Smashed windows are left at the scene after a gunman opened fire at a King Sooper's grocery store on March 22, 2021 in Boulder, Colorado. by the Forward

After King Soopers massacre, Boulder’s Jews mourn friends and neighbors

Just before authorities released the names of the victims of the Boulder, Colorado shooting, Liz Hanson woke up and got dressed, slipping into a pair of tie-dyed pants she bought at the store of her friend Lonna Bartkowiak.

Moments later she learned that Bartkowiak, 49, had been shot and killed.

“I found out she was gone,” Hanson said in an interview with the Forward . “I looked down at my pants because she had bought them at her store – she picked them out for me.”

After King Soopers shooting, Boulder’s Jews turns toward comfort and anti-gun activism

Bartkowiak was one of 10 people killed at about 2:30 p.m. on Monday, when a 21-year-old gunman stormed into King Soopers supermarket, marking the country’s second mass shooting in less than a week.

Hanson herself hadn’t set foot in her neighborhood supermarket since the beginning of the pandemic, but this past Sunday, she and her son made the decision to do their Passover shopping in-person.

“It was my first time in that grocery store in a year,” Hanson said. “I did not want to have another year where I couldn’t buy my own Passover food.”

When terror struck that same store just 24 hours later, Hanson marveled at just how lucky she and her son had been, reminding him that if he had said “I’m too busy today, we need to go tomorrow,” a simple shopping trip could have turned into tragedy.

“Our first thought was the workers,” said Hanson, a resident of the area since 1992. And she learned of Bartowiak’s murder.

After living in the neighborhood for nearly three decades, Hanson also became familiar with many of the Kings Soopers employees, including two of those who were killed on Monday – front-end manager Ricki Olds, 25, and grocery bagger Terri Leiker, 51.

“Anybody who ever went in that store knew Teri,” Hanson said. “She was such a presence in that store.”

Abe Frishman, a food distributor who visits the store every day, remembered Leiker as someone who “would go out and gather carts in the middle of a blizzard and still be smiling.”

“It’s a special store,” he said. “Everybody knows each other. We all know the customers. It’s a special place in Boulder.”

While Frishman knew both Leiker and Olds – who ordered bakery goods from him before her move to the front end – he was particularly close to another victim, the overnight maintenance worker Denny Stong. The 20-year-old was “the first human” Frishman saw every morning. Stong was off-shift on Monday afternoon, and had only come back to purchase food.

“It’s like somebody punched me in the stomach,” Frishman said. “I clocked out at 1:30. Then I shopped and I had just left.”

Boulder woke up the next day to a chilly fog looming over the Flatirons, as if the skies were aware that this Tuesday could not be one of the 300 days of sunshine that Coloradans relish each year.

“I am vacillating between deep sadness and real anger,” said Hanson, a staunch supporter of stricter gun control laws, that afternoon. “We have to do something.”

Hanson is a member of Congregation Bonai Shalom, where London-native Rabbi Marc Soloway serves as spiritual leader. In the aftermath of Monday’s tragedy, Soloway expressed a similar mix of grief and rage, noting that this mass shooting occurred just days after a District Court judge blocked the City of Boulder from enforcing its two-year-old ban on assault weapons. Bonai Shalom has a gun violence prevention committee, he added, as well as an annual Shabbat service to memorialize gun victims.

Although he has led Bonai Shalom for 17 years, Soloway said he still cannot wrap his head around the ease at which Coloradans “can buy an assault weapon and as many rounds of ammunition as [they] want.”

His colleague Rabbi Fred Greene, who leads the nearby Congregation Har HaShem where Frishman is a member, expressed similar frustrations, as well as heartache, while voicing his support for community efforts to prevent gun violence.

“If we don’t do the work, then these people died in vain,” Greene said. “On one level, we need thoughtful legislation and advocacy work, and on the other level, we need caregivers and clergy and sources of support to help us build our resilience and help us build our hope.”

That support was critical to congregants as they began to put names and faces to the victims, in what Soloway described as “a real sense of community tragedy.”

“During COVID, in some ways we’ve all used the language about people working at the supermarkets as our superheroes,” said Soloway, who also serves as president of the Haver Rabbinic Council of Boulder. “The fact that this was the target – people who have been working every day, putting themselves at risk to continue serving us – it’s really had an impact.”

Together with the Boulder JCC, the Rabbinic Council planned a virtual vigil for Tuesday evening – a gathering that was already in the works as events unfolded on Monday. The hosts also invited the Islamic Center of Boulder, whose members are now fearing a resurgence of Islamophobia, due to the suspect’s Muslim faith and Syrian roots, according to Soloway.

“It’s at times like these where there is incredible strength in this community,” he said. “Within less than an hour of the news coming out, I was on a Zoom with eight rabbis in Boulder.”

Greene, who was one of these rabbis, said that he and his colleagues recognized how such a gathering could be critical “in the midst of all this physical distancing.”

“We just knew that there was going to be a palpable need for folks to come together,” he said.

Jonathan Lev, executive director of the Boulder JCC, also emphasized “the importance of connecting with all our neighbors and the strangers among us.” A patron of King Soopers for about 15 years, Lev said that he and all his neighbors were “waiting for each text to come in,” to confirm each other’s safety on Monday.

“It’s so critical to be together and not feel isolated and not feel alone,” he said on Tuesday afternoon, ahead of the vigil. “Tonight is really about being together and sharing as one community.”

After King Soopers shooting, Boulder’s Jews turns toward comfort and anti-gun activism

In a 45-minute webinar that evening, clergy members, lay leaders and musicians took turns sharing their personal stories of the neighborhood, providing spiritual guidance and singing prayerful psalms for virtual participants who could not see each other, but who had tuned in for some sense of comfort from around the world.

“They were parents, they were children, they were husbands, they were wives, they were best friends – known and loved by many,” Soloway told the participants. “And we feel sorrow and anger and frustration and helplessness and anguish and heartache, and maybe, just maybe, little glimmers of hope.”

Sharon Udasin is a writer in Boulder.

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Community turns toward comfort and anti-gun activism

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