We Stand With Love In Naples, Florida

Friday, December 10th was a night I never thought I’d see in the city where I live. Before I recount the details of the evening, I need to share some background.

I live in Naples, Florida. It is a city that sort of exists in a bubble. Naples is a beautiful place to live; white, sugary sand beaches, palm trees, and it’s sunny and warm even in the middle of December. Seeing a Bentley (or two) in the Costco parking lot is not unusual. It is a city known for wealth, a vacation destination, gorgeous sunsets, and a quiet, peaceful place to live or retire.

According to the 2000 census, Naples has a population of about 21,000. I certainly wouldn’t call it diverse by any stretch of the imagination; ninety-two percent of the population is Caucasian, about 5% are African American, just over 2% Latino, and all other races represented are less than 1% of the population. Approximately 70% of the population is Christian (of various denominations) and its population of Jewish people, of which I am one, is about 1.4%. All other religious groups register at less than 1% or are non-existent. Moving here from a much more diverse city and one that had a much larger Jewish population was a big adjustment for my family. Nonetheless, everyone was friendly and welcoming. We never felt discriminated against or unwelcome in any area of the city or felt singled out for being different in any way.

A politically red city, the types of post-election protests and disruptions that were going on around the rest of the country were just stories here in Naples. I, personally, had not heard of any violence or harassment of minorities here. All of this made the recent incident even more shocking and upsetting.

On Friday, December 3rd, sometime in the overnight hours, the sign at my Naples temple was damaged by shotgun pellets. The bubble I had been living in had burst. Emotions that I have shoved way down post-election now bubbled to the surface and I suddenly wondered if my family was safe and what our future looked like. My temple sent out an email to the congregation letting them know of the incident and later in the week a service was planned, “Shabbat of Solidarity.” According to the announcement, leaders of other religious organizations in Naples would be in attendance. I knew I had to go to support my Jewish community but also hoping to show my ten-year-old that he was safe.

Not realizing that others knew about the service, my friend Amy who is also the mother of my son’s best friend and, in full disclosure, is one of the founders of We Stand With Love, asked if we would be attending the service. She let me know that her family, although not Jewish, was planning to attend as well to stand with us in solidarity. Saying this meant a lot to my family is an understatement. We decided to make an evening out of it. The plan was for their family to come to my house for dinner and then we would head to temple together.

After finishing dinner we split into two cars, Amy and me in one and our husbands and our sons in another. It’s fair to mention at this point that I am not a “regular” at temple services outside of the major holidays, but I have been to a few Shabbats over the years. Out of season and minus a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, attendance is fairly low, maybe 50 or so people at the most the last time I went.

My expectations going to the service were maybe a hundred to two hundred people would be there, mostly members of the temple’s congregation, along with a few leadership representatives from local churches. Amy and I were busy chatting away heading to temple when about a mile and a half from our destination traffic came to a standstill. We don’t have traffic in Naples unless there is an accident. We joked that maybe all of these people were also headed to temple when in reality we both assumed there was an accident up ahead and I was frustrated that it was going to make us late. But as we crawled along it slowly sunk in that this traffic was indeed all headed to temple! Police were there directing the traffic which had overflowed out of the temple’s rather large parking lot and cars now lined the road for quite a distance. Never had I been in such a wonderful traffic jam and my emotions got the best of me. Amy and I couldn’t believe what we were seeing. We clung to each other for emotional support and in our own show of solidarity as we made the walk carefully along the busy road to the service.

What was going on inside was more overwhelming than what we had witnessed outside. The building was packed; it was standing room only. There were easily over one thousand people in attendance – in a city where only 1.4% of the population is Jewish. A slew of religious leaders from the local churches and other religious organizations were in attendance along with members of their respective congregations in masses. Amy and I made our way to an open spot along the wall to stand and while it didn’t have the best view of the speakers it did give us a perspective to look out over the crowd that, besides filling all available seats, lined the walls and spilled out of the sanctuary into the lobby and out of the building.

While I have been in this room many times, never have I seen it filled with such a diverse group. Jews, Muslims, and Christians sat shoulder-to-shoulder all there for the same reason – a show of solidarity. Religious leaders representing many faiths spoke. The stories they related and the speeches given were moving and emotional. Bottom line was, “Not here. Not in our backyard. Not on our watch.” Looking out over the masses of people in attendance, my heart was overwhelmed knowing three things. First, the words that were spoken were more than words because they were backed up by the action of those in attendance. Second, my community was not going to tolerate hateful acts against any of its citizens. Third, we who stand with love in my community far outnumber those who seek to hurt us. This momentous occasion in our small city humbled me and gave me hope for the future.