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by Gary E. Bachman, MSSW, LSCSW
(Editor's Note: On Sunday, April 13, 2014, on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Passover, a shooting occurred at the Jewish Community Center and a Jewish-affiliated geriatric center in Overland Park, KS. Three people were killed. The shooting is being investigated as a federal hate crime.)
The first hint was a police car seemingly appearing out of no-where, (“Where’d he come from?) lights flashing, siren blaring, and that special clarion alarm to clear the intersection: I’m coming through! Slightly miffed at uniformed self-importance flaunting prescribed protocol: I KNOW lights and sirens allow speeds 10 mph beyond posted limits and this yahoo was easily moving at double that.
Back at home, the sirens persist from the south and east, and I distinctly differentiate the tones linked to different emergency services. Something’s up. And I look up at the threatening sky, discerning no threat; my weather app reveals a storm cell skirting north and west. Nothing for us to worry about, right? And Diane and I return to sorting wedding photos from a quarter century prior.
The trouble with peeling an onion is that you are bound to cry…
The Jewish Community Center is just under a mile east of our home. And the Shalom Geriatric Center is just a couple of blocks south of there. In between is Menorah Medical Center, where Diane worked for ten years.
The evening news reveals mayhem. Two dead at the JCC. One more at Shalom. A suspect in custody shouting “Heil Hitler” to news crews. The thin dry paper-like outer skin comes away in broken fragments
Two dead males, a grandfather and grandson attending a community music competition. Their church, that mega Methodist church that so many of our friends attend, releases a statement. The bereaved mother/daughter talks to reporters (inquiring minds you know…) about love and faith and heaven. That’s another layer.
The person of interest is a devout hater. White supremacist is the label. A convicted felon illegally in possession of multiple (but easy to obtain) legal weapons. News reports say he’s from someplace else… rural Southwest Missouri. It’s like that’s supposed to mean something. (Really? Diane’s from rural southwest Missouri, we’ve friends and family in rural southwest Missouri.)
On the morning drive a “talk radio” host posits the question: is anti-Semitism still alive here? Was it ever alive here? He doesn’t see it, but yesterdays shooting (and ratings) beg the question. “Or was this guy just a lone wacko?” Another layer.
Childhood memories emerge. The JCC is on the Overland Park side of Nall Avenue. Across the street to the east is the city of Leawood. I grew up, one block north of Leawood, in Meadow Lake, a post WWII subdivision. (All of our fathers had served somehow in World War II.) That neighborhood (MY neighborhood) in the 50s & 60s was predominantly Jewish with a smattering of Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, and even one family of Unitarians. And as kids, we compared stories from temple and Sunday school and church, seeking to divine the mystery of those gifts that seemed inexorably linked to either a Menorah or Christmas tree. (Because otherwise, those stories were remarkably similar!)
I also remember Mr. K, who lived two doors down. He’d driven the tank in the war, had been wounded, got a medal, and was there to liberate a concentration camp from the Nazis. Then there was Dr. W; he was from Poland and spoke with a very slight accent. He had come to America before the war, went to medical school and then served in an Army Hospital in France and Germany. His father, who often visited on weekends, had only come to America after the war. And one time when I was perhaps 8 or 9, I had been blessed to sit with this ancient man and his grandchildren as he told his story of hiding for years in forests and cellars from the Nazis who had already taken his siblings and parents, away.
What I didn’t learn until some years later is that one reason there were so many Jews in our neighborhood was that Somerset, the next street south, was an invisible fence. No less officious than the wire ones at Auschwitz and Dachau and Buchenwald. You see, Jews weren’t allowed to own property or live in the city of Leawood. It was in the city charter and deed restrictions filed at the courthouse. (I would later learn that Catholics weren’t particularly welcome either, but they weren’t legally excluded!)
The curious Leawood city limits map showing annexation of land to the south and west was drawn in the mid 60s to exclude particular new neighborhoods built in the unincorporated parts of the county and populated by occasional JEWS. (THE MID 60S!) And it occurs to me that while such restrictions have long been legally vacated, the mind carries such memories. Where did those ideals come from? And does a change in the law necessarily compel a change in the heart? (And what am I doing with this shrinking stinking onion?)
Mr. K. and Dr. W., both wonderful family men, American citizens, decorated veterans of our war to defeat nations principled on imperialism, fascism, racial superiority, and genocide, had come home to a nation that was just free enough to label and limit them as lesser men because of their faith and heritage. All this is racing through my mind in defiance of sweet dreams.
But who knows this stuff? Who’s paying attention? Who cares? Is anti-Semitism alive here? Was it ever? Last week, a colleague was talking about his new car and how he "Jewed down" the seller. Seriously? Confronting him, he reassured me it was nothing…”just a figure of speech. You know?” Sadly, I think I do. Sorta anyway.
Visiting a new church back around Christmas, I had encountered a former co-worker. A nice guy, but I’m recalling a curious chill that had permeated our working relationship when he asks, “What are you doing here?” I share that we are looking for a new church home, and he chuckles, touches me affably on the arms and declares with a disarming smile, “Really? How great. You know, I thought you were Jewish? This is a great community here. Let me introduce you around.” I’m sure he meant nothing.
Yesterday in an “Intro. to Social Work” class, I took the opportunity to veer temporarily off course to test student imagination with the challenge of what roles might social workers play in responding to such tragedy. My first surprise was the revelation that perhaps only half of the class had even heard of the incident. (Although all seemed appropriately shocked.) The next surprise was the acknowledged confusion over words that some of the young people, mostly 19 & 20 years old, weren’t familiar with. “Anti- what? What’s that?” Anti-Semitism? “Yes, what’s that?” and “A bigot? What’s a bigot? I’ve never heard that word before?” These were sincere and honest questions about terms that some students were totally unfamiliar with. Even as they seemed to recognize the concept. But where did these kids come from? (Where’s that damn onion?)
But wait there’s more.
Last evening's news reveals that the woman murdered in the parking lot at the Shalom Center, after visiting her elderly mother, was herself a mother of three and preparing to celebrate her 25th wedding anniversary TODAY. Tuesday, April 15th. Also Diane and my 25th wedding anniversary. That’s awfully close to home, and all those pictures that Diane and I have been sorting for our party slideshow are flashing though closed eyelids. Proximity, Identity, Ignorance, and Hate. I look at the bedside clock and it is 2:20. Can’t sleep. Wandering onto the back porch with the dog, the moon is a peculiar blood tinged red. I’d forgotten, there is a lunar eclipse in process, and I marvel at the curiously symbolic color as the dog paws to go back inside where it’s warm.
This morning’s headlines confirm pending charges of a federal hate crime against the alleged shooter. And the local paper curiously makes a point that although the crime had targeted Jews, the deceased were all Christians. Two Methodists and a Catholic. Someone’s keeping score? I suppose to offer some measure of ironic relief, right? (Oh! Here’s that damn onion again!)
Happy anniversary baby, gotcha on my mi-ind...
Gary Bachman is an Associate Professor and the Interim Director of the Undergraduate Social Work Program in the School of Social Work at Park University in Parkville, Missouri. Previously, he rose to the rank of Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine and Hospital, where he also provided both inpatient and outpatient social work services to individuals and families. Although clinically licensed, he proudly describes himself as a generalist practitioner. He has been a professional social worker since 1976.