Disturbed, exhausted, frightened, frustrated, hurt — these are only a few words members of the Rome, Georgia, synagogue Rodeph Sholom have used to describe their reactions to Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Within the last week, Greene, a believer in the QAnon conspiracy theory, was revealed to have publicly called for the execution of top Democratic Congressional leaders, harassed David Hogg, a survivor of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, and accused the fictional “Rothschild Inc.” of causing massive California wildfires with a space laser.
After the story broke, many were quick to laugh at Greene’s beliefs. Saturday Night Live parodied Greene in their cold open. Social media flooded with jokes and memes. The New Yorker satirized her. The Forward’s PJ Grisar outlined the pros and cons of laughing at Greene, ultimately concluding that “poking fun at these conspiracy theories — or challenging them with facts — is actually imperative.”
“Jew lasers and notions like it can and should be laughed out of town, before they make their way to the Capitol,” he wrote.
But Greene hasn’t been laughed out of her town. In fact, she was elected with overwhelming support. And in laughter, we fail to consider those who our community should be caring for — the Jews in Greene’s district.
“I am a Jew by choice. I was not born Jewish. I have been converted for 30-some years, almost 40 years, and I find her rhetoric extremely hurtful,” said Nancy Brant, Rodeph Sholom’s president. “I’d find it extremely hurtful if I were a Jew, or if I’m not a Jew. I find it extremely hurtful as a human being.”
The nearly 150-year-old Rodeph Sholom, which serves Jews across northwest Georgia, is a tight-knit congregation, fiercely protective of its community. And Brant is far from alone among its congregants in being vehemently upset by her congressional representation.
Dr. Jeffrey Peller, a two-time president of the synagogue, said he was concerned by Taylor Greene less as an individual than as a representative of a swath of American society. “There are way more people following the QAnon conspiracy theory” than her, he said, noting that the conspiracy theory is associated with a “lack of caring about what the truth is, a lack of caring about facts, and, of course, issues of racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, anti-Muslim and anti-gay rhetoric.”
“We’re in the spotlight, but I don’t know that there’s any part of America that can feel they are immune from that,” he said.
After the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018, there was an outpouring of community support, recalled Shelly Peller, Jeffrey Peller’s wife. Hundreds of the congregation’s non-Jewish neighbors attended the synagogue’s services in solidarity.
But despite what they see as a generally supportive community, Greene’s antisemitism is symptomatic of a larger issue — one that continues to plague Rodeph Sholom.
“We have, over the decades, had isolated incidents and antisemitic acts,” Brant said. Some 25 years ago, the Pellers said, a large black swastika was found painted on the front door of Rodeph Sholom. Evan Ross, a local artist and former state senate candidate, said he’s had multiple run-ins with white supremacy, such as standing in the grocery store checkout behind a man with a swastika tattoo or having one of his students use the derogatory phrase “Jew you down” only to face no repercussions from the school’s administration. Members of the antisemitic neo-Confederate hate group League of the South, Ross said, have nearby homes.
In 2017, the white supremacist group Vanguard America used rubber cement to stick flyers advertising their group on the front door of Rodeph Sholom; the flyers bore the phrase “the tide of Jewish globalism wanes.” In 2018, the white supremacist group Identity Evropa placed stickers on the guardrails in the synagogue’s parking lot.
After the 2017 and 2018 incidents, the congregation invested in more advanced alarm systems.
“It was like, ‘we know you’re here.’” Shelly Peller said.
“When I started with the congregation 10 years ago, we would only have security on the High Holidays,” said Rabbi Judith Beiner. “That changed five or six years ago, and anytime there was an event, there was always a cop there.”
Beiner splits religious leadership of Rodeph Sholom with Rabbi Steven Lebow, rabbi emeritus of Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta, Georgia. (Rodeph Sholom has not had a permanent Rabbi since 1955.) “I had one person who serves the public, in a public forum, and who sort of shook his head wearily and said, ‘I can’t believe that seven out of 10 of the people that I work with voted for Marjorie Taylor Greene,” Lebow said. “That’s a scary number to live with.’”
“If it were up to me,” Lebow continued, “I would widely publicize that the congregation exists to try to bring people in from all over. But I think that the congregation would be reluctant to do that because, like many Southern congregations, they don’t want to advertise that they’re there, lest there be someone harmful in the community who would come forward.”
Shelly Peller echoed Lebow’s sentiment. “I think that any religious group or any minority wants to be under the radar when they feel like they’re being threatened,” she said.
As a whole, Rodeph Sholom’s community has decided to neither elevate nor promulgate Greene’s rhetoric. (An exception was a Jan. 30 statement, in which the congregation wrote “It is especially heinous when any elected official singles out a specific group and engages in false narratives regarding them. It is not only unethical and irresponsible, but it is extremely dangerous to all concerned.”) They’re frustrated by the media, which they perceive as having given Greene an unnecessarily prominent platform. And while they hoped that Greene will be expelled or resign, and want her Republican colleagues to speak out against her, they are not optimistic.
The congregants of Rodeph Sholom are weary. They speak carefully and consider the consequences of vocalizing opposition to Greene. The nation is laughing at Jewish space lasers, while they fear for the safety of their synagogue, their friends and their families. When we laugh or mock Greene, we mock the very real consequences that members of Rodeph Sholom face.
The choice to laugh also minimizes the fact that Greene is not alone in her beliefs. Some polls have found that the majority of Republicans believe that some or all aspects of the QAnon conspiracy are true. These Republicans hold office all over the country and at all levels of government. And where they are, so too are Jews who are at risk.
But the members of Rodeph Sholom remain hopeful for the future, despite the concerns raised by Taylor Greene’s as-yet brief tenure in Congress.
On Jan. 29, more than 50 people gathered on Zoom for a virtual Shabbat service led by Jonathon Adler, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Adler’s grandparents, Jule and Rose Levin, were influential community members, and Adler discussed their involvement in Rome’s Jewish history and the Civil Rights movement. By the time the service concluded, with members unmuting to sing “Adon Olam,” Greene had only been mentioned once, and only as “that woman.”
Present at Shabbat was Dr. Anne Lewinson, a professor of anthropology at Berry College, who moved to Rome in 2001. Her husband is a Black, Muslim immigrant from Tanzania. Her children grew up in an interfaith and interracial family and have thrived in Rome. And while Lewinson finds Greene’s supporters alarming, she doesn’t feel endangered or unsafe.
“Maybe that is just my general Pollyanna attitude,” she said, “but I don’t question whether we belong here, whether this is our place. This is where we live. And this is our place.”