Members of the UF community gathered around a man preaching about love on Friday — a day after students and faculty members protested against a man wearing a swastika armband.
Tyler Ellman, a Jewish UF student, said he organized the Liberation Rally on Holocaust Remembrance Day to bring the university community together, regardless of religion. More than 200 UF students, faculty and staff came to show their support on Turlington Plaza.
On Thursday, Michael Dewitz stood in the same place on Turlington, wearing a swastika arm- band as protesters berated him for four-hours. Dewitz, 34, didn’t appear at Friday’s rally, but Ellman said University Police were notified of the protest beforehand to beef up security just in case. He said if Dewitz did come, Ellman planned to ignore him.
“I’m really proud of The Gator Nation today,” the 22-year-old UF theater and telecommunication senior said.
Ellman, wearing a Star of David necklace and an Israel Defense Forces shirt, stood on the concrete bench surrounding the potato statue with local religious officials Rabbi Berl Goldman, 45, on his left and Rabbi Adam Grossman, 40, on his right.
Goldman, of the Lubavitch Chabad Jewish Center, said he was happy the previous day’s protest remained peaceful and Dewitz wasn’t harmed by protesters. Dewitz was, however, attacked off-campus by two men afterward, Gainesville Police said.
Grossman, of UF Hillel, said Friday’s rally was a showcase of what the world could be when people choose to love instead of hate.
“The hope of a rally like this is to not be an ending point but rather a starting point to more community, more collaboration, to rule out hate in our communities,” he said.
As the rally ended, the crowd joined together to sing John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Jacob Zieper, 21, said he wanted to celebrate his Jewish heritage after Dewitz directed a Nazi salute at him on Thursday.
“It kind of killed my morning,” he said. “As a proud Jewish student at UF, it can be scary to witness something like what happened.”
The UF Jewish studies senior said anti-Semitism is often ignored because some feel the Jewish community is no longer marginalized. When a diverse crowd attended the rally, it was meaningful, he said.
“We’re here,” he said. “We’re proud of who we are as Jewish Gators — Jewish Americans. We’re not going anywhere.”
Later that night at Chabad’s weekly service, Goldman said he felt comforted to see those who went to Turlington to commemorate the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
“Sometimes through the most challenging or negative elements, something dark, the greatest light is represented.”