A Colorado Synagogue Struggles To Make Sense Of A Violent White Supremacist Threat
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
I'm Ari Shapiro in Pueblo, Colo. Jews in America today are acutely aware that they are targets. Anti-Semitic incidents are becoming more common, from swastika graffiti to physical violence. A synagogue here in Pueblo recently brushed up against that reality. We're hosting the show from here today, one of the cities we're focused on for NPR's yearlong project Where Voters Are. From now through the election, we will be asking where voters are with candidates and where they are on the issues. Even though the city of Pueblo only has about 100,000 people, it's home to one of the oldest synagogues west of the Mississippi. Temple Emanuel was built around the year 1900.
BIRDIE BECKER: Although it looks like it was picked up out of a shtetl in Europe, it actually was built here.
SHAPIRO: Rabbi Birdie Becker leads us into the sanctuary through a red brick arch. In the morning, the rising sun shines through a stained-glass window over the front entrance. Now with the sun low in the sky, the flaming light of late afternoon bursts through another stained-glass window over the arc that holds the Torah scrolls.
A few months ago, the FBI arrested a 27-year-old white supremacist and charged him with plotting to blow up this synagogue.
BECKER: What we would have lost would've just been amazing. The history down here, this little wing here, this little alcove, has the history of where Judaism really began in this state.
SHAPIRO: It's photographs and artifacts. There's Shabbat candles and a menorah, a kiddush cup and certificates dating back, I'm sure, almost a century.
BECKER: More than that because the congregation began before the building existed.
SHAPIRO: Jewish merchants came here in the 1800s to supply steel mill workers. The photographs show well-dressed men and women at banquet tables celebrating marriages and bar mitzvahs. Today the congregation has about 35 families. They include Republicans and Democrats ranging in age from a baby to a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor.
BECKER: Everything - farmers, people come who live in the city, people who come from the mountains.
SHAPIRO: As rabbi, is it hard to unify all of those differences?
BECKER: So because we're small, we know that we need to be together.
SHAPIRO: I asked Rabbi Becker whether the threat against this synagogue has cast a shadow over the community. And at first, she said, no. It's brought people together. Donations poured in from all over the country. Churches and mosques came out to support Temple Emanuel.
But then she told me she arrived for our meeting a little early, and a strange man was sitting on the steps in front of the synagogue.
BECKER: Where I might have gotten out of my car before, I wouldn't do that now. Where our door used to be open, now we have someone who sits and guards it. It's locked. You can't just walk in. You have to knock to get in.
SHAPIRO: That feels like a concession that it must have been difficult to make.
BECKER: It is, but it's reality now. So you make it.
SHAPIRO: Do you think it's a temporary reality?
BECKER: No. No, I think it's where the world is going, and Jews have always been the canaries in the coal mine.
SHAPIRO: Some people have argued that the rise in anti-Semitism is a direct reflection of rhetoric from powerful people in politics.
BECKER: I think that it's a lot more than the rhetoric. I think it goes much deeper. Othering can happen to and has happened with so many groups - the turning back of the clock for the LGBTQ community, the turning back of the clock for immigration, the turning back of the clock for women's rights and reproductive rights.
SHAPIRO: What you are saying sounds like an indictment of the Trump administration, and you have a congregation in which many people are Trump voters and Trump supporters.
SHAPIRO: Does that make it difficult for you to say this (laughter)?
BECKER: I did not indict Trump.
BECKER: I did not bring his name up.
SHAPIRO: Am I misinterpreting your remarks?
BECKER: Everyone can interpret them as they see.
SHAPIRO: So that's how you walk that tightrope.
BECKER: That's how I walk the tightrope.
SHAPIRO: One of the congregation's Trump supporters is the synagogue president, Michael Atlas-Acuna.
MICHAEL ATLAS-ACUNA: I come from a Mexican background, OK? I come from a background of people who are continuously being told that we're too stupid to do certain things, that I'm too stupid to get my own ID card and go vote. There's too much pandering to people of color and women. And I just think that's - to me, the Democratic Party that I used to belong to is no longer that.
SHAPIRO: When did you switch?
ATLAS-ACUNA: I'm not a Republican either. I'm an independent. I switched about five years ago.
SHAPIRO: Oh, wow. So did you vote for Obama and then for Trump?
ATLAS-ACUNA: No, I didn't vote for Obama. Rabbi Birdie and I are on opposite sides. She probably told you that. But, you know, I respect her.
SHAPIRO: Do you have any advice for the rest of the 300 million people in America who might be having a tough time either breaking out of their bubble or having a conversation with somebody outside of their bubble that doesn't turn into screaming?
ATLAS-ACUNA: I think, first of all, become Jewish and learn how to listen.
ATLAS-ACUNA: And learn and understand that there's two sides to an argument.
SHAPIRO: When the FBI arrested the man plotting to bomb this synagogue, Atlas-Acuna was the first person they called. And in the months since then, members of the congregation have offered help in a distinctly Colorado way.
ATLAS-ACUNA: We just have some people here that came to me and said, don't ever worry about it because we're - I have a concealed permit. And there's about three or four of them that do.
SHAPIRO: It seems like a way of saying we're not going to be victims.
ATLAS-ACUNA: Exactly. That's why I put that sign up there.
SHAPIRO: The sign that says, this is not a gun-free zone.
ATLAS-ACUNA: That's right. Why would any soft target put up a sign that's saying it's a gun-free zone? You're just asking for trouble.
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UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Hebrew).
SHAPIRO: It's Friday night, and people are singing Hebrew prayers to usher in Shabbat. Rabbi Birdie is strumming a guitar. Michael Atlas-Acuna keeps rhythm on the congas. There's also a violin and an accordion. This is a day of peace in a trying time. After the service, people mill around the social hall next door eating homemade challah and cookies.
Members of the congregation tell me this election is inflaming the anxiety that's been brewing since they heard about the bomb threat. Miriam Neff considers herself a liberal Democrat, and she says even with nine months until the election, she's as stressed as she was in the last month of the 2016 campaign.
MIRIAM NEFF: I'm really scared about this election cycle. Instead of feeling that way in October, I'm feeling that way in February. What is it going to be like in another six months?
SHAPIRO: And the knowledge that her community is a target makes it even worse.
NEFF: I don't talk about being Jewish very freely. The place that I thought was so safe and secure was not as safe as I had imagined it to be.
SHAPIRO: Mark Schuman told me he's shocked to encounter this anti-Semitism in a place like Pueblo.
MARK SCHUMAN: I grew up in a very Bible-belt town, never have experienced any anti-Semitism in my life. Some of Trump's comments have probably not helped the situation. I'll put it that way. And I'm a Trumper (ph).
SHAPIRO: You're a Trumper.
SCHUMAN: I am.
SHAPIRO: But you think he bears responsibility for this.
SCHUMAN: I wouldn't go that far, but I would say that he certainly hasn't helped. But I think when you look at the results in the economy, the economy's good. And most people vote with their pocketbooks, so...
SHAPIRO: Before we leave the synagogue, board president Michael Atlas-Acuna shows us one of the improvements that Temple Emanuel purchased with all the donations that came in after the arrest. It's a high-tech security system with night-vision cameras. He can access the live feed on his phone 24/7 to see if there are any threats to this century-old house of worship.
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