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August 30, 2017 by

What’s a Jewish Ritual Doing at a Confederate Monument?

Photo credit: Martin Kraft

Photo credit: Martin Kraft

Where might it be appropriate, in this day and age, to say a prayer for the destruction of idols? For Abby Weaver, a student at Smith College who grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the best site for this prayer is the student sit-in in front of UNC Chapel Hill’s “Silent Sam”—a confederate monument.

Undergraduates at UNC are holding vigil at Sam’s feet—sleeping out on air mattresses, talking to passersby during the day and drunk students at night, and occasionally confronting white nationalist counter-protestors. Weaver, along with a group of others from the local Jewish community, led Shabbat services at the site of this protest.

Silent Sam was erected in 1913 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy as a monument to UNC students who served as confederate soldiers in the Civil War—and as a warning to Black North Carolinians, in the Jim Crow South, that UNC was still an institution of white supremacy. At the monument’s dedication, Julian Carr proudly told a story of anti-Black violence: “100 yards from where we stand, less than 90 days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a Negro wench, until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.” For decades, Silent Sam has stood at the heart of UNC’s campus as a monument to racial oppression:  in fact, Alice Sparberg Alexiou, writing in Lilith last year, remembers how Silent Sam inflected her mother’s experience of anti-Semitism at UNC in the 1940s. For decades, Black students have organized to demand the statue’s removal.

On Tuesday, August 22, a crowd of thousands gathered to demand, once again, that UNC Chapel Hill take Silent Sam off his pedestal. Just a week earlier, young activists of color physically pulled down a confederate monument in neighboring Durham, and UNC’s basketball rival Duke University voluntarily removed its own Robert E. Lee statue from campus.

Unfortunately, UNC Chapel Hill’s statue will not come down that easily. The North Carolina State Legislature passed a law in 2015 prohibiting state agencies, public universities, and municipalities from removing historic monuments without approval from a historical commission. Although North Carolina’s Governor Cooper recently gave permission for UNC Chapel Hill to remove Silent Sam because of threatened violence, the UNC Board of Trustees and Chancellor Carol Folt continue to assert that they do not have the legal authority to take the statue down.

So, students have declared a sit-in at the base of the statue until Chancellor Folt changes her mind. Under the name UNC Students of the Silent Sam Sit-In, the undergraduate student organizers put out a call for faith communities to host gatherings at the monument. Pop-up services would bring bodies to the site of the protest, and also allow community members to bear witness to the students’ powerful vigil. A Mennonite church organized a potluck dinner at the site of the statue. A Muslim chaplain performed the call to prayer. And a group of Jewish women organized a Shabbat service at the sit-in.

I arrived at UNC Friday evening before sundown and found Sam’s pedestal adorned with protest signs. A banner wrapped around the base read, “Silence Sam”; another, “We will not be intimidated.” A set of small dolls held signs that read “fuck the patriarchy and racists.” The ground around the statue was stacked with piles of snacks, water, and paper goods donated by community members; students had recently constructed two wooden picnic tables. Students have also placed fresh flowers on the table of the nearby monument Unsung Founders, Bond and Free, created in 2002 by Do-Ho Suh to honor the African-American servants and slaves who physically built UNC’s campus.

Feministing.com has already pointed out that women of color are leading the UNC student sit-in. It is perhaps no surprise that Jewish women, queers, and nonbinary folk are leading the charge to make sacred space at this sit-in through ritual and prayer. Those gathered included white Jews, Jews of color, and people who were not Jewish, of many generations and varying levels of observance. Esther Mack, who moved to Chapel Hill a few months ago, and who two weeks ago travelled up to Charlottesville, VA as a street medic, led the intergenerational group in traditional Shabbat prayers and in kiddush. She told me that “Prayer and ritual bring community and establish this place as a space for communal gathering.” Singing songs in Hebrew, Yiddish, and English in a protest space felt powerful: grounding and invigorating at the same time.

Before we said the Motzi and ate challah, Abby Weaver called us to recite one additional blessing: “Blessed are you, the Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with your commandments, and commanded us to destroy idols.”

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אַדֹנָ-י אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ להשמיד אלילים

Baruch atah HaShem Elokeinu Melech Ha’Olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu lahashmid elilim.

“The reason for saying a brokhe for the destruction of idols now, and not in the moment that it falls, is that we are fulfilling a commandment now as we are a part of the process of tearing down this idol,” Abby told us. “And our work is not complete when this idol, Silent Sam, is destroyed. We must continue to destroy everything it stood for—the false gods of white supremacy, antiblackness, ethnonationalism, and state worship—not only where these idols stand tangibly, but also where they stand in our own institutions, communities, and hearts.”

This past week has taught me a lot about the role of prayer at a protest, about how ritual can itself make space sacred. In the face of institutional stubbornness, white nationalist counter-protestors, and drunk and aggressive white undergraduate men, the UNC undergraduates have created a sacred space for cultivating anti-racism. Is there a better place to hold Shabbat services—or to celebrate the destruction of idols?


Sandra Korn is a feminist queer Jew who lives in Durham, NC and works in book publishing.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.