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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / A swastika is seen on a utility box just off of Riverside Drive on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Several were painted on the Walnut Street Bridge and around the Bluff View Art District.

The large swastikas spray-painted on the Walnut Street Bridge and art district are gone now. City workers pressured-washed them away.

In a way, they are more troubling than a pandemic. A virus is deadly, yet impersonal. Swastikas represent a hate willing and wanting to kill millions.

Yet what of the smaller swastikas of the heart? The rage, isolation, confusion, cruelty, hate, greed and fear?

How do you erase what's on the inside?

How do we wash away our small fears and hatreds before they lead to large ones?

***

Larry Trapp was living in Lincoln, Nebraska, in the 1990s.

He was a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

"I spent a lot of money and went out of my way to instill fear," he told Time.

In 1992, Michael and Julie Weisser had moved to town. They were Jews — he was the cantor and leader at Lincoln's South Street Temple.

Trapp wanted them gone. He sent hate mail. Anti-Semitic literature on their doorstep. Threatening phone calls.

"The KKK is watching you scum," he told them. "You'll be sorry you ever moved into that house, Jew Boy." (Trapp's story is retold in many places, including Kathryn Watterson's "Not By the Sword", The New York Times, the Lincoln Journal Star and Michael Nagler's excellent "The Search for a Nonviolent Future.")

The Weissers called the police, yet the calls continued.

So, the Weissers decided to turn the tables.

They began to call Larry Trapp.

***

You don't spray-paint swastikas overnight. An act like that must be cultivated. Something feeds it.

Ground zero for violence is always internal — the heart and mind.

So what shifts us from violence to nonviolence, from hate to warmth?

Relationships.

Relationships built on nonviolence, dignity and honesty.

***

Years prior, doctors had amputated Trapp's legs. Diabetes. He was in a wheelchair. Knowing this, Michael Weisser began to call Trapp once a week, on his way to bar mitzvah classes.

"He called them love notes," writes the Journal Star's Cindy Lange-Kubick.

Larry, do you need a ride somewhere?

Larry, can we bring you groceries?

Larry, there's a lot of love out in the world. Don't you want some?

Slowly, something began to thaw in Trapp's heart. He and the Weissers kept talking.

One night, they knocked on his door, bringing him a home-cooked dinner.

Trapp answered, wearing his Nazi rings.

***

Here in Chattanooga, one of the most enduring relationship-builders was Rabbi Susie Tendler.

In 2012, she became the rabbi of B'nai Zion Congregation, and our city's first female rabbi. She co-chaired the mayor's Council Against Hate. She led interfaith dialogues, anchored a web of relationships from here to Europe to Israel.

She befriended Christian pastors, one of whom would later confess to her: I once believed Jews were going to hell. But I can't believe that anymore, now that I know you.

She's a "a co-conspirator for justice and the common good," said the Rev. Brandon Gilvin, senior minister at First Christian Church.

On MLK Day, she and Gilvin swapped congregations; she preached at his church, he at her synagogue.

She spoke to students, encouraging their activism and conscience. She denounced all forms of violence.

After the Tree of Life mass shooting in Pittsburgh, local Jewish leaders held a vigil. Hundreds of you came.

"I cannot tell you how much it warms my heart to see how packed it is," Tendler said that night.

In her, there was an eloquence and moral clarity, the precise ability to speak love into darkness. She was educator and prophet, intelligent and brave.

How we miss her.

Earlier this summer, Tendler and her family moved to Canada; she's a rabbi at a synagogue there.

These words are my inadequate thank you. I am not placing a further burden on local Jews to do this work alone. In Tendler's absence, may we all — starting with me — renew our call to strengthen relationships, erasing whatever stands between us.

***

That night, Trapp opened his door, an automatic weapon nearby, a Nazi flag hanging on the wall, Nazi rings on his fingers.

"Michael reached forward and touched Larry's hand," Pippa White says in a video at the Race Bridges Studio website. "He winced as though a jolt of electricity had gone through him."

According to White, the Klan leader began to cry: I don't want these anymore!

He removed his Nazi rings, renouncing them, once and for all. That night, he and the Weissers talked for hours.

Soon, Trapp began to apologize to those he hurt. Began reading King and Gandhi. He joined the NAACP.

"I've learned now that we're all the same. White, Black, brown, there's no difference," Trapp said, according to White.

Over the years, Trapp grew sick. The Weissers invited him into their home to live with them.

Julie cared for the man who had threatened her and her family. She and Michael were by his bed, holding his hand, as he died.

He was buried in the South Street Temple in Lincoln.

Before he died, Larry Trapp converted. He became a Jew.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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David Cook
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