A police car sat outside The Conservative Synagogue of Westport. A police officer stood inside the front door.
Those are signs of the times. Near-daily bomb threats have rattled Jewish Community Centers and Anti-Defamation League offices around the country.
But the only threat last night was to disrupt stereotypes and assumptions.
A full house heard Frank Meeink talk about his life.
At 13 years old, the Philadelphia native was a skinhead. By 18 he was roaming the country as a neo-Nazi recruiter. He hosted a TV show called “The Reich.”
In prison — convicted of kidnapping and beating a member of a rival skinhead gang — he befriended men he once hated. Slowly, his world view — and life — changed.
Today the 41-year-old is a noted speaker, author and founder of Harmony Through Hockey (he’s also a youth coach). He travels the country talking about tolerance, diversity and mutual understanding, in race, politics and throughout society.
Meeink — who has been featured in a film with Desmond Tutu, appeared in a music video with country singer Jamey Johnson and been interviewed by Katie Couric — was part of the inspiration for the movie “American History X.”
His talk last night was riveting. It was also preaching to the choir. I doubt anyone came to the synagogue hoping to have his or her neo-Nazi views reinforced.
But Meeink’s message of openness, and his story of how hatred can be turned to love, was powerful and inspiring. It was also eye-opening to hear his raw words spoken inside a temple, before an audience that included men in yarmulkes.
Last night’s event was the culmination in a long day. Earlier, Meeink spent 2 hours with the sophomore and junior classes at Staples High School. They listened raptly as he discussed “The Truth About Hate.” After Meeink spoke, a number of students talked in an open mic session about their experiences with bullying — as bullies, victims and bystanders — and pledged to work toward greater acceptance for all.
Meeink later met with members of the Westport Police Department.
When he was 15 years old, Meeink tattooed a swastika on his neck. Two decades later, a resurgence of hatred sweeps our nation.
The police presence at The Conservative Synagogue last night served as a grim reminder of that. But Frank Meeink’s strong words — delivered to various Westport audiences all day long — overpowered every image of fear.
(Frank Meeink’s appearance last night was sponsored by The Conservative Synagogue, the Anti-Defamation League of Connecticut, TEAM Westport, Hadassah, the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy and the Westport Inn.)