In the days after the attack on the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois, that killed seven people and left many more wounded, some grievously, we got emails from two prominent local people — Rabbi Cathy Felix of Teaneck and William Lipsey of Livingston — who had grown up there. They have fond memories of their childhoods, and describe their anguish at what happened there earlier this month.
This one was different.
I’ve been angry and upset after hearing about so many of them. CNN said there have been 309 mass shootings in the United States this year already. But for me, this one was different. This one was personal. One of my high school classmates was among the fatalities.
America is awash in gun violence, but until it hits your own hometown it can be easy to feel it doesn’t affect us personally, and thus makes us less motivated to act. But it does affect us all, and we must act. What happened in my bucolic small-town hometown of Highland Park should be a wake-up call that we are all in this together.
I grew up in Highland Park, Illinois. I grew up on a street that looks just like the street depicted in the television program “The Wonder Years.” We rode bicycles to school and to each other’s homes. It was the quintessential image of small-town America we all conjure in our minds when we imagine small-town America.
My mom grew up in a small town in central Ohio. A child of Eastern European immigrants, she was raised proud to be a Jew and proud to be an American. And my sisters and I also were raised to be proud of being both Jewish and American in our Highland Park home.
The Fourth of July parade was a highlight for my mom and her three kids each year. We would dress in patriotic clothes, wave American flags, collect the candies tossed by the firemen and policemen, and enjoy our liberty and freedom – and the safety of being an American. We even participated in the portion of the parade that was a costume contest for family pets. My mom was thrilled when our miniature poodle, Mister, won third prize one year, and we got to march down Central Avenue with our award-winning dog.
We loved that parade, and as I look back on it now, with all its hokey small-town elements, it was an annual highlight for us and for so many families in our very American town of Highland Park.
And now a murderer with a high-powered rifle has changed everything. He took away the simple joy of celebrating American independence and freedom. He stole seven precious lives, and he altered hundreds more with the terror and injuries he inflicted.
I am furious with him and for his callous indifference toward life. But I am even more incensed with the cowardice of our elected leaders. Our Second Amendment does not envision handing out military style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines to anyone who can afford the purchase price. Our leaders have abandoned us. They have foregone our safety for the belief that siding with the gun lobby will insure their reelection.
For 40 years I have found myself in leadership positions in business, in my synagogue community, and in my commitment to charitable organizations around the world. One of the lessons I have taken from these years is the understanding that leadership is not a popularity contest. Leadership requires taking risks, sometimes seemingly unpopular choices, to benefit the long-term health of the organization the leader is leading.
Our congressional representatives, senators, and presidents have lost their focus. They have chosen their own power over leading, and that is both a moral failure and a leadership failure.
We the American community must join together and stop our leaders from repeating their inaction, forcing us to wait until next week’s or next month’s mass shooting, when, once again, we will wring our hands and cry out asking when will this stop. We must demand an abolishment of weapons of war from our streets. Anything less is a betrayal of the trust we place in our leaders.
I urge you to imagine that you were sitting on the side of Central Avenue in Highland Park on Monday, July 4, and you saw your child, your mother, your friend, your neighbor murdered. Allow the images to enter your mind; the mutilated bodies, the terrorized people screaming as they attempted to flee. And I ask you to demand that our leaders change this reality; to be brave, to risk the pressure from those who have mistakenly claimed that access to any and all guns are our rights under the Constitution.
This thinking has led to our society embracing a culture of death.
Our elected leaders can change this reality. And we the people must demand it.
William Lipsey of Livingston is a past president of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, the founder and chair of the Honey Foundation for Israel, and the president of Pzena Investment Management.