Jewish Journal

Four Questions For Overland Park

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

April 16, 2014 | 9:08 am

The Jewish community of greater Kansas City – and by extension, the entire American Jewish community -- is still reeling from this past Sunday’s attack on the Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom in Overland Park, Kansas. There were undoubtedly many Passover seders that invoked the horror -- the radical, sobering truth that “in every generation, there are those who would rise against us to try to destroy us.”

Therefore, in the spirit of the Pesach Haggadah, four (new) questions about what happened Overland Park. Each question begins with the most basic Jewish question – “Why…?”

Why did this happen right before Pesach?

Because anti-Semites know the Jewish calendar even better than some Jews do.

Perhaps Frazier Glenn Cross, the neo-Nazi alleged shooter in Overland Park, knew about the “Goebbels Calendar.” Purim was a particular favorite, because the Nazis identified with Haman. On Purim, 1942, the Nazis hanged ten Jews in Zdunska Wola, Poland, specifically to avenge the hanging of Haman’s ten sons. A year later, once again on Purim, the Nazis shot ten Jews from the Piotrkow ghetto. On Purim eve that same year, in Czestochowa, Poland, the Nazis shot over one hundred Jewish doctors and their families. And, of course, the Nazis planned the attack on the Warsaw Ghetto to coincide with Passover.

Arab anti-Semites picked up the grim practice as well. The infamous pogrom in Iraq, which started on June 1, 1941, coincided with Shavuot. In 1973, Arab armies deliberately chose Yom Kippur to wage war on Israel. In 2002, Hamas attacked a Passover seder at the Park Hotel in Netanya, in which thirty civilians died and 140 were injured.

Frazier Glenn Cross knew what he was doing. And he knew when he was doing it.

Why is it so important to remember that the victims were non-Jews?

Fourteen year old Reat Griffin Underwood was going to auditions at the KC SuperStar singing scholarship contest, held at the JCC. He was killed in the JCC parking lot. His grandfather, William Lewis Corporon, 69, drove him to the JCC; he was also killed. Terri LaManno, 53, was killed while visiting her mother who was a resident at Village Shalom.

None of them were Jews.

So, it was not only Pesach that was indelibly stained by blood. It was also Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week for Christians. For the families of those who were slain, Holy Week will never be the same.

Why were non-Jews at the JCC and at Village Shalom in the first place? Aren’t those “Jewish” facilities?

The Jewish community was under attack, but the Jewish community is “larger” than we thought. Jewish Community Centers and Jewish assisted-living facilities are community institutions, and not just for Jews. They are the Jewish community’s gifts to the communities in which they live.

Jews and gentiles freely intermingle in our open society (just as the Israelites who left Egypt were accompanied by an erev rav, a mixed multitude of non-Israelite Egyptians who decided to leave as well; just as not every Soviet Jew who left the former Soviet Union was, in fact, Jewish by any definition).

It is precisely that kind of societal openness that must have infuriated Frazier Glenn Cross.

Why is America different?

Because American anti-Semitism has usually been about economics, and social class, and exclusion, and hateful rhetoric, and occasionally bombings and physical attacks (which are on the increase).

But the lethal variety is very rare.

How rare? These are the American Jews who have died in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States (I am not counting, at this moment, American Jews who have died outside this country -- like terror victims Alisa Flatow, Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, and Daniel Pearl). 

  • Leo Frank – lynched by anti-Semites in Georgia in 1915.
  • Alan Berg, the Denver talk radio host, killed in 1984 by members of the white nationalist group, The Order.
  • Ari Halberstam, 16, riding in a van of Chabad students, shot to death on the Brooklyn Bridge (which has been renamed in his memory).
  • Pamela Waechter, director of the Seattle Federation annual fundraising campaign, who was shot to death in the Seattle Federation offices in 2006.

There might be others who names I have inadvertently omitted. But we shall not omit the names of non-Jews who, like the three victims in Overland Park, died in attacks aimed at Jews, Jewish institutions, or places that evoke Jewish memory. There was the 1999 shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in California, in which a white supremacist opened fire, killing Joseph Santos Ileto, a Filipino mail carrier – specifically because he was Asian and a federal employee. There was also the 2009 shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in which a white supremacist killed Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns.

In the wake of the shootings at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin in 2012 (by a white supremacist), I forged a relationship with American Sikh leaders. Earlier this week, I received this message from my friend, Gurparkash Singh, a Sikh leader:

“I join with my family members along with the volunteers at the United Sikhs in support of the Jewish community. Please share our respects with the family members who have lost loved ones. Today, as Sikhs celebrate Vaishakhi, and Jews begin Passover, we need to reflect on the fact that we are vulnerable.”

We are, indeed, all vulnerable. Let us remember: the overwhelming majority of victims of anti-Semitism in America have been killed by white supremacists and neo-Nazis – miscreants who just love to collect people to hate.

Yes, we Jews should take what happened at Overland Park personally. Yes, those bullets had all of our names upon them. But we are not alone. As we opened the doors for Elijah the prophet, so, too, let us open the doors of our minds and souls, and strengthen our relationships with other victimized groups.

After all, there are far more commandments in the Torah about loving the stranger than there are about what, precisely, to refrain from eating on Pesach.

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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