Reflections on Highland Park

Reflections on Highland Park

I feel less safe than I did two weeks ago

Some of Rabbi Felix’s family are at the Chicago Botanical Garden in Highland Park.
Some of Rabbi Felix’s family are at the Chicago Botanical Garden in Highland Park.

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.

I grew up in Highland Park, Illinois, and graduated from Highland Park High School. I try to get back once or twice a year. My brother is in Highland Park, two blocks from the parade route. My 95-year-old mom moved three miles away to Deerfield, and other family members still live in the area.

In recent years, my husband and I have made it a practice of bringing our New Jersey family to Highland Park over July 4th to celebrate grandma’s birthday. This holiday was special because my son Dan brought his new bride Jamie to meet grandma for the first time. My sister drove up from Santa Fe to join us. We love the ice cream from Sweet Home Gelato on Central Avenue, which was on the parade route.

A week ago, I attended my high school reunion at the Woman’s Club, one block away from the parade route. I was struck by how many classmates chose to stay in the area in general, and specifically in Highland Park. They found there what my parents had found when they moved to that suburban town in 1965.

Rabbi Cathy L. Felix

They discovered a green and gracious community, welcoming to Jews, boasting many congregations and much Jewish infrastructure. I sat next to a classmate at the reunion who said that he wasn’t Jewish but admired the many Jews in our class: their drive to achieve, their sense of community, and their commitment to family. The community felt safe and secure.

Over this Independence Day weekend, the plan was for our kids to join us on Thursday night. Because of the turmoil in the transportation industry, their Thursday evening flight was canceled, and only by splitting up and after patient negotiation were they able to get flights late Friday. We had planned that Friday, July 1, would be our downtown day, and we had tickets for a river cruise and plans to go to the parade on Monday. The cruise was willing to reschedule, so on the morning of July 4 we went downtown, instead of to the parade. We had a wonderful time on the cruise and no idea what was happening 25 miles away till I got a text asking me if I was safe. Someone else who knew we were visiting grandma in Highland Park also texted me to ask if we were safe.

Our high spirits descended into grief, mingled with relief that we were far away.

I feel less safe than I did a week ago. I feel vulnerable. We are living in increasingly turbulent times. The continuing destruction of middle-class jobs, the continuing aggression of Russia, the increasing pace of technological and economic change — all destabilize our society. For Jews, the radical left demonizes Israel and Jews, and the radical right descends into antisemitism, Christian nationalism, white supremacy, and far-reaching conspiracy theories. In such turbulent times, there is an increase in anti-social violence and antisemitic violence. Easy access to weapons of mass murder add to the likelihood of escalating bloodshed.

If Highland Park was not safe, perhaps no neighborhood in contemporary America can be. I am feeling vulnerable.

As Jews, we know too well the fragility of life. We say on the High Holy Days: “who by (gun) fire and who by water, who will live through the coming year and whose life will end.” Our tradition teaches us to recognize the tenuous grip we all hold on this world. It encourages us to face this fragility with gratitude for the moments that we have. We savor our happy times and focus on the miracles of the everyday. As Jews, we respond to tragedy with grief mixed with hope and optimism.

In this environment, in which violence will escalate, we must gather our tools of resilience. Our Jewish tradition, with its focus on gratitude, acts of kindness, human relationships, its valorization of Torah and mitzvot and its teachings of faith, optimism, and hope, can guide us to peace in a world of chaos.

Rabbi Cathy L. Felix is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne. She lives in Teaneck with her husband, Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg, where they are members of Congregation Beth Sholom. She was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980, where she was in one of the first classes of women rabbis.

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