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In the Jewish community of Highland Park, few are spared from the deadly mass shootings

This story was produced in collaboration with Jewish Chicago: The JUF Magazine.

HIGHLAND PARK, Illinois (JTA) – Bright Bowls opened on July 4 in the main shopping district of Highland Park, and its owners, Lindsay and Matt Meltzer, were ready for a busy day.

Lindsay had quit her job at the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago to open her dream business, a vegetarian smoothie shop and wellness studio, in June 2020. It would be the first year since the pandemic began that her suburb would hold its annual Independence Day festivities, including a parade, and the Meltzers were looking forward to lots of foot traffic.

The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band began playing in the parade lineup, performing the cheerful Jewish standard “Freylekhs fun der Khupe” (Happiness under the Chuppah). One parade watcher, local Jewish entrepreneur Candice Crane, laughed and took photos with her husband and two of her young children.

“We used to joke, ‘Only Highland Park is the Klezmer band coming,'” Crane said.

Then everything changed.

“I was standing at the checkout, and all of a sudden I saw the band from Highland Park High School running down the street,” Lindsay Meltzer said. “The first thought I had was that there was an active shooter.”

Moments later, a policeman arrived on his bicycle and told everyone to get off the street.

“We just opened our door,” Lindsay said. “We have a basement that’s about the size of our entire store, and we’ve been able to house over a hundred people safely away from windows.”

Her husband stood at the front door, watching, while Lindsay led everyone, mostly families with young children, to hide downstairs. A teacher with an active shooter background, herself Jewish, played games with the children and helped keep everyone calm.

Meanwhile, Howard Prager, a tuba player in the group, said he thought he saw the shooter running away. “We saw a lot of people running,” he said. “We saw the panic and terror in their eyes.”

Crane hid with her 6-year-old daughter in an abandoned storefront, separated from her husband and one-year-old child who were taken inside an apartment building by a good Samaritan.

“We live literally five minutes from this intersection [where the shooting took place]”, Crane said. “It’s our neighborhood. It’s basically our backyard.

The shooting during the July 4 parade in Highland Park killed seven people, six of whom were officially identified on Tuesday:​ ​Katherine Goldstein (64), Irena McCarthy (35), Kevin McCarthy (37), Stephen Straus (88), Jacki Sundheim (63) and Nicolas Toledo-Zaragoza (78). Sundheim’s name was released Monday night by North Shore Congregation Israel, the Reform synagogue where she was a worshiper and staff member.

Highland Park, Ill. Parade goers and Bright Bowls employees gather in the basement of the store following a mass shooting, July 4, 2022. (Courtesy Carey Walker)

Dozens of people were injured and the town center is littered with abandoned strollers and chairs as the shooting left a devastating mark in the heart of Highland Park, a town of around 30,000 where around half the residents are jews. Victims included both Jews and non-Jews, reflecting the diversity of the suburb and the allure of its July 4 festivities.

Several GoFundMe pages began circulating online immediately for the families of victims and survivors, including one for the McCarthys’ 2-year-old son, who will now be raised by his grandparents, Nina and Misha Levberg.

The Chicago suburb is home to a large Jewish community, including significant numbers of Israelis and the national headquarters of a liberal Jewish PAC. He was left in a state of shock and trauma following the event. Jewish camps and other activities were canceled in the area the next day, and some of the area’s many synagogues announced special services in response to the shooting.

North Shore Congregation Israel, located near Glencoe, said one of the victims was Sundheim, a congregant, preschool teacher and b’nei mitzvah coordinator at the synagogue. “There are not enough words to express the depth of our grief,” the synagogue said in a statement.

The congregation declined an interview with JTA, saying it was ‘fully focused on supporting our community at this time’, but announced plans to hold a comfort and consolation service in response to the mass shooting. of Tuesday evening. A separate memorial service for Sundheim will be held on Friday.

Three members of Am Shalom, a Reform congregation in nearby Glencoe, were injured by the gunman and two went to hospital with their wounds, according to Rabbi Steven Lowenstein, who said the injured were unwilling not disclose their names.

Also planning to hold special services were the North Suburban Synagogue Beth El, a large Conservative congregation, and the Reform Congregation Makom Solel Lakeside, both in Highland Park. Beth El declined to comment on JTA. Rabbi Evan Moffic of Makom Solel told JTA that racial justice activist Reverend Jesse Jackson will likely attend the prayer vigil on Wednesday.

Several Jewish spiritual leaders in the area told JTA that while they were unwilling to speculate on the shooter’s motives, their communities were struggling with the upheaval in their sense of security. “I think our Jewish antennae are getting a bit up on these things,” said Rabbi Jodi Kornfeld of the Jewish Humanist Beth Chaverim community in nearby Deerfield.

Moffic, a longtime contributor to JTA sister site MyJewishLearning, told Chicago public radio station WBEZ the day after the shooting that “I feel safe” in that community as a Jew, but added: “Of course it affects our psyche. This is why we have many security measures in our synagogue. Other rabbis have noted that while their own followers may have been physically immune to the attack, they feel the damage psychologically.

Although local authorities have yet to say whether they believe the shooter’s motivation was anti-Semitic, at least one Highland Park rabbi reported that the suspect, who authorities say had been planning his attack for weeks, had already visited a synagogue: his own.

Yosef Schanowitz, the rabbi of Highland Park Chabad, told the Orthodox Anash news site that he recognized the suspected shooter, who he says was turned away from Chabad by his armed security guard during a Passover Seder this year. A Chabad spokesperson told JTA that the congregation had a security camera, but did not say whether any footage of the incident was captured.

JThe building security officer also confirmed to the attacker that the suspect visited the congregation during Passover, saying he gave his name and sat in the sanctuary for 45 minutes before leaving.

No other synagogue in the Côte-Nord region contacted by JTA reported seeing the suspect at their places of worship.

Authorities said the alleged killer, who was charged Tuesday night with seven counts of murder, legally obtained the high-powered rifle used in the massacre. The shooting has once again reignited debates over gun control measures in the United States – a topic on which even Highland Park’s own Jewish community has been divided in the past.

In 2013, a local Jewish pediatrician named Arie Friedman, then a member of Beth El, sued the city over its new assault weapons ban, claiming the ban violated his Second Amendment rights.

A 2010 candidate for the United States House and 2012 candidate for the Illinois State Senate, and at the time active with the Chicago chapter of the Jewish Republican Coalition, Friedman presented his petition to the United States Supreme Court, which denied in 2015. Friedman did not respond to multiple JTA requests for comment on Tuesday, and his pediatrics office said he was on vacation. The National RJC did not respond to inquiries about its current involvement with the group. He is no longer a Beth El devotee, according to a local source.

Meanwhile, among the many local Jews who advocated for the ban was Marcia Balonick, executive director of the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, known as JACPAC, a liberal pro-Israel lobby group whose the headquarters are in Highland Park. She rode on a float in the parade with her son, grandson and grandson’s baseball team and witnessed the shooting.

“I never imagined that I would face this in my own community. Nothing prepares you for bloodshed on the streets I walk,” Balonick said, adding that the incident would make JACPAC “more determined than ever to ensure that we elect members of Congress who will put down once and for all end gun violence with a ban on assault weapons.

Several Jewish groups, such as the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said the violent rampage was the latest example of America’s failure to legislate guns. “Our hearts ache for the lives cut short by armed violence and we are in despair that the leaders of the United States government have not responded decisively enough to prevent these tragedies from becoming commonplace,” the Rabbinical Assembly said in a statement. statement, calling for reforms.

Local Jews who rushed to flee to safety and help people during the carnage said they were devastated that their once quiet refuge had turned into a gruesome scene.

“Matt and I have lived in so many different places around the world. We both grew up here, fell in love here,” Lindsay Meltzer said. “We knew this was the place we wanted to raise our children. I can’t believe it, it’s just heartbreaking that it’s now hit our own town.

Prager, who said his band’s clarinetist has decided not to play parades anymore, is a regular attendee of virtual minyan kaddish services hosted by MyJewishLearning. He says he takes comfort in Jewish rituals in times of crisis and also tries to promote positive interactions with his fellow men through his book “Make Someone’s Day.”

“We have to find other ways to uplift each other,” he said. “Especially in these times. Looking for ways to make people feel better, by caring about each other.

This story was produced in collaboration with Jewish Chicago: The JUF Magazine. Its reporter is a longtime member of the Highland Park Jewish community and has personal ties to some of the interview subjects, as well as at least one of the victims.

JTA reporters Jackie Hadjenberg and Asaf Shalev contributed reporting.