Kansas Cityians in Israel Express Anguish and Surprise at Tragedy

Many former Overland Park locals see the shooting as an anomalous incident, but also as a reminder of 'how vulnerable' diaspora Jews are.

Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber
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Police outside the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas. April 13, 2014.
Police outside the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas. April 13, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber

On Passover eve, just hours before the seder on Monday, Kansas Cityians in Israel expressed anguish and surprise after an ex-Ku Klux Klan member killed three in a shooting that took place at what many describe as the center of the Midwestern city's vibrant Jewish community.

"My son goes there to work out every morning," said Wendy Claster, 59, who worked at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City in Overland Park where the first shooting took place, and whose four sons went to school there. "I was so frazzled; I couldn’t even work out the times. Was he in? Was he out? Was he finished?"

21-year-old Gili Kamara, who's been living in Israel since 2010, has been constantly checking Facebook and the news, "and really trying to stay connected," since her parents called her Sunday to let her know they were okay.

Like Claster's son, and like many other local Jews, her parents, who are also prominent members of the Israeli community there, are often at the center, where Kamara's mother teaches Hebrew.

"I'm very grief-stricken, this feels very close to home," says 25-year-old Jason Barnett from the city of Shawnee, part of the Kansas City Metropolitan Area. "The Jewish Community Center parking lot where the shooting happened, I crossed it all the time to go to the sports center," he says. He was also a volunteer for years at Village Shalom, the assisted living center a mile away where the second shooting occurred. "It's extremely vivid, and it reminds us how vulnerable we are."

Former Kansas City residents told Haaretz that the violent attack is not at all typical of life for the mid-sized Jewish community, which numbers around 20,000. They describe a place where people are "Kansas City nice" and there is a safe and welcoming small-town feeling. They community itself is tight-knit and upstanding, with harmonious relationships between the different Jewish denominations there, according to the former residents.

Rabbi Morey Schwartz, who headed the city's Beth Israel Abraham and Voliner Orthodox congregation between 1991 and 2000, says he always felt safe walking around as an observant Jew and wearing a kippa. He only remembers one incident, when someone said "Heil Hitler" on his way to synagogue one Saturday. "I stopped and said 'excuse me, do you want to say that again.' I wasn't scared of him, and he just walked away." It is something that he recalled with his eldest son after Sunday's incident.

Jews spread out residentially in Johnson County, Kansas, says Rabbi Schwartz, but one thing that brings them together is the Jewish campus in Overland Park, which is seen as a symbol of the community. Still, the area is huge and the facilities are frequented by Jews and non-Jews alike – the three victims were Christians, two of them attending a talent contest at the center and a third visiting her mother at the adjacent retirement home.

A quieter anti-Semitism

Claster doesn't remember experiencing overt anti-Semitism or violence when she was growing up. She describes a quieter anti-Semitism that is under the surface when you are perhaps one of the only Jews in class, and in a part of the U.S. where there are pockets of white supremacists and extremists.

What her and others point out is that the gunman, 73-year-old Frazier Glenn Cross, was not from Kansas City itself, which is splayed across the border of the states of Kansas and Missouri, but that he was from deeper within Missouri itself.

"This is definitely a one-off extreme event, and has nothing to do with the overall feeling toward Jews in the area, and it says nothing about Kansas City residents," says Kamara.

Another one of Claster's sons, Eric, moved to Israel 15 years ago. "Jews who have made Aliyah have one foot in both worlds," he says. "I am still very connected there, half my family is there. I visited two weeks ago with my mom, and I was actually in the Jewish Community Center."

The most serious incident of anti-Semitism he can remember growing up was graffiti being sprayed at a synagogue. This is usually a question of ignorance, he says, "not calculated violence for being Jewish." The news was shocking, he says, but still, "you have to be realistic, and you have to be prepared."

Rabbi Schwartz hopes that when Jews around the world experience such violence first hand, as they did in Overland Park, or from a distance, they will appreciate that "in Israel we have a place to go home."

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