This Yom Kippur, I sat alongside members of the Or Chadash Synagogue in Memphis, participating in the Kol Nidre service. It was my fist time there, but the warm welcome of Rabbi Cantor David Julian and the congregation made me feel at home. Feeling at home at a place like this would have been almost unthinkable to an earlier version of myself. For 15 years, I lived a life full of hate, leading and recruiting white supremacists to hate groups in the United States and Germany. Before leaving the neo-Nazi movement in 2002, I was an ardent racist, anti-semite, and islamophobe and my younger self would never have stepped foot in a synagogue. But just walking away from a white supremacist group doesn’t immediately make someone a good person.
After leaving the extremist environment I lived in for many years, I was still hard-wired to hate, and the prejudices that had existed in my heart for so long were still there. I moved my family to another town, to get a fresh start – and the only apartment I could afford was being rented by a Turkish Muslim man. My landlord showed me compassion at a time when I thought I didn’t deserve it and treated me as a human being at a time when I wasn’t ready or able to reciprocate. At that point, my life was at a crossroads: I could either piece together the fragments of hate, that still lived in my heart – or I could analyze them and learn more about the people I’d perceived for so long to be my enemies.
A decade after I walked away from the neo-Nazi movement for good, German authorities discovered the terror group called the “National Socialist Underground.” Group members were found to have killed nine Muslim immigrants a decade earlier. Though I had many friends in the Muslim community by then, I did not feel targeted personally. Having never felt the kind of hate that the Muslim community experienced on a daily basis, I couldn’t empathize with their plight.
After I moved to Memphis for a fresh start, I was called to action by events that shocked the nation: the 2016 murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In the months that followed, I founded a non-profit organization called C.H.A.N.G.E that engages in ant-racism and ant-violence campaigns, interfaith work, and community outreach. I thought I could use my voice to amplify the concerns and needs of another community, and immediately went to work building bridges between different groups in Memphis. But still, I always felt like an outsider. I could sympathize with the challenges these communities faced; but try as I might, I was unable to empathize with them.
Last year, on the recommendation of a friend, I visited the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which draws attention to grave injustices around the world – with a specific focus on the Holocaust. Visiting the museum opened my eyes – for all the work I had been doing to better my community in Memphis, I had done very little to reflect on my former anti-semitism. I had never visited a concentration camp or had a meaningful interaction with a Jewish neighbor. I simply thought I was “okay”. I wasn’t a hateful person anymore after all. Standing in the museum’s replica of a gas chamber, I realized that until I worked with the Jewish community, I could not find inner peace and atone for my past actions.
Shortly after that visit, eleven people were murdered in an act of hate at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. I could not wrap my head around the idea that eleven people were killed, just because they were Jewish. Within days, I was at Northeaster University in Boston, sharing my journey from hate to compassion in a room packed full of college students. In the year since the attack in Pittsburgh, I’ve spoken at dozens of universities, high schools, and yeshivas, connecting with Jewish communities across the country, from San Diego to Columbus to New York. When Chabad of Poway was attacked by a white supremacist, I grieved silently for my friends in the Jewish community, who I knew were hurting and whose pain I couldn’t even imagine.
When I was invited to attend Kol Nidre services at a local synagogue in Memphis, I felt humbled. A community that until one year ago, I had never engaged with had invited me into their house of prayer on one the holiest day of the Jewish year. The congregation’s president had told me about the security measures in place to protect congregants during the High Holidays, but I couldn’t fathom the idea that someone could try to violently enter the building, just to shoot the people praying inside.
The next morning, as Jews around the world asked God to forgive their sins, an armed gunman tried to enter a synagogue in Halle, Germany, but was kept out – by security measures not unlike those that have been put into place at places of worship around the United States. When he could not enter, he shot whoever he could, killing two people. If there is anything we have learned from this uptick in hate against the Jewish community, it is that what starts with the Jewish never ends with it As I followed the news reports, I thought about all my Jewish friends, who were that day attending services in their respective communities and was glad they were alive and safe. I realized that, sitting in that synagogue, I could have been a target, too, simply because I was present, wearing a kippah and asking for forgiveness on Yom Kippur. For the first time I could really understand what it means to not feel safe just because you’re of a certain faith, or because you look different from your neighbors. For the first time I realized it’s not only about “them.” It needs to be about all of us.