Kansas City's young Jews worry about their safety as antisemitic incidents hit historic highs
The Anti-Defamation League has been keeping track of antisemitic incidents since 1979, and they’ve never been higher than last year. Around Kansas City, a new generation of Jewish people is coming to terms with what that means for their future.
The mantrap entrance at Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy is so new that Jane Martin, the Jewish day school’s director of marketing, still struggles to get in.
“Let’s see if I can do this right,” she says, holding her key fob up to a sleek black digital square mounted to the wall next to the school’s front door. “I need to know how to do this.”
After a few swipes, the lock clacks open, and Martin is in — at least to the vestibule, where she repeats the procedure at a second door leading to the main office.
“By the way, I opened the door for you,” the front office manager tells her as she passes, on the hunt for Head of School Adam Tilove.
Tilove, 50, is in the middle of his third year on the job. He says the secure doors, paid for with a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, are just the latest in the school’s safety and security evolution.
“It’s just another level of security and, you know, we’re always sort of looking with one eye, like, what’s the newest weakness?” he explains. “We're always sort of looking for the next thing.”
Tilove’s search stems from a deadly 2014 attack, just steps from the front door of Hyman Brand, when former Ku Klux Klan leader Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. drove to the Jewish Community Center and shot and killed Dr. William Lewis Corporon and his 14-year-old grandson, Reat Griffin Underwood. Miller then drove a mile to the Village Shalom Jewish retirement community, where he shot and killed 53-year-old Terri LaManno. None of the victims were Jewish. Miller died in prison last year.
Tilove had not moved to Kansas City at that point, but he calls the rampage “a watershed moment, when we actually had a terrorist attack here, on this campus. Ever since then the campus has had armed guards.”
Synagogues throughout the region and other sites affiliated with Kansas City's Jewish community are also now guarded by armed security staff, supported and informed by the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, and their director of community security, a former Secret Service agent. Beyond what individual congregations budget, the Federation has spent millions of dollars on safety, according to Vice President Derek Gale.
Tilove’s school, and the rest of the Jewish community campus, also has a robust surveillance and security system, including license plate readers, a safe box system that lets teachers lock down the building with their fingerprint, and regular security drills.
“When you're Jewish, you're aware that there's always some small subset of the general population of the world that would like to see you harmed,” Tilove says. “That's putting it nicely.”
Antisemitism at school
Because they go to a Jewish school, Tilove’s students are insulated from a lot of antisemitism. But many more young Jews aren’t.
At Blue Valley High School, where Emma Sandler is a junior and co-president of the Jewish Student Union, it usually takes the form of off-color jokes.
“I have to pick my battles because I don't want to make every little thing I hear about antisemitism — even though it is antisemitic,” says the 16-year-old.
“It's like when you act on something too much, people stop listening and stop caring,” she says.
Sandler, who says she’s “on more of the Reform side of Judaism,” is involved in SevenDays, a series of interfaith conversations and awareness opportunities during the spring in and around Kansas City. The event is sponsored by the Faith Always Wins Foundation and was created by Mindy Corporon, who lost her father and son in the 2014 attack.
Sandler also started the Holocaust and Antisemitism Education Club at school because she says teachers were leaving big parts of the Holocaust and World War II out of lessons.
“At Blue Valley schools, the Jewish student population is pretty low,” she says. “And so there was a group of us who really saw a need to kind of fix this lack of education.”
Sandler was a sophomore when she first saw classmates drawing swastikas and putting numbers on their arms, in reference to victims of the Holocaust. After her own intervention failed, Sandler told administrators and the entire grade level visited the Auschwitz exhibit at Kansas City’s Union Station.
The showing closed last month, after breaking attendance records.
Sandler doesn’t call it a resolution, and says the incidents at school haven’t let up.
A 2020 survey from the Jewish Community Relations Bureau and American Jewish Committee Kansas City found that 75% of middle- and high-school students in the area experienced or witnessed antisemitism at school.
“I think that for a long time the American Jewish community was sort of the exception to the rule, in how safe and secure we felt,” says the organization's director, Gavriela Geller. But those days are long gone.
“When I was growing up, I saw antisemitism as something that my parents had to deal with, that my grandparents had to deal with,” says Geller, 30. “I did not think that it was going to be something that I and my generation had to deal with.”
Even when the Overland Park attack happened, Geller thought of it as a fluke, not part of a trend. In the years since, she says the Jewish experience in America has grown closer to that in Europe, where metal detectors at synagogues and guards with guns have been de rigueur for decades.
Geller also knows young Jewish folks are being exposed to a lot of antisemitism online, especially when conflicts in and around Israel flare up.
“We saw that in May of 2021, during the Israel-Hamas war,” she says. “We saw a lot of students reporting being horribly harassed and bullied by students in their schools for being Jewish or having attachment or connections to Israel.”
‘A wake-up call’
“I guess in a perfect world we wouldn't have to have people with guns at all, but in terms of protection, a lot of the time, it's the only way,” says Paris Naster, a 24-year-old who was at the Jewish Community Center during the 2014 attack.
“There's like a Hebrew word called ‘hashgacha pratis,’ and it basically just means divine orchestration,” Naster says, “and I felt like this day was exactly that because I was not going to go to the Jewish Community Center.”
After an argument with her mom over taking part in the KC SuperStar singing and scholarship competition, Naster arrived later than expected. Her audition was interrupted by people seeking cover.
She says the shooting renewed her pride in being Jewish, and pushed her to become more observant.
“I really feel that it was a wake-up call,” she says.
Now one of the few Orthodox Jews in her mostly Reform family, Naster makes sure her dresses fall below the knee, her arms are covered to the elbow and her neck-lines are high. But the modest attire attracts more suspicious looks at the store, and more antisemitism.
“I've never experienced that before, when I used to dress in, like, leggings and sweatshirts,” she says.
An American Jewish Committee survey last year found 30% of American Jews avoided places or situations over safety concerns. A quarter said they avoided wearing or displaying things that might identify them as Jewish.
For young Jews around Kansas City who don’t wear religious clothing or head coverings, the impacts of antisemitism seem to be no less present.
Hayden, Harper and Hudson Witbrod, who are brothers, attend the Shawnee Mission School District.
“I wouldn't say I incorporate Judaism in my everyday life,” says Hayden, 17. “But I do think it's important to me, just overall.”
Harper, 16, sharpens the point: “I feel like Judaism is a part of our daily lives in that the beliefs and morals of Judaism kind of lead us in what actions we take.”
The Witbrods overhear jokes at school, too — it especially started around middle school — and they’re worried about the national rise in antisemitism. But Hayden admits its impact on his daily life is marginal.
“I'm not always thinking about it, but it's, you know, it's deep rooted in there,” he says.
“I feel actually quite a lot safer having a policeman or a security guy around, just basically kind of making sure nothing really happens, and I feel protected,” says 14-year-old Hudson, in a nod to the 2014 attack, which still weighs on Jewish people throughout the metro.
A history of hate
At a raucous Purim celebration in March, Jeremy Singer ambled around the aisle behind where people sat listening to rabbis read the megillah, a first-hand account of the salvation of Jewish people in ancient Persia.
Singer, who lives in Overland Park, has a daughter who goes to Jewish day school, and he’s grateful for the guards they have.
“It's not like I go around advertising that I'm Jewish one way or the other,” he said. “But, yeah, I think if you're Jewish, you understand that people do look at you in a certain way.”
Most antisemitism comes from ignorance, not malice, Singer said. “It's just that we're different.”
This year’s Purim event, at Children’s Mercy Park, was particularly large, and had a Ted Lasso theme. Hundreds of people from synagogues across the region crowded a section of stands, waving and banging noise-makers when the name of Haman, persecutor of the Jews, was read.
“There’s not actually — I don't see a whole lot of police presence here,” Singer said, taking a second look around. “There probably should be a little more, because we have to protect ourselves.”
This 2,000-year-old tradition was just one reminder of that.