political rhetoric can divide families and communities. Hatred, she said, is sometimes buried in people’s hearts.
“I think that, maybe for many years, everything has been kept inside,” Gavilan said. “As Americans, we have to do a lot of thinking about ourselves and what we’re leaving to our children and grandchildren and young people. That’s what I worry about the most — what we’re passing on to them.”