The fuse was wet. 

If it wasn’t for the rain, the 54 sticks of dynamite found by a janitor at Temple Beth-El in the spring of 1958 may well have destroyed the historic Birmingham synagogue, police said at the time. The partially burned fuse had failed when the rain began to fall. The house of God had been, police estimated, less than two minutes from crumbling to the ground. 

More than six decades later, early on Friday morning, police responded to calls of a fire outside Beth-El. Police later revealed that when officers arrived, they found a propane tank and clothing that had been set on fire. 

Later Friday morning, the security director of the local Jewish federation was made aware of an unattended book bag in the bushes near the synagogue. He notified Birmingham police and the FBI, both of which responded to the scene. Police would send a robot to retrieve the backpack Friday, transporting it to an undisclosed location where authorities were eventually able to confirm there was no explosive device in the bag. 

Around noon, a man was taken into custody by the FBI as a person of interest related to the propane tank incident on suspicion of arson, authorities said. Police have not yet commented publicly on the man’s motives. 

For Phillip Ensler, what happened Friday was both an echo of the past and a reflection of our troubled present. He’s one of just over 10,000 Jews living across Alabama, many of whom watched what unfolded in Birmingham on Friday with fear and uncertainty. 

What had been a busy day of campaigning for Phillip Ensler had quickly become something much more sobering. Ensler, a Montgomery Democrat, is challenging an incumbent Republican in what has become one of the few competitive races to serve in the Alabama House of Representatives. If elected on Nov. 8, Ensler would become the only Jew to serve in the Alabama legislature for more than four decades and one of only a few individuals of Jewish heritage to ever serve in the body. 

On Friday, Ensler wore many hats and was frank when he answered the phone. He could still talk about the election, he said, but he may have to get off the phone to deal with other issues. Ensler, who serves as the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama, was trying to keep up to date on the fast-moving situation in Birmingham. 

Like in 1958, what came to pass in the Magic City on Friday didn’t happen in a vacuum. On Thursday, federal law enforcement in New Jersey had warned local synagogues about a generalized threat toward Jewish institutions in the state. 

Two photos of Temple Beth-El in Birmingham: An AP photo from 1958 and a CBS 42 photo from Friday, Nov. 4, 2022. (Drag slider left or right to see more of each photo)

“We ask at this time that you take all security precautions to protect your community and facility,” a statement from the FBI had said. “We will share more information as soon as we can. Stay alert.”

That context  – from the past and from the present – is important for understanding the anxiety many in the Jewish community may be feeling, Ensler said. 

“It’s one of those types of things where you think it may not happen here,” he said. “But the reality is it can happen anywhere.” 

Manhattan roots, Montgomery branches

Phillip Ensler was born in New York – something his opponent won’t let you forget, he said. But he’s proud of his roots. 

His family immigrated to the United States from eastern Europe well before World War II, according to Ensler. He was born and raised in New York City, where his father worked in real estate and his mother worked in advertising. The family wasn’t as religious as some other orthodox Jewish families, he noted, and wasn’t particularly partisan, but his parents made a point to stay informed about public affairs. 

As children, Ensler and his sister took the subway to public schools that he says epitomized the “vibrancy of New York.” Afterward, one day a week, he’d attend Hebrew school (the equivalent of Sunday School, he explains), where he’d learn with other Jewish kids from across the city. 

At home, he’d read with his mom. That’s how he first came across the story of Hank Aaron – an Alabamian who’d overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles put in his way simply because of the color of his skin. It was a story he’d never forget. 

By high school, Ensler had developed somewhat of an interest in politics and social justice, but one teacher, he explained, set his course in stone. Jeremy Copeland, Ensler said, taught him more deeply about how his Jewish faith and cultural background intersected with the struggle for racial and economic justice. He remembers watching “Mississippi Burning,” a 1988 film about the murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964. Goodman and Schwerner were both Jews. 

The 1964 killings of civil rights activists Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner sparked national outrage and helped spur passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. (AP Photo/FBI, File)

Copeland also taught him practical skills, Ensler said. 

“He was very focused on evidence-based arguments and being able to back up your opinion with the research,” he said. “And I think that really helped me.”

His junior and senior years of high school, Ensler was able to intern for a political campaign in the city. He loved it. The experience led Ensler to apply to college in D.C. to study political science. Ensler was admitted to George Washington University, and before long, even as a freshman, Ensler was aiming high – applying for another political internship, this one in President Barack Obama’s White House. 

He wouldn’t get it – at least on the first try. He’d intern at another nonprofit for a while, where he helped local residents write resumes and complete job applications. Two years later, Ensler applied for the White House internship again. He was waitlisted. 

Fortunately, he wouldn’t wait too long. He’d get the internship, starting out by answering letters to the president and first lady. He’d move to the Office of African-American Outreach and eventually worked for the president’s personal assistant. It was an incredible experience, Ensler said, and he reminds young folks as often as he can: it didn’t happen on the first try. 

A moment in Montgomery

The church was quiet. 

Phillip Ensler had been the only person to sign up for a tour at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church that day. A guide has shown him around briefly, he said, and she’d told him he could sit and reflect in the sanctuary. Let yourself out the side door when you’re ready, she’d said. 

He sat alone now on a pew towards the front of the sanctuary – facing the pulpit where Martin Luther King, Jr. had delivered his Sunday sermons. 

Ensler had felt called to visit Montgomery – to be in some of the sacred spaces Jeremy Copeland had taught him about not so many years ago. 

As he sat in the empty sanctuary, hope and history shining through the stained glass, Ensler said he was moved to tears. 

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery (AP Photo)

“I was very overcome with just joy and gratitude,” he said. “I think to be in the physical space, it just hit me – the civil rights movement isn’t just an abstract thing from a history book. It was very real people leading in a very, kind of modest way.”

Ensler kept a journal at the time. He said that after the trip, he’d written that he felt that his calling to fight for fairness and equality – and for Alabama – wasn’t just some lofty idea. It was a way of life. 

“I wrote that I don’t know where I’ll end up in life or what job title or position, but whatever it is, I will always have this moment to keep me focused on – as grandiose as it may sound – making sure that whatever I’m doing, I’m trying to make a difference – to make things more equal and just.”

The Promised Land

At first, President Barack Obama joked about the weather: Was Phillip ready to deal with the humidity down in Alabama?

Ensler had come to the Oval Office for a customary “departure” meeting as his internship at the White House has come to a close. Obama knew Ensler was headed to Alabama, where he was taking a position with Teach for America. 

Ensler was nervous, naturally, but he wanted to ask the president a question: “What do you think Dr. King meant that we would one day get to the Promised Land?”

Obama paused. 

“In typical Barack Obama fashion,” Ensler recalled, “He gets real contemplative. You can tell he’s taking his time.”

Obama told Ensler that he thought King meant that although things will never be perfect, we may get to a time where things are more just and more equal than they’ve ever been. When King gave his last speech, Obama reminded Ensler, the president had been only a young child. And within his lifetime, Obama said, the nation had elected its first African-American president. 

“And here we are now having this conversation in the Oval Office,” Ensler recalls him saying. “That’s a sign we’re getting closer to the Promised Land.”

Obama shifted the conversation back to Ensler’s plans to teach in Alabama. He told Ensler that in his own small way, what he was doing was moving us closer to a better future. 

“That stuck with me,” Ensler said. 

The lessons of Robert E. Lee

When Ensler found out he’d be serving as a teacher at Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, he was shocked. He’d known, of course, he was headed to Alabama, but he didn’t quite suspect an assignment at a school named after the Confederacy’s most noted general. 

“I had a very strong conviction that I was placed exactly where I was supposed to be,” he said. 

Teaching high school would turn out to be the most challenging and rewarding job he’s ever had, Ensler said. 

During his time at Lee, Ensler taught world history and a class on contemporary issues, where students would learn about and discuss current events and their implications. Ensler, in turn, learned how to meet students where they were, encouraging kids that were eager to learn and finding ways to empower those who faced obstacles along the way. 

During his first year, Ensler had taught a freshman he said showed little interest in school or his class in particular. The kid was a “quintessential class clown,” Ensler explained, and wouldn’t focus on classwork or activities. That year, the student wouldn’t pass Ensler’s class. The next semester, he showed up on Ensler’s roster again. Ensler knew he’d have to take a different approach. 

“I needed to have a better relationship with him,” Ensler said. “So from early on, I approached him very differently.”

(Courtesy of Phillip Ensler)

Instead of focusing on everything the student was doing wrong, Ensler said, he started encouraging the student, providing him with the respect and understanding he felt the child needed to succeed. 

“I’d say, ‘I’m counting on you. You’re a leader,’” Ensler explained. “And that changed so much.”

The student still had days that were challenging, Ensler said, but he became much more engaged. His grades improved. He passed the class. 

Now, when he sees his former student around Montgomery, they always take a moment to catch up. 

“Right before the pandemic, I was standing outside talking to someone, and he happened to drive by,” Ensler said. “He stopped right in the middle of the road and jumped out and came and ran and gave me a big hug.”

The two had come a long way. 

“We went from clashing almost every day to him giving me a hug,” he said. “That will always stand out to me.”

Beyond the classroom

After two years at Lee, Ensler briefly went back to New York, where completed law school at Yeshiva University. When he explained to his professors he’d be headed back to Montgomery after graduating, many encouraged him to choose a more “realistic” path. 

“I felt a little bit disheartened that they didn’t quite get it,” he said. “But I felt very confident in knowing where I wanted to build community and where I felt most at home.” 

After graduation, Ensler would come back to Montgomery, where he served as policy counsel for the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. 

Later, he’d serve as senior policy advisor for Montgomery Mayor Steven L. Reed, focusing on issues like education, criminal justice, and public health.

Eventually, he’d become executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama, a group he’d already become intimately involved with over the years. 

In 2018, Ensler unsuccessfully ran for school board after an incumbent board member announced their retirement. 

“It was a very grassroots campaign,” he said. “It was just me and my former students knocking on doors.”

He received strong support from those former students and their families, he said, but had difficulty gaining momentum. 

“It was a little more of an uphill battle,” he said. “And I fell a little short on that.”

The road to Goat Hill

Now, Ensler is challenging another incumbent, Republican Rep. Charlotte Meadows, but he has an advantage he didn’t in the previous race – redistricting. Following the 2020 census, Alabama’s 74th House District was redrawn, and the demographics of its voters shifted significantly. A majority white district was replaced with a majority Black district, making Meadows’ re-election anything but certain. 

Ensler said that the newly drawn district undoubtedly provides a rare opportunity for Democrats in the state but that he’s running because he believes he can best represent the folks living across the district. 

(Courtesy of Phillip Ensler)

“I want to bring that experience from the classroom – and my policy experience – to the State House and try to address some of the issues I hear about every day from people like my former students and their families. I want to be a voice and an advocate for them. 

If elected, Ensler will serve as a Democrat in a legislature dominated by a Republican supermajority. He says he still believes he can make a difference on Goat Hill. When needed, he said, he will be a firm voice of dissent in the legislature. But as often as he can, he said, he hopes to find common ground with Republicans to get things done. 

Ensler said, though, that there is a lot a legislator can do to serve their constituents that doesn’t require the approval of a single lawmaker from across the aisle. 

“I can act as a resource for the district,” he said. “When people have an issue, they don’t care if it’s the city, county, state or federal who’s supposed to be responsible. They want it fixed. And that may not even require anybody at the State House.”

“Joy and pride”

Friday night, Phillip Ensler said he’d been in contact with law enforcement about the incidents at Temple Beth-El in Birmingham. He said the suspect in custody is a habitual arsonist and that police don’t believe the fire was motivated by antisemitism. 

“Alabama’s Jewish population is around 10,000,” Ensler said. “Many of us were frightened as today’s incidents unfolded amid threats made against Jewish houses of worship around the country and rising antisemitic attacks and rhetoric in the U.S.”

The context of the past and the divisions of the present, Ensler said, cause the Jewish community to take pause when events like these unfold.

“I felt safe at Shabbat services in Montgomery tonight, but no house of worship should be guarded by an armed officer for its congregants to feel safe,” Ensler said. “Please pray and work with us towards a day — soon — when all can worship and live in peace.”

Ensler said that if he’s elected on Tuesday, Nov. 8, his priorities, as they have always been, will be informed by Jewish values – the ones he learned in Hebrew school: justice, fairness, and equity. If he’s able to pull out a victory, he said he believes Alabama’s Jewish community will take pride in his election.

“Like any group, we want to have representation in government,” Ensler said. “Just knowing that there’s someone from the Jewish community in the legislature, that would be a source of joy and pride.”

If, though, Phillip Ensler loses on Tuesday, he said you won’t find him on a flight back to New York. 

“Absolutely not,” he said. “I think it’s important for my students and others to see my commitment. Montgomery’s my home, and I’m here to keep serving.”