Asheville’s Jewish community grows in trying times
Posted on December 14, 2022 by Jessica Wakeman on MountainXpress
Abby Lublin wants to talk about Jewish joy.
It may not seem like an especially joyful time for the executive director of Carolina Jews for Justice. Antisemitism has been front of mind for many Americans in recent weeks: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump had dinner at his Mar-a-Lago resort with Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist media personality who has accused Jews of subverting American values. The nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate reported a 23% increase in the use of a slur against Jewish people on Twitter in the week following the social network’s purchase by Elon Musk. And Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West (who also dined at Mar-a-Lago with Trump and Fuentes), was suspended from Twitter for posting a swastika blended with a Star of David.
Lublin, however, is adamant about uniting the Jewish community through a sense of belonging, not shared trauma. “It is especially important for Jews to live in our joy, in our boldness and in our connection,” she explains. “In a state like North Carolina, we’re never in places where we’re the majority, and so Jews have to really find each other.”
The Jewish community has woven strong ties in Asheville. The city is home to two synagogues — Congregation Beth HaTephila and Beth Israel Synagogue — as well as a Jewish Community Center. And Lublin, who lives in Durham, says Western North Carolina supports a robust local chapter of Carolina Jews for Justice, which is based out of Asheville and covers 17 counties.
“We’ve seen a steady flow of people who are Jewish who’ve come [here] because they see a vibrant Jewish community that they can be part of,” Rabbi Batsheva Meiri of Congregation Beth HaTephila tells Xpress. “And so Asheville becomes attractive to them.”
Meiri says membership at her congregation has grown by 10% each year since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have this influx of people who have been transplanted here because of the pandemic, and we also have a lot of people [in Asheville already] who are excited to come back and be part of temple life,” she explains.
Much of the Jewish community in Asheville revolves around rites of passage similar to those of other faith traditions. Meiri cites “religious school, training for bar and bat mitzvahs, welcoming babies, helping people through times of grief and getting married,” as well as regular worship services, as the pillars of community life.
Cultural celebration, particularly around food and music, may be one of the most prominent aspects of Jewish life in Asheville. Deborah Miles, a member of Carolina Jews for Justice West, founder of the Center for Diversity Education at UNC Asheville and a member of Beth Israel, notes the joy she gets from performances of Bandana Klezmer, in which her husband, Marc Rudow, plays fiddle. The group grew out of a class at the Jewish Community Center 17 years ago and now regularly plays parties and cultural events.
However, members of Asheville’s Jewish community also tell Xpress they’re united on social justice issues through the practice of tikkun olam, or “repair of the world.” Meiri says racial justice, voting rights and reproductive justice are the three topics most prominent on her congregation’s mind.
Assisting refugees has been important to Congregation Beth HaTephila as well. Members helped five Afghan evacuees who had settled in Asheville with their immigration hearings, Meiri explains. Her congregants have also raised money for displaced Ukrainians; in April, she delivered $56,000 donated from people in Asheville to the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, Poland, which was assisting those fleeing Ukraine’s war with Russia.
Miles says she has participated in local “get out the vote” efforts for years. “Because of [Jewish] history, we know just sitting there is not going to protect us,” she explains. She says making a personal connection to voters and having deeper conversations with them about the issues helps encourage them to vote. (Miles is the mother of state Rep. Caleb Rudow, a Democrat representing District 116.)
‘The oldest conspiracy theory’
Such engagement is particularly important now, Lublin suggests, given what she calls the mainstreaming of antisemitic beliefs in political discourse. She says lies about Jews are “the oldest conspiracy theory … frequently trotted out when it benefits those in power.”
Lublin points to white supremacists’ recent embrace of “The Great Replacement” — the conspiracy theory that white Christians of European descent are being replaced by people from the Middle East and Africa who have higher birth rates. In the U.S., some people with far-right views believe that Jewish people are manipulating immigration to achieve that end; for example, at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”
Esther Manheimer, mayor of Asheville and a member of Congregation Beth HaTephila, echoes Lublin’s concerns. “I worry about Jews in America and antisemitism being a polarizing political issue,” Manheimer writes in an email to Xpress. “No form of subjugation should be politicized, yet it is.”
Manheimer continues that she “struggle[s] to imagine how to pull back from partisanship playing into preventing and responding to hate speech and actions, but that is what we need to do as a nation, and leadership should be a role model in this effort.”
Much of that antisemitic rhetoric is taking place at the national level, but local law enforcement remains alert for worrying signs. Asheville Police Department Capt. Joseph Silberman, who is Jewish and has been on the force for 19 years, says in the past two years, police have investigated “a number of incidents” directed at the Jewish community.
Jewish institutions in Asheville take safety “very, very seriously,” Silberman says, explaining that they will contact APD with any concerns. The department has also provided those institutions with training on explosives awareness.
However, there have been “no specific threats, or what we would consider communicating threats, to a Jewish institution or place of worship,” he says. Among the incidents APD has looked into included damaged property — “minor vandalism that didn’t have a specific antisemitic connection but we still are sensitive to” — and harassing phone calls, Silberman explains.
Silberman also says there have been “prominent Jewish people that were threatened” on the internet by white supremacists, and in those cases APD has worked in partnership with the FBI. He declined to go into more detail about that activity with Xpress.
“You have to take all of these very seriously,” Silberman says. “But the reason it’s so sensitive is we can’t let one fall through the cracks, because we don’t know what it would lead to.”
Hate crimes are governed by federal statute, Silberman says, and North Carolina has legislation prohibiting “ethnic intimidation” due to race, color, religion or nationality. He says nearly all of the incidents related to the local Jewish community that have aroused concern haven’t met the criteria to be charged under those laws. Spray-painted vandalism at a temple, for example, might raise concern but not meet the threshold of ethnic intimidation.
Asked whether any local incidents have made him personally concerned, Silberman recalls one case of intimidation against a resident of Jewish descent. “I remember feeling personal discomfort to have that reminder that there are people like that out there,” Silberman says. “As far as we’ve come as a society — and it’s been leaps and bounds the past 50 years — there are still people like that out there, and being on guard is still necessary.”