EREV PESACH TRAGEDY IN MY HOMETOWN
As many of you may already know, just a couple weeks ago, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, the 13th April – the day before the Pesach seder – a man entered the car park of the Jewish Community Center in Kansas City and opened fire, killing two people, Dr William Corporan and his grandson, Reat Underwood. He then got back in his car, drove down the road to Village Shalom, the Jewish retirement centre nearby, and shot and killed a woman in the car park there, Terri LaManno, who was visiting her mother. The police apprehended the suspect, an avowed white supremacist named Frazier Glenn Miller, outside of a school a stone’s throw from my family’s shul, where my husband and I were just married this past October.
I grew up in Kansas City, a sleepy, lovely Midwestern city of 2 million people, 20,000 of them Jews, with at least eight shuls and a community day school and the Jewish Community Center serving as the proverbial Jewish town square. I have spent literally countless hours in that JCC. My mother was there that morning, on the day of the shooting, not an hour and a half before.
It grieves me to reflect on this now, after the fact – but I would never have expected an Anti-Semitic-motivated murder to happen in my lifetime, in my hometown, let alone three of them. As it happens, one of the dark ironies of the tragedy is that Miller did not succeed in his goal: none of his victims were Jewish.
As my city paper, the Kansas City Star, wrote the day after the shootings took place, “Sunday is a day for family visits at the Village Shalom retirement center in Overland Park. At the nearby Jewish Community Center, which carries the name of one faith but opens its doors to all, it’s a day for exercise, play rehearsals and children on the autism spectrum and their parents gathering for a weekly fitness program. Sunday was a day of love and expectation and community — all shattered by one deranged armed individual.” Miller’s nightmarish vision of the Jewish community is manifestly not what he found there that day.
When my sweet, frum uncle-in-law heard the news in Israel, his first response was one many of you can imagine. He quoted from our Haggadah, which we just read so recently at seder, only the day after the shootings: “In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.”
And it is tempting to take that lesson from this. At my beloved Jewish Community Center, which happens to be celebrating its centenary this year, where I learned to swim and to say my first words of conversational Hebrew, where I played basketball and saw musicals, and laughed with my friends, a man got up in the morning with a gun, and his truth – that my community was nightmarish beyond belief – was strong enough to compel him to murder three people.
That’s the thought that rattled around inside me – and in the heads of many others – for the first few days after this happened.
But that is not the full story, not even by half.
On that day, who did I call first? My four best friends from Kansas City. All of whom are non-Jews. We have spent a long time grieving together, stricken by what has happened in the heart of our community. And as my rabbi, Mark Levin, the rabbi of that shul near where Miller was apprehended, wrote so beautifully (and whose words were picked up nationally by CNN) the day after the shooting, “Perhaps it is no coincidence that this hateful attack occurs at Passover. It certainly threatens our sense of security and multiplies the fear that we are persecuted. I wish, however, that you could receive the loving calls I am receiving from friends and clergy all over the wider metropolitan area and indeed around the world. Our neighbors: Jews, Christians and Muslims are outraged that senseless murder would be aimed at our community. We live among friends, and that is very different from Pharaoh’s Egypt, Nazi Germany, or any other place in which Jews have suffered persecution.”
So although perhaps the most frightening thing, amongst many, to come out of this for me was, just for a split-second, a brief glimpse into the horrifying vision of what Miller – and others like him – sees when he sees Jews, that is not the message of this moment.
At the Jewish Community Center that day were a Methodist doctor and his grandson, on their way to a musical talent competition. At Village Shalom that day was a Catholic woman on her way to visit her mother, suffering from dementia, at a Jewish nursing home. Four days later, when the windows had been repaired, an overflow crowd of 1300 people, including my mother, the US Attorney General, and clergy from all faiths, gathered for an interfaith unity service at the JCC, near that car park, and pledged that this was not what humanity was about.
We do not live in Pharaoh’s Egypt anymore.
Rabbi Leah Jordan (Ordained 2013)
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.