BY MATT FRANZBLAU
Federation Communications Director
Following the tragic shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. in June, there were many emotions funneling through the conscience of the Palmetto State, southeast region and the nation as a whole. While the killings, which claimed nine innocent lives sparked a rigorous political debate about a symbol from the past, it also provided an opportunity for people of all faiths to come together and show solidarity for peace and acceptance.
One person particularly moved by the recent events was Hazzan Jesse Holzer of the Jacksonville Jewish Center, who belongs to a local organization called ICARE or the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment. As an ICARE member, Holzer regularly attends meetings with other clergy members and religious leaders in the Jacksonville community ranging from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.
"I mentioned the week prior about showing solidarity even before the atrocities in Charleston took place," Holzer remembered. "I said, how can we come together as faith leaders during trying times in order to get to know each other and break down those barriers of race and religion?"
With these statements still fresh on his mind as he watched news coverage of the shootings and their aftermath, Holzer contacted other members of ICARE to see if they would join him on a journey to their sister city of the southeast.
"Charleston is only a four hour drive and I felt the need to do something because it's a close neighbor and a very similar city, historically and demographically to Jacksonville," he explained. "A few of the ministers actually seemed interested in joining me and so over time I became sort of the representative of them and some of the justice work that we all wanted to do."
Members of ICARE's clergy caucus were moved by Holzer's proposal and asked that he represent them on his historic trip to South Carolina's most prominent city.
"As a Jewish faith leader, I felt the need to make the journey in some form and I knew that in the summer my schedule is a little bit more flexible,' He explained. "When I found out Reverend Pinkney's funeral was on a Friday morning, I thought that I should make that 'the' journey."
With a date and a specific event now in mind, Holzer left the First Coast for the city thrust in the national spotlight. The Center's cantor headed out Thursday evening on a two-hour drive to Hardeeville, S.C., where he spent the night, only to wake up first thing Friday morning and finish off the trip, arriving in Charleston at about 5:30 a.m.
"I didn't even know if I would be able to attend (the funeral), given that there would be so many people from the Charleston community who would want to be there and of course members from his own church would take precedence, as they should," said Holzer of his 250 mile gamble. "So I went up there thinking, if I just stood in line, rallying, whatever it was, I would to try to be a part of that solidarity and showing of love."
The gamble would eventually pay off for Holzer but not originally in the way he thought when he first hopped in his car the night before.
"Luckily, the stars aligned and I got there really early, thinking I would have enough time to walk around the area and visit the church and not be in line but the gift of all of this was that I actually had to run to get to the line as soon as I got there because there were already a couple hundred people waiting to go into the arena," he recalled of his initial ordeal. "But those five hours were probably the most important moments of me being there."
During his time waiting in line and battling the South Carolina summer heat, Holzer began striking up conversations with those around him, who at first glance looked nothing like the Jewish clergy member from Florida.
"The majority of people really didn't talk about my kippah or why I was there as a Jewish person but we got to know each other," he said. "We talked about the weather, how parking was impossible and how early we had to wake up, but then our conversations deepened."
Soon the strangers around him began to take the shape of friends and acquaintances as people from all faiths were engaged in meaningful and thought provoking discourse.
"We talked about race and religion and how that plays a role but I also talked about how I was from Jacksonville and how we still have forms of segregation," he said. "Parts of our city are still very segregated racially and I wanted to find ways both in action and in dialogue to break down those barriers."
Not only was the Center's Hazzan popular with his new found friends, but he also garnered quite a bit of attention from local media outlets as he fielded a number of interviews as a clergy member from out of state who made the trip to Charleston.
"I kind of stood out being the Jewish clergy member with the kippah among the masses," he said. "But there was sort of a respect and understanding between myself and the people next to me because if I was there that early, then I felt something, something similar to what they felt."
As the hours and the productive conversation passed it soon became time to enter the arena where the funeral service was being held. Once the five thousand plus people filtered into the facility, services started and so did an unexpectedly celebratory tone among the parishioners.
"I've rarely attended a non-Jewish funeral to begin with let alone an African-American Methodist Episcopal funeral, but there was a certain ruach or spirit at that funeral," the first time church congregant recounted about his experience. "I have never clapped my hands at a funeral before but I clapped my hands probably 40 to 50 times over the course of the morning."
The service put Holzer on sensory overload as between the clapping and shouting there were quite a few prominent politicians, clergy members and community leaders just a stone's throw from his seat in the arena's upper deck.
"The pastor that was there kind of ran the whole five hour experience," Holzer remembered. "He introduced the dignitaries that were there, the state representatives, the former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton and Lindsey Graham, who was sitting next to her in addition to James Clyburn."
Then it was Reverend Pinkney's turn, and he proceeded to receive the largest ovation of them all, a standing one that lasted for two-minutes in which everyone, politicians, parishioners and plain people recognized a man who gave his life for what he believed in.
"It was very inspiring to hear some of the things he did, not only as a pastor but as a state representative," Holzer said. "I had gone in part, knowing his role as pastor, fighting for all those who are in need, but as a member of the state congress he really in more recent years fought for LGBT rights."
As the intermittent clapping subsided, it gave way to singing at the conclusion of the service that morning as President Obama took to the podium and serenaded the crowd in his rendition of 'Amazing Grace' at the conclusion of his remarks.
"Within two seconds of him singing, everyone just joined in, so it was actually kind of powerful because, yes he was leading us in song but when you have more than five thousand people singing, it's powerful," the man who is used to singing in front of more modest crowds commented.
Holzer was not too surprised to hear the 44th President break out into song as the overarching theme of his eulogy was grace, mentioning the four letter word numerous times throughout his period at the podium.
"My original motivation for coming to Charleston was to honor Reverend Pinkney, but it was just icing on the cake to ear Obama so unfiltered," Holzer said. "He's not running for office anymore so he is able to finally say what he is able to say with a little more emotion. That kind of president in that kind of moment is important."
Once the service concluded, Holzer walked back to his car, saying so long to the city in which he made so many memories in such a short period of time. The nearly four hour long car ride back to Jacksonville left the Hazzan with plenty of time to recount the moving morning he shared with perfect strangers who became fast friends.
"I want to be able to create areas for more conversations with people of different faiths and ethnicities," Holzer explained of his newfound mission. "It's not just a passing conversation, but it is something that can be ongoing because hopefully through my experiences, I can be a voice for my community and in turn people here in Jacksonville will have those same conversations that I saw in Charleston."
For more information about ICARE and its mission, visit the organization's official website at icarejax.org or follow them on twitter @ICAREJax and like them on facebook.com/icarejax.