Buford Furrow's worst nightmare

It's not just the Jews at the JCC who got to him -- it's the way they mix up the American melting pot.

Published August 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I was a little embarrassed by my first reaction to the Los Angeles
Jewish Community Center shooting. I heard the news and blurted out, "My daughter went to a JCC preschool!" I'm still trying to figure out what I meant: Was I shocked that such violence could have reached my daughter? Or shocked that somebody who wants to kill Jews went to a JCC, where there are so many non-Jews around?

I've been going to JCC programs since I was a teenager, when my dad joined the local center in Milwaukee for its incredible health club, ignoring the snooty athletic club (which Jews couldn't join) downtown. My liberal, Catholic father was making a statement -- and getting a bargain on membership fees in the process. I followed in his footsteps, maybe more than he intended: I married a Jewish man, and when our daughter was old enough, although we're not raising her in any particular religion (she's a pagan baby), we sent her to JCC preschool.

I had a few reservations, I admit. Since we're not raising her Jewish, I worried she'd be confused. As it turns out, I might have been the confused one. Within a few weeks I was showing up religiously at 4 p.m. on Fridays for the weekly Shabbat observance, singing songs and Hebrew prayers and eating challah baked that day by the kids and teachers.

The JCC met my need for some kind of regular religious observance, given my conflicted Catholicism. With all my singing and praying, I became a more observant Jew than my Jewish spouse, who, sadly, was in the process of becoming my ex-spouse, for reasons that had nothing to do with religion.

Also, sadly, those were the best two years of my daughter's school life to date. Now entering fourth grade, Nora's never had better teachers than she did at the JCC. They reveled in her wild and loving greatness, which few teachers since have known how to fully appreciate. And she's never had as much diversity among her teachers as she had there, either. Only a minority of them were actually Jewish: There were blacks, Latinos and Asians; Catholics, Protestants, agnostics. The student body was a little whiter, and wealthier, than the teaching staff, but it was still fairly mixed, with a healthy quotient of scholarship kids.

All over the country I have non-Jewish friends sending their kids to JCC preschools, after-school programs, day camps. The reason, to me, is obvious: Jews know how to do community. They know how to do inclusion. They've been forced to by history. I know that, among Jews, there are some issues about clannishness and tribalism; I know that from my Jewish friends, though, because I've never felt it myself. I go to JCCs because they're islands of community in an anomic world.

And now hateful lowlifes like Buford Furrow are going to the JCC, too. I find myself thinking that if Furrow had gone to Jewish Family Services, for instance, when he needed mental health care, he'd have gotten more help than he got at the psychiatric hospital he turned to, more help than he got from his Christian Identity and Aryan Nations friends, who are now lining up to tell reporters he was a quiet loner type they didn't know very well, anyway.

What's really threatening about the JCC to white supremacists is not that it's a magnet for Jews, but that it's a magnet for mixing, for the creation of the new, polyglot, ecumenical, mulatto culture that's being created, especially in California. At JCCs across the country, Jews are ministering to Jews and non-Jews alike. And they're winning us over -- not as religious converts, but as dedicated race mixers and pluralists. The JCC is Buford Furrow's worst nightmare.

By Joan Walsh

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