In the Jewish faith as in all of history, a lasting lesson is that in the face of tragedy, life must go on.
“I think it’s important for us to continue on as before,” Debby Winkel, 64, of Olathe said Wednesday, the first day the Jewish Community Center had opened after two people were fatally shot there and a third person was killed at a second Jewish community site in Overland Park.
“I think we owe it as a show of support for those families who lost loved ones,” she said, “and to show support for one another.”
With a mixture of emotions ranging from sadness to anxiety to defiance in the face of hatred, the exercisers began lining up in the dark just before 5:15 a.m. As they returned to their routine, they did so at a center with a stepped-up security presence: An armed security officer for the time being will be stationed at the center’s early childhood development center, which each day serves 235 children.
“My stomach’s got a pit in it. It’s a very solemn day,” said Kim Matsil, 43, of Overland Park as she waited for the fitness and sports area to open. “But it’s also a fine day, because we’re here together.”
Barely 100 yards away, in the parking lot across from the center’s theater, is where a man with a shotgun and handgun on Sunday killed 69-year-old Overland Park physician William Lewis Corporon and his grandson Reat Underwood, 14. They had just arrived so Reat could audition for an “American Idol”-like singing competition.
Soon after, the gunman would take the life of Terri LaManno, 53, a Kansas City mother of three who had come to visit her own mother at the Village Shalom senior living center nearby.
Authorities a short time later arrested 73-year-old Frazier Glenn Cross Jr. of southwest Missouri, better known as F. Glenn Miller Jr. On Tuesday, Johnson County prosecutors charged him with one count of first-degree murder and one count of capital murder, a charge that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment without parole unless prosecutors seek the death penalty.
Miller is an avowed racist and one-time member of the Ku Klux Klan with a long history of anti-Semitism who, upon his arrest, shouted, “Heil Hitler.” None of the victims was Jewish.
“It’s terrible that such hatred should linger out there in this day and age,” said Scott Claster, 30, who grew up in Overland Park but later became an Israeli citizen and served in the Israeli military.
Claster arrived at the gym early, standing second in line.
“What’s important,” he said, “is that we come back, or else they (people of hatred) win.”
The first man in line was Morton Spack, 81, who has been coming to the Jewish Community Center since he was a child and it was just known as “the center” at Linwood Boulevard and Wayne Avenue.
“I don’t let something like this interfere with my living or my thinking,” Spack said.
After 25 years in Overland Park, at 5801 W. 115th St., the Jewish Community Center this year has been celebrating its 100th anniversary. It started in an old produce building in the City Market, at a time when Jewish men and women faced broad discrimination and were not allowed to join other clubs.
Over the years, it has become a hub of activity for people of any faith, or none. Besides its gymnasium, theater and child development center, the community center is home to the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education and the Jewish Veterans Museum. It also runs a food pantry, multiple summer camps and a baseball league.
Some 8,500 members use the community center’s facilities; 45 percent are not Jewish.
Todd Messenger, 41, of Overland Park conceded to feeling “a little bit emotional driving in today.”
Although he is not Jewish, he said the events of the last few days made him think much more deeply about the prejudice and hidden hatred his Jewish friends must contend with just because of their faith.
Community center President Jacob Schreiber, 51, said the center plans to review its security practices and make whatever changes are deemed necessary in the wake of Sunday’s terrible events.
But he also said he has been much impressed and heartened by both the general public’s condemnation of prejudice and the support it has offered over the last three days.
“It’s been amazing, really,” Schreiber said. “It’s really hit a chord among people. For some reason, everyone feels like they’ve been attacked. There is a sense that this was an attack on our entire community. And (that community wants it known), Kansas City is not about this. Kansas City is not about hate. This is not the kind of community we are.”
An interfaith service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday in the center’s Lewis and Shirley White Theatre. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback have announced plans to attend.
On a typical morning, about 25 people arrive at the community center early before the doors of the fitness area open; on Wednesday, the line was a bit shorter, close to 15.
One member arrived saying she didn’t want to talk because the events of the last few days continued to bring her to the edge of tears. Others said that as they entered the parking lot, they silently recited prayers for the grandfather, grandson and mother who were killed.
“Hard. Surreal. Sorry. Sad. Heavy heart,” Julie Worthington, 53, of Overland Park said, summing up her emotions, but added of the people arriving, “We’re getting back to life.”
As the morning wore on, the pace of people arriving picked up. The parking lot began to fill with exercisers, including Amy Gunnoe, 39, of Leawood.
“I’m not going to let (hateful) people like that deter us,” she said. She acknowledged feeling a bit wary, but as she emerged from her car, she had her ear buds in place along with a broad smile.
“They’re not going to stop us,” she said.
Later, inside, a staff member lighted three candles honoring the memories of the three who were killed. Nearby, Paula Suroff, 71, of Leawood turned thoughtful.
“My feelings are that it’s important to realize that a hatred so deep and so long-held doesn’t just hurt the people that he hates, but it hurts everybody around you,” she said. “It spills out into society. ...
“So hatred is the thing that needs to be wiped out. More than guns, it’s hatred.”
To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.