The Jewishness of the July 4th mass shooting

What it's like to viscerally experience tragedy unfold.

On the last day of Passover this past April, a young man dressed in all black clothing and gloves walked into the sanctuary of a synagogue in Highland Park, Illinois, with a backpack on. He caught the attention of the security director who kept a watchful eye on the young man for the 45 minutes during which he sat and observed the service before leaving without incident. But after a shooting massacre on the Fourth of July left his community in shambles and the suspect’s photo was plastered across social media and TV, the security director immediately recognized him as the young man with the gloves.

At this point it’s not a matter of if you’ll be personally affected by gun violence, but when. Your supermarket, your kid’s school, your Walmart, your synagogue, your movie theater could be next, and it’s impossible to enter a public space without clocking the nearest exit just in case. But until the devastating experience lands on your actual doorstep, the next worst thing is watching it happen to a community so similar to yours, that it feels personal. That is what the Highland Park shooting massacre was for me.

A city of about 30,000 people, Highland Park sits 25 miles north of Chicago. Many of its residents commute to the city for work, and it’s known as a wealthy and prosperous midwestern suburb: it’s also home to many Jewish people. I’ve seen it listed as low as 30% and high as 50% of the local population, and there are multiple synagogues in town, with even more in the surrounding area. When July 4th fell on a Friday in 2014, an article discussed towns combining their Independence Day celebrations with Jewish Shabbat traditions, and Highland Park was one of them. Middle schoolers spend most of 7th and 8th grade weekends attending bar and bat mitzvahs, and have drawers full of sweatpants and oversized t-shirts emblazoned with the guest of honor’s name. They attend Hebrew school, and sleepaway camp, and they have a favorite flavor of Dr. Brown’s soda. Though I’ve never been there, I know this town—because this town is mine.

Jericho, New York is also an upper middle class suburb of a major city, with commuters and yes, many Jews. It’s a place where being Jewish is as exotic as being right handed, and it was more surprising when someone told you they didn’t have at least one Jewish parent. We had five different bagel places within a mile, and grandparents who wanted to be buried in Israel. In Jericho, being Jewish was the norm, and I didn’t realize until I got a bit older that it was a statistical anomaly. 

Only approximately two percent of the US population is Jewish, which would probably surprise a lot of people. Insidious myths persist that we control the media and the banks and the political system and the entire world order, dramatically overstating our power. In reality, we are a tiny minority raised with the mindset that with every generation, they tried to destroy us. We have relatives still alive today who rose from the ashes of the Holocaust, and came here because it was safe to be Jewish. And like so many religious and ethnic groups, we flocked together in communities and created new strands of culture that honored our roots while embracing our country. But it’s proven to never be enough.

I often say that being an American Jew is, in a word, weird. In a popular Twitter thread last year, I called it “a mindfuck.” To some, we’re the epitome of successful white immigrants; to others, we’re untrustworthy ethnic minorities who will never be a part of the Christian elite. We exist at all times betwixt and between, never knowing when it’s safe to openly and proudly declare our religion. White supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 holding blazing tiki torches and shouting “Jews will not replace us!” We are all at once a massive target for hate-fueled violence and a footnote in larger stories of bigotry and oppression. We are lucky and cursed all at once.

As the news began to spread about the Highland Park mass shooting, I immediately saw people in my network posting about camp friends and college roommates from the area, or family members who were at the parade and had to hide to survive. Soon, I knew a friend of a friend had been among the wounded. Video from a witness shows that shots rang out at the annual Fourth of July parade as Klezmer music—an instrumental musical tradition tracing back to the Jews of Eastern Europe—played on a nearby float. Four of the seven victims were Jewish, and a two-year-old Jewish boy was orphaned as a result of the attack. While the shooter’s motive remains unconfirmed, Jews across the country can see it for what it was: An attack on us all.

Yet despite the painfully obvious targeting of the Jewish community, there’s a reticence to name it. As writer Elad Nehorai tweeted a day after the shooting, “Jews have done all the heavy lifting to get out that Highland Park may have been targeted for its Jewish population. We were also the only ones to report that the shooter visited a synagogue months earlier to scope it out. Pretty hard not to feel like we’re on our own.”

Though we have a network of Jews supporting Highland Park, and Pittsburgh before it, and whichever community is hit next, this feeling of cultural isolation is palpable. Because our sorrow, our mourning, our wails must be muted thanks to a sizable population who still believe we don’t deserve the space to grieve. But while most of the country looks at this tragedy as just another mass shooting in America by a white man radicalized online, I see the antisemitism burning bright. And I choose to believe my eyes.

Join the conversation

or to participate.