Maria Philomena Nevada
On Monday, May 14, Omaha community members gathered in the Milo Bail Student Center Ballroom for a “Community Sing Against Hate” event addressing anti-Semitic posters found across the Omaha metro area.
A few days before the event, a local Daily Stormer book club had put up anti-Semitic posters in neighborhoods across the Omaha metro and on UNO’s campus bell tower.
When news broke of the fliers, Sara Cowan of the Omaha chapter of the Justice Choir immediately reached out to the Revered Bud Heckman, executive director of the Tri-Faith Initiative and asked if the Tri-Faith Initiative could partner with the Justice Choir for a speedy community response.
The Justice Choir is a nonprofit originating in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In chapters around the U.S., Justice Choirs use music for social justice purposes, including at protests and marches. The nonprofit was started by Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, a director of choral ministries at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.
In Omaha, that meant presenting a united front in response to the acts of bigotry.
Community members sang songs from the Justice Choir songbook but also listened to speakers who interspersed the music with speeches and guided dialogue opportunities. One of the speakers present was Professor Patrick McNamara, Ph.D., Director of the Schwalb Center for Israel, Jewish Studies and the Middle East.
When McNamara first heard about the fliers, he was “not necessarily surprised but upset,” citing the group’s history of similar acts in the area.
McNamara said: “I am a strong supporter of free speech and I think that when that crosses the line into hate speech, we need to do things like we’re doing tonight and come together, united as a strong voice against this kind of hate in our community.”
According to Scott Kurz of the Anti-Defamation League-Community Relations Committee, their office has seen a surge in reports of hate acts.
“The thing that excites me the most is that the posters were up for probably less than 20 minutes before somebody ripped it down and called us up on the phone and told us that something was going on,” Kurz said. “I really focus less on the person who is spewing the hate, and more on the people who are trying to fight it.”
Community action was a large part of dialogue at the event with Heckman addressing the attendees, later sitting down with them during the guided dialogue sessions to discuss their thoughts and feelings.
Heckman, in his work leading the Tri-Faith Initiative, saw the event as a natural extension of the initiative’s work. The Tri-Faith Initiative brings together three different faith communities, Christian, Jewish and Muslim in intentional community and dialogue.
“There’s this natural inbuilt sense that we should be working to stand up for, protect and speak on behalf of one another,” Heckman said. “If we’re not protecting all, we’re not protecting any.”
Heckman was introduced to Cowan and her work with the Justice Choir by the Anti-Defamation League of Omaha, another organization present at the Community Sings event. Cowan, however, also attends Temple Israel, one of the faith communities in the Tri-Faith Initiative.
Cowan hopes that the Justice Choir will continue to have similar events in the future.
“This time we talked about anti-Semitism and hate crimes and in the future, we’ll talk about LGBT issues or poverty or racism or ableism,” Cowan said. “We’ll have different speakers on those topics and we will engage the community through song.”