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A Chicago rabbi was a committed advocate for gun safety. A recent attack changed that

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

I spoke with Rabbi Tamar Manasseh on the South Side of Chicago during the Jewish High Holidays in September 2023. She told us about the candles that she and a group she founded called Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings light each year to remember those who've died in the city by gun violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TAMAR MANASSEH: So far, we're at 647 candles. It looks like a conflagration out there because we have so many candles every year.

SIMON: This summer, Rabbi Manasseh says that she's considering dismantling her group. She joins us now from the South Side of Chicago. Rabbi, thank you for being back with us.

MANASSEH: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: You and a group of neighbors are known for keeping watch on the streets. What happened recently that's made you rethink your efforts?

MANASSEH: For the first time in nine years on that corner, there was actually shooting when I was there. And not only was I there. My 3-year-old grandson was actually there, too. And I just thought that there was enough respect, not just for the effort that, you know, volunteers in the community put in to create that, you know, safe space. I thought it was enough respect for the children who were playing. And so if I can't keep people's kids safe, then I don't want them there.

SIMON: Tell us what's on this corner right now.

MANASSEH: On this corner right now is actually The Block Academy (ph), right? It's a peace center. We built a community center out of shipping containers. And it is a safe space. And everything goes on there from community meetings. We do giveaways twice a month. We always have a cache of Pampers on hand for people in the neighborhood. We change the world from there. It's a resource center. And if it goes away, those resources go with us.

SIMON: Last we spoke, you kind of had a working agreement with gang members that when children were out playing, they...

MANASSEH: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Would behave themselves.

MANASSEH: It was, like, nothing, like - we did. And the thing was, it was always this unspoken, you know, kind of understanding. And to tell you the truth, I don't necessarily believe it was anyone that was from around where the block is that did this. I mean, it's a very transient kind of neighborhood, and there are a lot of big apartment buildings. So, you know, every year, you're going to get, you know, new people - right? - who aren't familiar with what we do on that corner. But wherever it came from, that is unacceptable.

SIMON: You've been asking for more security cameras and speed bumps on the streets in your neighborhood. What response have you gotten from the city?

MANASSEH: The city said they were going to give us speed bumps, quote-unquote, "any day now." But for eight years, I've been asking for speed bumps because I don't believe anti-violence organizations exist to make people comfortable with the violence. I think that it's for us to help find solutions for the violence, as well. It doesn't have to be things that cost millions of dollars. And so what we're doing is we're actually fundraising to buy our own cameras, our own signs, to make sure. The only thing we can't do is we can't install our own speed bumps.

SIMON: What about security cameras? As I don't have to tell you, there are a lot of people on the South Side who - they're uncomfortable about security cameras. They think it makes them feel like they're under constant surveillance.

MANASSEH: I can understand that, but they're our security cameras. And I think those security cameras should be aimed directly at the speed bumps because the thing about speed bumps is drive-by shooters don't like speed bumps. Who knew you could control crime if you changed the flow of traffic? And if you're aiming that camera at that speed bump when that car is going its slowest, that's when you have the best chance of getting an actual picture of the car or the person in the car. So it - for us, it's not about the police controlling our security cameras. It's about us controlling it so we can make sure when things do happen that it does get to the media, that it doesn't just stay with the police, and nothing gets done about it.

SIMON: And the city's not being responsive?

MANASSEH: Last week, the alderman of the ward that we're in came out. He said, I'm your friend, not your enemy. I've only seen him one time, so I wasn't even really sure who he was because he hasn't been responsive since that one time I met him last year on Memorial Day.

SIMON: This is the alderman who succeeded Roderick Sawyer, right?

MANASSEH: Yes. His name is William Hall. And so I'm, like - you know, he does this interview. The guy from the news station says, hey, you guys can talk. I just need him for two minutes. And then he left. So I never got to talk to him at all.

SIMON: How's your grandson?

MANASSEH: Oh, you know what? He's fine. I talked him into thinking that it was fireworks.

SIMON: Oh, my word.

MANASSEH: But the rest of the kids - we had to have a conversation about, you know, you see a gun, you run, run, run. And that was a hard conversation to have. And, I mean, I think they're OK, but this is not something that we can keep doing. We can't keep having this conversation with these kids.

SIMON: Rabbi Tamar Manasseh on the South Side of Chicago. Thank you so much for being with us, Rabbi.

MANASSEH: Thank you so much, Scott, for having me.

SIMON: And we reached out to Alderman William Hall for comment. His office has not responded. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.