Author of the upcoming book, Mensch•Marks: Life lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times. Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2018 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Random musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
What I’m about to confess is something that many Jews have felt this week but few would overtly acknowledge: When news came down about the victims of Frazier Glenn Miller’s rampage in Kansas, I, like many others, wondered about the identity of the dead. As I heard Mindy Corporon, the mother and daughter of two of the victims, speak so movingly of arriving at the scene, it became clear to me from her reaction that the victims were probably not Jewish. Jews tend to imagine God and respond to sudden tragedy quite differently, though this is by no means a hard and fast rule.
It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s a natural reaction. Please don’t misunderstand: I am inspired by how the religious communities of Overland Park came together over this horror. They taught us all a lesson in how to embrace diversity. And I grieve for the three victims, just as I grieved for all the victims of last year’s Boston bombings, the innocents in Syria butchered by Assad, the children of Newtown and the victims of random gun violence on the streets of Chicago.
The victims in Kansas City were random too. The killer came for the Jews but he victimized everyone. Jews are the proverbial canary in the hater’s coal mine. As we’ve seen this week in Donetsk, Ukraine,wherever bigotry simmers, it manifests itself most vividly in anti-Semitism. In an atmosphere where hatred is tolerated and tools of murder distributed freely, ultimately no one is safe.
So why did I breathe that sigh that I’m not very proud of?
Part of it stemmed from the sense that Miller will face his fate knowing that he failed, in the sense that a warped deviant like him would imagine failure (insomuch as I can try to understand what a warped deviant thinks). He didn’t just fail like most terrorists fail, like the Tsernaev brothers failed in their attempt to bring a nation to its knees. No, he failed because when he came ready for a massacre, his one shot at eternal infamy, he didn’t kill a single Jew! Someday, when he meets Hitler, Stalin and Torquemada in the bowels of hell, they’ll just be shaking their heads and muttering, “Frazier, Frazier, Frazier…”
But more than that, my sigh was an instinctive, flinching response, based on the knowledge that his bullet was meant for me. Not literally, since I live far from Kansas, but when he took aim for one Jew, he was taking aim at all Jews. He was aiming for me. In the same way that the killer who randomly shot 46-year-old Baruch Mizrahi on Monday on a road near Hebron was also aiming for Jews.
I can’t get beyond the thought that he was aiming for me. In 2014 America, where the ADL reports that anti-Semitism in America has declined precipitously — and the shooting did nothing to disprove that – he was looking down the barrel of a gun and wanting to kill me.
The mere fact that the victims were not Jewish points to how integrated American society has become, much to the chagrin of the haters, who are more marginalized than ever as barriers of bigotry continue to crumble.
But as a Jew, I can not escape that visceral feeling that there are people out there, perhaps a billion or two in this world, who want me dead simply because I am a Jew. I’m not sure it’s a feeling a Presbyterian can understand.
As a native Bostonian, I cried extra tears for the victims of the Marathon bombings. When the bombings occurred, as the horrible news trickled in on Twitter, I had that terrible, helpless feeling I’ve had all too often regarding Israel. I made a pilgrimage to the makeshift memorial on Boylston St.
But I know that the Tsernaevs did not take aim at Martin Richard because he was a Bostonian. They didn’t bother to ask Lu Lingzi if she was American or Chinese.
On Sunday, Miller allegedly performed his own rudimentary form of selection, asking potential victims “Are you Jewish?” much as the Nazis did, or the terrorists at Entebbe. So even Bostonians can’t understand what it feels like to know that the bullet was intended for me.
It’s time for us all to understand what this feels like, and as a Jew, it’s my precious obligation to teach the lesson. And the only way to do that is to understand that, in a broader sense, the Tsernaevs were taking aim at me too. Not as a Jew, not even as an American, but as a person bent on making our world more loving, as one bent on overcoming the fears that divide us. As someone wishing to combat fear with faith, and extremism with outreach, Tsernaev, like Miller, was taking aim at me.
Until we can see these affronts as personal attacks, and until we can rally around the victims, all victims, as if they were blood relatives, we will be content to allow these atrocities to quickly fade from memory. We need to stop future Millers from acquiring the means to lash out with such destructive zeal. Because the next victim might well be… anyone of us.
My sigh of relief was understandable but premature. Hate rears its ugly head everywhere; we Jews know that coal mine all too well. I have that uneasy feeling that it may get worse as people seek Others to attack, anyone who is different. I fear that we’re not in Kansas anymore.