What was thought to be a hate crime in a Kansas college town brought 250 people of many faiths together for a meal Wednesday night in a huge display of support for the local Jewish community. A United Church of Christ congregation, involved in the event, thought it was the perfect time to "practice the ministry of presence and show up."
"We know that when a hate crime happens there aren't necessarily words that can fix the pain, but we believe showing up matters and that our presence is a strong statement that God stands alongside those who have been marginalized," said the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood, pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ, Manhattan, Kan. "It can also be important to show up just to hear the cries of pain or lament together."
A suspected act of anti-Semitism on the Kansas State University campus Friday evening triggered the community meal. A sukkah, an outdoor structure built for the Jewish harvest festival Sukkot was torn down outside a residence hall, and found the morning of Oct. 7, wrapped around the car of one of the students who helped put it up.
According to rabbinic tradition, these tent-like structures represent the huts in which the Israelites dwelt during their 40 years of wandering in the desert after escaping from slavery.
A member of First Congregational, who works in housing at K-State, decided that an evening of education and fellowship would be the best way to respond. Jessica Girdler collaborated with students and campus groups to organize a Sukkot Solidarity Dinner on Oct. 11, the last evening of the week-long harvest festival.
"I felt like we had a responsibility, to show community, and to learn as a community about Sukkot and the sukkah," said Girdler. "We couldn’t leave it to the group that had been targeted to decide how allies would respond."
This particular event focused primarily on educating the community about Sukkot. Put together in just a few days, the joyful event drew the large crowd in a community of 50,000. Pastor Wood, one of ten clergy/religious leaders in attendance, said it was really powerful to hear the words of a visiting rabbi, who traveled 90 miles from Lawrence, Kan. because the college community doesn't have a rabbi in residence.
"Rabbi Neal Schuster spoke at length about Sukkot - the origins, why it is celebrated, how it is celebrated," Wood said. "It was wonderful as I looked around and saw 250 people gathered, learning together. I thought, 'Boy, I bet this isn't what the people who tore down the sukkah had in mind!'"
Clergy led an interfaith walk, and Muslims, Christians and Jews sat down for a meal together after a blessing in Hebrew from Schuster. Afterward, many headed over to the Islamic Center to continue the evening of holy interfaith connections.
"I think a tenant to religion, spirituality, and humanity is community," Girdler said. "We all crave community, and so we started from that same need, and we built an experience together. It was heartwarming to see."
In a news release dated Friday, Oct. 13, Kansas State indicated the damage to the sukkah, initially thought to be an act of anti-Semitism, was later determined to be caused by thunderstorms, heavy rain and high winds. The release says a witness reported seeing the structure "tumbling in the wind."
"Ultimately, regardless of cause, 250 people came together to learn and the Jewish community felt so loved," said Girdler. "I think for me, that is the focus."