Spokane, Wash., is not a place you’d expect large Jewish gatherings. Out of the metropolitan area’s population of 600,000, barely 200 households identify as Jewish.

Yet nearly 900 people turned out Wednesday night to listen to a presentation by Marthe Cohn, a 97-year-old French Jewish spy who operated in Nazi Germany during World War II under the assumed identity of a German nurse searching for her missing fiance, all the while sharing information with French intelligence.

With just a week to go before the planned June 14 event, Rabbi Yisroel and Chaya Sara Hahn, co-directors of Chabad of Spokane County, were looking forward to as many as 500 people joining them for Cohn’s talk.

That number wound up nearly doubling.

Many were galvanized to turn out—Jewish and non-Jewish community members alike—after hearing that white supremacists had targeted the Facebook page promoting the event, flooding it with thousands of hateful and obscene messages.

Rabbi Yisroel Hahn
Rabbi Yisroel Hahn

Those who posted the vitriol hailed from all over the United States and beyond, but were all connected via Facebook groups.

Rather than cancel the event, the Hahns turned to local and national media, enlisting their help. “If these haters wanted to silence us through their despicable messages, we wanted to do the exact opposite—to use their twisted and cowardly barbs to spread awareness and support for tolerance and peace,” said the rabbi.

“It was just the right reaction,” affirmed local resident David Behar, a regular participant in Spokane Chabad services and events. “When faced with people who are so misinformed, we double our efforts to be informed and inform others.”

Marthe Cohn on stage with her husband, Dr. Major L. Cohn
Marthe Cohn on stage with her husband, Dr. Major L. Cohn

‘Take This Message to Heart’

The situation heated up when the Hahns received a threatening phone call from an unidentified middle-aged male.

Eventually, as the hateful activity tapered off (the rabbi closed the Facebook page to comments), a wave of goodwill continued to spread, and reservations to attend the talk poured in.

Noting that teenagers were among those who posted negative messages, the Hahns reached out to local high schools, inviting students to the educational evening.

On Wednesday night, gazing out at a sea of men and women of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds sitting together in the Spokane Convention Center, the rabbi took to focusing on the positive. “We are here tonight to fight hate and increase tolerance,” he said. “Let’s take this message to heart, and show love and concern to those closest to us.”

Reflecting on the large turnout, Behar sees it as a challenge to other communities: “If a city of our size can produce this crowd, how much can bigger cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago accomplish?”

The guest speaker with a young event-goer
The guest speaker with a young event-goer