Mariam Feist was direct: It is going to take a community-wide effort to “combat the root causes of bias.”
Feist, CEO of the Jewish Federation & Foundation of Northeast Florida, was among the hundreds who gathered at James Weldon Johnson Park on Thursday evening for a unity vigil to denounce the series of anti-Semitic incidents in Jacksonville last weekend.
“Jacksonville has a lot of religions,” said UNF Interfaith Center Director Matt Hartley at the vigil. “There are a lot of opportunities for curiosity and friendship.”
As Hartley spoke, four children sat off to the side: twin boys who are Jewish, and a brother and sister from a Christian household. The three boys all play T-ball together.
While sports have served as a way to connect communities, Jacksonville Jewish Center Cantor Jesse Holzer said last weekend’s display was an attempt to instill fear during one of the city’s biggest parties.
More than 76,000 people watched Georgia flatten Florida, and thousands more surrounded TIAA Bank Field; Holzer says he’s not sure how many people noticed the hate speech that was projected onto the back of a scoreboard at the stadium.
“I hope people have been keeping tabs on it,” says Holzer, who has lived in Jacksonville for 14 years. “I’m hoping the flip side of it is people in Jacksonville say, ‘Wow, what if someone said something bigoted in my direction during a happy time?’”
Holzer is a vice president with the local Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment, ICARE. He is hopeful that last weekend was a reminder that anyone can be on the receiving end of hate speech if the broader community does not do more to “nip it in the bud whenever it happens.”
Feist says “deplorable events” are opportunities to engage and eventually transform Jacksonville.