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In a room with a maximum capacity of 768, over 1,300 people crowded in for the memorial for the victims of the Pittsburg synagogue attack. | Photo: Dwight Widaman.

Memorial to Jewish victims brings communities together but includes politics

The Jewish community was joined by a contingent of Christians Monday night at a memorial service for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack.

The vigil, held at Kihilath Israel Synagogue in Overland Park, Kan., was organized by the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/AJC (JCRB|AJC), Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, and the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City. It was promoted as an opportunity for communities of different faiths to come together and stand against violence and anti-Semitism. Over 1,300 people attended the service which also included Muslims and Sihks.

Speakers at the event, which ran longer than its one hour schedule, included Rabbi Doug Alpert of Congregation Kol Ami, Imam Akhtar Chaudry of the Muslim Jewish Advisory Council, Reverend Adam Hamilton of Church of the Resurrection, and Rev. Rodney E. Williams, Senior Minister at Swope Parkway United Christian Church and President of the Kansas City Branch NAACP.

The evening was meaningful for those in attendance coming just a few years after a deranged gunman shot and killed three people at the Kansas City Jewish Community Center.

Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, who is up for re-election in November, spoke about the 2014 shooting sharing that, ironically, the victims were not Jewish but were “two Methodists and one a Catholic.”

“Just looking at them,” he said, “you would not know what religion they were. That’s why this stuff is so stupid.”

The topic of how to address bigotry and hatred was also discussed.

“In the face of evil, politeness is a luxury,” stated Mark Levin, the founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park, in talking about how to address hatred when we hear it from others. “We must get beyond somebody saying something bigoted and saying, ‘Well, he’s my neighbor.’ … No! That is an unacceptable thought.”

Other speakers invited attendees to attend services at area synagogues this Saturday. That’s when a “National Solidarity Shabbat” is being planned across the nation to strengthen ties between people of different faiths.

While most of the speakers offered words of healing and hope in terms of bringing the community together and addressing bigotry, Monday night’s gathering also became a political platform according to some in attendance.

To the shock of two individuals that Metro Voice interviewed, the message of unity at the memorial became lost after Rev. Rodney E. Williams with the NAACP took the opportunity to call for those in attendance to get out and vote.

With his voice rising and the crowd stirred to a fever pitch, Williams said things will only change when people vote. He was unclear how voting would have prevented the mass shooting in Pittsburgh or Leawood or have prevented the mass shooting that targeted Republicans in a Congressional baseball game last year or the gun attack on a Republican headquarters early Monday morning in Florida.

His words however, still seemed to stoke a frenzy in the crowd with most standing and robustly supporting his statements about voting as they clapped and shouted their approval. During much of his speech his words were unintelligible for the roar of the crowd.

Metro Voice spoke to one Christian who had attended to show her support for the Jewish community and offer her prayers and condolences in a setting she assumed was meant to span political and religious divides.

“What I didn’t expect,” she said, “was that it would turn into an uncomfortable political rally before the election next week.”

The woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said she was saddened that an opportunity for true community unity seemed to be lost when the calls to vote came. “I knew they were implying that as a person who supports the President and Republican policies that I was somehow responsible for the deaths of these dear people in Pittsburgh,” she lamented. “I just wanted to burst out in tears.”

She wasn’t alone. A member of the synagogue also shared with Metro Voice his disappointment. “I had hoped it wouldn’t turn out this way,” he said, “But when you have people who feel threatened, it’s easy to point fingers in an attempt to find answers and deal with grief and shock.”

After the rally atmosphere subsided, the evening returned to a more somber note and perhaps what most had expected. As the names of victims were read, candles were lit in their honor.

Towards the end of the memorial a woman shared with the Metro Voice the interaction she had with her 97-year-old Jewish mother. “When I told her Saturday about the shooting, I couldn’t believe how sad she looked. I have never seen her look so sad.”

–Metro Voice News