I hadn’t intended to write a column this week. The hate-filled attack at a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday morning that left 11 dead and six injured enraged me to where I could hardly speak, let alone write. Then Susan Kutner showed up on my doorstep.
Kutner came to the Jewish Light offices, unannounced, early Monday morning. As you can imagine with the weekend goings-on, including a moving vigil at our Jewish Community Center Sunday afternoon that attracted 1,500 people, I was crazy busy Monday and had little time to greet a visitor. But I figured the least I could do was explain this to her.
Kutner was extremely apologetic about just showing up, but the Pittsburgh tragedy dredged up memories of 40 years ago. She knew I would understand. That’s because she knew I knew something similarly horrific had once happened here.
In fact, it, too, occurred on a fall Saturday in October — Oct. 8, 1977, to be exact. Instead of a bris taking place, which was the case when the gunman attacked Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh, the event at the former Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel (BSKI) in Richmond Heights was a bar mitzvah. It was the bar mitzvah of Richard “Ricky” Kalina.
Kutner has been friends with Kalina’s mother, Maxine, for 70 years. They met in grade school in University City. So of course Kutner and her husband and their children were at Kalina’s bar mitzvah, along with good friends, Jerry and Sheila Gordon, and their daughters. Steve and Linda Goldman also were there.
After the service was over that Saturday and many had already departed, Kutner’s family and the Gordons and Goldmans, along with a few others, including the bar mitzvah boy, stood and talked outside BSKI. Then Kutner’s husband said goodbye to take their son to soccer practice while Kutner and her daughter left to go shopping.
It was minutes after she drove off the parking lot that gunshots rang out. Five shots were fired in fast succession. One of them passed through Goldman’s suit coat, grazing him slightly. Another guest, William Lee Ash, lost his left pinkie finger, which got embedded in his hip when he was struck.
But Jerry Gordon, who was 42 years old, died in the operating room at the old St. Louis County Hospital about two hours after he had been shot. A bullet had pierced his left arm and lodged in his chest, destroying his internal organs.
“It was just so horrible,” recalled Kutner as we talked. “When I saw what had happened Saturday morning in Pittsburgh, my mind went right to that day at BSKI.
“But the difference is that no one ever spoke about the tragedy at the time it happened, or did anything consolatory,” for the families of the victims or the community, Kutner continued. “It was almost like an embarrassment, or this mind-set that if we didn’t talk about it, the memories of the horror would go away. We didn’t know any different back then, so you go along with your life. But the memory is always there.”
Kutner sat next to Jerry Gordon during Kalina’s bar mitzvah service — he and her husband both had aliyahs. A few hours later, Gordon was gone. Kutner still has trouble wrapping her head around that reality.
It wasn’t until 1994 — 17 years after the crime — that a neo-Nazi named Joseph Paul Franklin confessed to murdering Gordon at BSKI. He had randomly chosen the shul from the Yellow Pages and carried a Remington 700 hunting rifle in a guitar case to his hiding location behind a telephone pole across from the BSKI parking lot. After the ambush, he made his getaway on bicycle to a nearby location where he had parked his car.
At the time of his confession, he was serving six consecutive life sentences — two federal and four state, for four murders — all racially motivated, at the Marion, Ill. federal penitentiary. He told police that after BSKI, his master plan was to travel from state to state to kill as many Jews as possible.
It took a jury 39 minutes to convict Franklin, in 1997, of the sniper killing of Gordon and 65 minutes the next day to agree that Franklin should die of lethal injection. He was executed on Nov. 20, 2013.
In May 2010, I did a series of articles about hate crimes for the Jewish Light, which included spending hours interviewing Richard Kalina and Joseph Paul Franklin, among others. Kalina told me then that he remembers feeling tremendously guilty and afraid in the aftermath of his bar mitzvah. Kids who had been his friend pulled back from him. His home was vandalized with anti-Semitic slurs. He was called a kike. Within a year of the incident, his family moved to another home.
“The world wasn’t really equipped to deal with this kind of hate crime,” Kalina had said. “The entire Jewish community in St. Louis at that point in time hid from this. Federation didn’t take a position or a stand. Today, the organization would set up a scholarship for the children of the victim or raise money to support the family. There would be counseling and help. But it was a different time back then.”
Eventually, when he was in his mid-20s, Kalina did go to therapy, in part to help deal with the bar mitzvah incident. He said he had issues associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and later, had fallen on some hard times. He died on Dec. 8, 2015, at age 51, from a rare form of cancer.
“Life was not easy for Ricky, he had a lot of problems from that incident,” Kutner recalled. “His family did everything they could to support him, and he did straighten out and was doing really well in the last part of his life.
“But it was awful way back then. The Kalinas (and other victims) had no where to go, no one to speak to.”
That was 1977. Today, Kutner says she is uplifted by the outpouring of support not only in Pittsburgh but here and around the country. And it’s not just among Jews, but people of all faiths standing together against hate and gun violence.
“I didn’t come to see you today to put blame on anyone,” said Kutner, who lives in Chesterfield and belongs to United Hebrew. “Like anything else in our lives, things change. Today we know that when tragedy happens and you can be with people, it’s cathartic.
“All I came here to do was to ask you to remind the Jewish community of what happened in 1977, 41 years ago. We can learn from the past and move on but we shouldn’t forget.”