It could have been me

Tragedy at the Overland Park, Kans., Jewish Community Center sparks reflection.

Editor’s note: Todd Natenberg is a former associate editor and columnist for The Maneater and 1991 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism. Today, Natenberg serves on the Mizzou Alumni board of directors in Kansas City. He’s originally from Chicago, and now lives in Overland Park, Kan., and is an integral part of Jewish life in the community.

When I first moved to suburban Kansas City from downtown Chicago in November 2007, I did so in large part because of the strong Jewish community. A graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia’s prestigious journalism school, my Jewish college girlfriend was from Overland Park, as were more than one of my Alpha Epsilon Pi Jewish fraternity brothers. I felt at home in Kansas.

Officially, my job as a reborn-again journalist brought me here when I accepted a position as a staff writer for a local business publication. But even then I wasn’t sure the job would stick, after being out of journalism for 15 years.

Regardless, in Chicago, in a six-month period, I had lost my Discovery Channel job to layoffs, broken up with my then-fiancée and endured the tragic death of my estranged father to suicide. I couldn’t get out of the Windy City fast enough.

I knew even if the job didn’t work out, I’d find another one. I would reconnect with old friends, join the local synagogue, marry a nice Jewish girl, have kids and live happily ever after. That was the plan — and it happened.

Dreams did come true.

My wife Reena and I will celebrate our five-year wedding anniversary next month. Our twin sons, Teddy and Ari, turned three years old in December. I love working once again in educational sales.

We are active in our synagogue, and barely a weekend goes by since Teddy and Ari were born when as a family we have not played at the Jewish Community Center with our fellow tribesmen.

Were it not for a dramatic knee injury in February in a competitive basketball league at the JCC, on Sunday, April 13, we would have been there. Were it not for the necessary reconstructive surgery I needed one month ago, we would have been there.

If we had, my family and I might be dead.

Since the day I arrived, the Jewish Community Center has been an integral part of life. Unlike Chicago, the JCC is more than just a series of fitness clubs in various suburbs. The “campus,” as it is called, is home to a private Jewish K-12 school, all Kansas Jewish agencies, including the Federation, and a popular theater. Community-wide events, such as overflowed High Holiday services, are often held there. I easily spend six days a week there in some capacity.

Being Jewish in Kansas means never being alone.

So when the news broke that a former KKK grand dragon had viciously murdered three people — two in the parking lot of the JCC and one at a nearby Jewish retirement home — it struck me like a thunderbolt.

Earlier that day, I knew something was remiss when I received an email at 10 a.m. announcing the basketball league games that day were canceled. Although I was out for the season, I still was on the distribution list. Then, when I called the JCC later in the day with a question, I got no answer.

The climax came when I noticed on Facebook, one of my Jewish friends commented, “All clear.”

As I read the next 100 comments detailing the horror, I was in shock.

It could have been me. It could have been my friend. I knew that I would either know the victims or know well someone who knew them.

Just earlier that day, my wife had tried to convince me to go to the JCC to exercise my knee and play with the boys. She was working, so I was having a “Daddy day” with Teddy and Ari. But with my knee still not healed, as much as I love chasing my sons with basketball, I told her it was just too challenging.

It doesn’t matter that in the final analysis, the victims weren’t even Jewish. While our heart bleeds for them and all our prayers are with the family, it remains we were the target.

My friends still can’t believe it happened here. They try to dismiss the tragedy as a lone wolf. They say anti-Semitism is reserved for the “big cities” like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.

But scary as it may be, we know that is not the case. Hate against Jews even exists in peaceful Kansas. But we must go on. We must persevere. Cliché as it may be, we can’t let terrorism wear its ugly hat.

Jewish Kansans often joke that so many of us aren’t from here. Yes, many University of Kansas and MU alumni grew up here, graduated college nearby and stayed here. But for the rest, when we moved here, we never thought we’d actually stay. Happily, we have.

We say Kansas is the greatest kept secret. The schools are great. The cost of living is fantastic. You have a metropolitan city down the street for opportunity. The community is close. Life is simple. Life is peaceful.

It still is.

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