Wichita Jewish community increases vigilance in wake of attack

By: Jason Tarr Email
By: Jason Tarr Email
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WICHITA, Kan. -- As dusk approached Monday, Rabbi Nissim Wernick and his wife prepared a meal at their Wichita home. They had more than 14 guests coming over to mark the first night of Passover.

But also on their hearts and minds was Sunday's attack on two Overland Park Jewish centers in which an anti-Semite gunned down three people.

"It hit me that on the eve of the Passover holiday, which is a holiday that is supposed to testify to the fact that freedom is important and slavery is not acceptable, what we had here is a person who is still enslaved to prejudice and hatred," said Rabbi Wernick, the spiritual leader of Wichita's Hebrew Congregation. "We pray and hope this type of behavior stops and ceases. It's horrific."

Wernick and others in the Wichita Jewish community were still suffering shock Monday when investigators confirmed the shooting was in fact a hate crime.

"It sickens and saddens us and makes us all want to cry," said Sandy Diel, Director of the Mid Kansas Jewish Federation -- one of 155 Jewish federations across the nation.

Diel says the Jewish community is a strong and tight-knit family. So while the attack happened near Kansas City, it's those in Wichita hard.

"It's a crisis of how can this happen again? Why does this continue to happen? Why does hate exist?" Diel said.

Diel says the only way to combat such hate is with love and education.

"Until you get to know somebody, there is no reason to hate people because they are different," Diel said. "Violence isn't going to solve those problems, conversation will, friendship will, community partnerships will."

But in addition to education, the community is taking precautions.

The shooting in Overland Park comes on the heels of vandalism to a Wichita immigration mural. Several weeks ago, swastikas had been painted over the mural.

"When you see one isolated incident, sometimes people are going to want to think it's just going to go away, it's just one person," Diel said. "But then you see what happened yesterday and you really know that it's not just one thing."

Given such events back-to-back, Wichita Jewish community leaders say they aren't taking any chances this Passover.

"Our synagogues will be more vigilant and we will have police protection around this holiday," Rabbi Wernick said. "We have discussed this with the police department. I understand our congregation and the other congregation will be protected and police will be driving by and on site at all times."

It's a step he and others wish they didn't have to take.

"The tragedy is the tragedy, but the unfortunate part is that we still live in a society where we have to be vigilant and careful and be aware of what's going on around us," Rabbi Wernick said.

But he doesn't want that vigilance to take away from the celebration of Passover, the celebration of freedom.

He says he hopes those in the Jewish community will be able to draw strength from each other at this difficult time.

"Just look at our history and you'll see that no matter how bad things have been for the community, we are united, we are strong, and we look forward not backward," Rabbi Wernick said. "My hope and prayer for this community is to remain united and remain free."

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