Beth El Congregation of Baltimore hosted former white supremacist Christian Picciolini the evening of Monday, July 27 to discuss hate.
Eyal Bor, director of education at the congregation, made opening remarks to the roughly 175 attendees. “In these challenging times, hatred, racism and intolerance are prevalent,” he said. Conversations like these, he continued, aim to end that.
Bor told the JT that this concern was based on the Anti-Defamation League’s statistics that 2019 saw more than 2,100 hate crimes, the highest number of anti-Semitic events it has seen in a year since 1979. For this reason, Beth El decided to teach about hate for its first High Holiday program. Bor chose to invite Picciolini because he is an award-winning television producer, public speaker and former violent extremist who — according to Bor — exemplified that anyone can change.
Picciolini began by acknowledging that it was a “huge privilege” for him to be at a Jewish event considering his past.
He then told the story of his radicalization. Though he was raised in what he called a loving and non-racist family, Picciolini found himself at age 14 in 1987 with no good friends. “I didn’t know who I was,” he said.
One day, Picciolini was smoking in an alley when suddenly a man pulled the joint out of his mouth and told him, “That’s what the commies and the Jews want you to do.” It was the first time Piccionlini felt like someone who was not related to him had paid attention to him. This stranger, a neo-Nazi skinhead, started talking to Picciolini and recruited him. “I tried to act cool,” Piccionlini said, as the man reeled him in with a sense of belonging.
He found validation and community in the stranger’s hate group and started to endorse these toxic ideas.
“Community shapes who we are, and extremists understand that,” Picciolini said. The extremist group gave him a purpose when he had hit a pothole in life. He also felt empowered as people started to fear him and his image.
Picciolini started a propaganda band with racist ideologies in his music. He later opened a record shop that sold racist music.
But then, Picciolini fell in love. He married and had a child. “I really couldn’t justify being a hate monger and a loving father,” he said. He was still scared to leave the group, though, as it was his support system. But slowly, his heart opened up.
For example, a Black kid came into his music shop once looking sad. Picciolini struck up a conversation with him and learned their mother had been diagnosed with cancer that day. Picciolini was moved to empathize with the stranger whom he would otherwise have rejected. “Moments like that forced me to walk away.”
He removed the racist music from his shop, which caused the store to fail. Picciolini moved, got a new job and tried to make new friends.
The new life wasn’t easy for Picciolini until he decided that he wanted to open up about who he was and help others disengage as well. Today, he does so by consulting with people one on one.
Picciolini said that changing someone takes compassion, but that that is never the responsibility of a victim. He believes that no one is too far from saving with some commitment.
“It’s something that gradually happened over time,” Senior Rabbi Steve Schwartz agreed. Schwartz also noted that the story “goes to show, when you have an interaction, that you never know the impact” it could have. Schwartz concluded that the High Holiday season is a perfect time for self reflection like this.
“Forgiveness becomes a central issue,” Schwartz said.
Those interested in this topic should also read Deborah Levine’s and my book on community response to neo-Nazis and extreme rightwing groups, When Hate Groups March Down Main Street: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781538132647/When-Hate-Groups-March-Down-Main-Street-Engaging-a-Community-Response. email@example.com