1,000-plus attend two anti-hate rallies at sites on Peninsula

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Speaking at an interfaith rally at Peninsula Temple Shalom in Burlingame, the Rev. Paul Watermulder called upon an audience of some 400 to come together against hate.

"We are all God's children on this dirty little planet," the spiritual leader of Burlingame's First Presbyterian Church said on Thursday of last week. "And do you know what? God has a picture of his family in his wallet. And when he looks at that picture, he has each and every one of us in mind."

In response to the spate of hate crimes occurring across the state and the nation, Peninsula Jewish institutions hosted two rallies in four days, drawing more than 1,000 people, including politicians, religious leaders and community activists.

Sunday afternoon's program at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, where folk singer Joan Baez performed with her niece Pearl Bryan, attracted more than 600 people. The center had recently been targeted by anti-Semitic telephone threats, allegedly by Kevin Riley O'Keeffe, 28, of San Jose.

Carrying the slogan "Not in Our Town," the title of a Montana anti-hate campaign and film, the rallies alternately struck chords of defiance and sounded out calls for reconciliation. One included a blues-infused version of "The Star-Spangled Banner"; the other featured folksy guitar strumming.

The only obvious difference in the events was in the temperature: The Thursday rally was held on a crisp summer evening and Sunday rally was on a sweltering afternoon that left its participants dripping with sweat.

In Burlingame, Jewish community activist Ken Colvin, an organizer of the event, spoke of the horrors of the concentration camp he helped liberate and expressed his fears about his grandchildren's safety at their day-care centers.

Alluding to the shootings at the Los Angeles-area JCC, Colvin said history provides stern warnings.

"The atrocities of the Holocaust must never be forgotten," he said. "The safety of our children and grandchildren are at stake very time we fail to stamp out evil when we encounter it. Evil will only exist when men and women of good faith fail to stand up and fight against it."

Colvin closed his speech with the mantra heard many times at both rallies. "Not in my backyard. Not in my town. Not in my world."

Iftekhar Hai, the United Muslims of America interfaith director, told the Burlingame audience that a country founded on religious tolerance must stay true to its creed.

"I come here to stand in solidarity with my Jewish brothers and sisters, and with people of all faith who respect the house of worship where God's name is celebrated," Hai said.

Imploring the audience to recognize the commonality in their respective faiths, he said that attacks on synagogues, black churches and mosques are "inexcusable attempts to silence the word of God."

Like the Burlingame rally, the event in Palo Alto celebrated the coming together of diverse groups. The multicultural theme was mirrored by a colorful display outside the auditorium.

A Kwanzaa coloring book shared space with tiny plastic Buddhas and an autographed poster of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman. Gay pride flags were draped over Native American shawls and menorahs. Dreidels were placed on Chinese newspapers.

The first speaker on the program, Palo Alto Mayor Gary Fazzino asked the audience to consider the origin of intolerance.

"Do we laugh at the offensive joke?" he asked. "Do we let the racial slur go by without consequence? If so, we lay the groundwork for acts of hatred."

After San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales lauded his city as "the safest large city in the world," Jessica Ravitz of the Anti-Defamation League painted some disturbing pictures of other communities — mainly those found on the Internet.

"I'm worried about the disenfranchised members of our society. Those angry loners who are desperately looking for something to belong to and find their community amongst those who hate.

"The truth is," Ravitz continued, "these days they don't have to look far to find these communities. They don't have to become formal members of a hate group. With the help of the Internet, there are some 500 extremist Web sites available to them in the comfort of their own home."

After the panelists concluded, the microphone was turned over to the audience members. As the crowd fanned themselves with fliers, speakers ranted against Rush Limbaugh, implored the audience to consider the social implications of an illiterate prison population and stressed the tranquility that comes with truly knowing God.

Outside the auditorium, as the sounds of Baez's guitar wafted through the humid afternoon, Janet Wells, the president of the Palo Alto NAACP chapter, fought the heat in a small patch of shade.

"On a hot day like this, to see this many people, is just overwhelming," she said. "People need to see other people who care. Everybody needs to understand that life is too precious not to be able to enjoy the fruits of the American dream because you're scared to death."

In a related development, O'Keeffe, who was accused of making hate threats to the ALSJCC, did not enter a plea at his arraignment Wednesday. The arraignment has been continued, although no date has been scheduled, said Lt. Elena Forest of the Palo Alto Police Department.

"They charged him with everything we asked for," Forest said.

That included two felony counts of making terrorist threats, one felony count of violating civil rights and three misdemeanor counts of making threatening phone calls.

On a lighter note at the Burlingame rally, three 12-year-olds were enjoying the refreshments. A bobbing and weaving mass of braces, freckles and baseball caps took a break from munching to identify themselves as Scott Karoly, Brian Polonsky and Adam Chickman, all 12.

When asked what impressed them most about the evening, Brian said it was the truffles.

"No it wasn't," Scott responded. "The really cool thing was that all different religions got together. Including some that I never knew existed."

Brian interjected: "He knows about every religion. He knows everything."

Scott disagreed, but his words were drowned out by Brian, who said some of the evening's speeches reminded him of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a Dream" speech.

Wendy Polonsky watched as her son gripped his friends in bear hugs and smiled. "They don't let anyone know, but they're nervous. Twelve-year-olds have an image to maintain," she said. "But I let my kids know that it's their responsibility to fight intolerance. They realize that growing up Jewish, they can be the victims of prejudice."

Across the room, David Levy and Zdenka Levy, both Holocaust survivors, chatted with friends.

"The reason we're here is obvious," Zdenka Levy said. "Most of my family perished in the Holocaust. So when this lunatic did this horrible thing, it made me sick. An attack on Jews anywhere hurts me very deeply."

Both men said that they enjoyed all the speakers, but David Levy mentioned that Watermulder was his favorite "because he said that God carried around a picture of me in his wallet."

"That shows that God has good taste," he said.