The Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Overland Park, Kan., is my second home. In fact, I often spend more time there than I do in my own house. In addition to going to high school there, spending 8 a.m. to 3:40 p.m. within those walls, I often stay there after school for basketball practice, tutoring sessions or a round of video games with friends. And that does not include the countless hours I spend at the JCC on the weekends meeting friends, working out and participating in community events.
On Sunday, my safe haven was transformed into a place of chaos and terror as a gunman shot at four innocent people, killing Dr. William Lewis Corporon and his grandson, Reat Griffin Underwood. The gunman then headed to another familiar place, Village Shalom, where my youth group leads Friday night services, and killed Terri LaManno, who was there visiting her mother. These people did nothing to deserve this, and it is disgusting that all it took to end their lives was a gun and one man's hate.
The fact that people are capable of such atrocities makes me sick to my stomach.
I still cannot believe such a thing could happen in my community. I still cannot fathom how one man could find the hate to do this. As I hear more and more about tragedies such as this one, I grow more and more frustrated. Not frustrated: outraged. Why are the media focused on the hate and the violence that fuel a few crazy people? Why must people spew hate instead of radiating love? I refuse to sit here and be content with a world where this is possible.
Unfortunately, we cannot go back and change the past. These three innocent people will not come back to life. We have no influence over what happened, but we can work toward preventing future tragedies. We can promote acceptance and cooperation.
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Monday night, Jews all over the world began celebrating the holiday of Passover. For the Jewish people, this is a time to celebrate freedom. While we are now free from slavery, we are still not free of prejudice and hatred.
On the afternoon of the shooting, the JCC was planning its final production of "To Kill a Mockingbird." The story of a struggle for racial equality is all too fitting, considering the circumstances. Many of us like to believe that the fight for equality is a fight of the past. Let us grow from this tragedy, knowing that the fight is far from over.
Over the past few years, I have had the honor of participating in the Kansas City Interfaith Youth Alliance (KCIYA). Modeled on the vision of Eboo Patel's Interfaith Youth Core, KCIYA allows high school students of all faiths to bond over the common value of service. We work together to better our community, discuss controversial interfaith issues and simply have fun. Personally, KCIYA allows me to connect to my Jewish faith as I live the mission of loving your neighbor as you love yourself. KCIYA has given me the opportunity to make a difference in this world, and I feel honored to be able to spread hope and remind people that even in times like this, we are capable of coming together as one community.
According to Patel, remarkably little separates a child who grows up like I did and one who grows up in hate. In his book Acts of Faith, he explains that many children of religious families feel like outsiders, learning how to connect to their faiths while not quite feeling like they fit in with popular culture. They are searching for a group that makes them feel that they belong. In the end, the adults and organizations that influence their lives shape their futures.
"Many mainstream religious institutions ignore young people, or worse, think that their role should be limited to designing the annual T-shirt," Patel writes. "By contrast, religious extremists build their institutions around the desire of young people to have a clear identity and make a powerful impact."
The shooter was not born anti-Semitic; someone taught him to hate. As a child, he probably felt lost. According to The Washington Post, Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. read his first racist newspaper, The Thunderbolt, in the 1970s. Perhaps while reading those hate-fueled pages, Miller finally felt as if he belonged.
To prevent future tragedies fueled by hate, we must begin engaging our youth and teaching them lessons of love. But we do not need to stop at the youth. We all must work on taking the time to get to know others and show we care.
We can all make time to help those around us. Instead of searching for what divides us, we should bond over our common compassion. We as human beings work much better together than we do separately.
I challenge you to take one step toward cooperation. Reach out to somebody new. Learn about another faith or culture today. Discover how somebody seemingly different from you is not all that different. I urge you to act out and take a stand. I urge you not to just tolerate those different than you, but to accept them, even love them.
Editor's note: LaManno's funeral will be 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Peter's Catholic Church, 6415 Holmes St., Kansas City, MO. Visitation will be from 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the church, with the rosary said at 7:30 p.m. Funeral services for Corporon and Underwood will be 3 p.m. Friday at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection at 13720 Roe Ave., Leawood, KS.
[Alex Sher is a high school senior at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy inside the Overland Park Jewish Community Center. She is the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper and a member of the Kansas City Interfaith Youth Alliance.]