The Institute originally published this post on June 19, 2014, on our previous website. Here, we are honored to welcome guest bloggers, Rabbis Arthur Gross-Schaefer and Suzy Stone, addressing the topic of faith-based response to campus violence. Below you will find their voices and perspectives as they sought to lead a local congregation gathering in the immediate aftermath of violence, including preparing for and conducting a service, and what informed their discernment. Following also are two examples of statements each Rabbi made during their service.
As individuals entered the sanctuary, each came with their own private needs, agenda, and a personal sense of G-d’s presence in a seemingly senseless tragedy. After a young student had stabbed his roommates to death followed by a shooting spree on May 23, 2014 we decided to hold a healing service for the Jewish community in Santa Barbra four days after this heartbreaking series of events.
In the planning of the service, several questions were considered: Should this be a healing service, a memorial service or a service at all? Were there existing service models that could be easily adapted? In addition to the service, what other program or activity could be used to help those present express their feelings, perceptions, hopes and fears? And how should those who died, those who were injured, and the perpetrator be remembered?
When we could not find a pre-existing model to copy, we turned to the Psalms and readings each of us had selected to cover a variety of emotions and beliefs. We wanted to create a safe place where everyone would feel comfortable during and after the service. We decided to honor only the victims and not mention the shooter, as it was too early in the grief process to expect those present to deal with the pain and anguish leading him to take the lives of others before taking his own life. Six candles for the six victims were laid out in front of the congregation and lit during the service.
When the service was over, four discussion groups were created and led by a member of the clergy and a facilitator—many of whom were therapists and social workers who had a great deal of experience leading people through difficult conversations. The break-out groups included discussions on grief and loss, gun legislation, concerns over the mental health system, as well as, a conversation about gender norms and the price of privilege. The goal was to encourage and maintain a safe space for participation and a sharing. The facilitators were not asked to control the direction of the conversation; but rather, to help make sure that no one voice or opinion dominated the conversation and that multiple viewpoints could be expressed without fear or intimidation. For the final few minutes, the facilitators asked the group to offer suggestions for follow up actions or conversations that they felt needed to happen in light of the recent events. Following the break-out groups, the community gathered for a final prayer and song.
The service and discussion session were intentionally kept short – the service was forty-five minutes while the individual discussion sessions lasted around thirty minutes.
After the final prayer, the clergy and facilitators met in private to discuss how their groups functioned and what ideas came forward for further. Below are some of the insights shared and follow-up ideas that were suggested:
Grief and Loss
· Rather than giving answers, even religious based concepts, it is often better to just listen carefully in silence and give a caring hug. Often people don’t want or won’t believe in simplistic answers. What they do want are people who are present and deeply care.
· Create workshops for talking to children and adults about death – do’s and don’ts.
· Don’t try to move to healing or foreignness too fast until there has been time for grief, loss and sorrow
· For those directly affected, grief is not a simple progression from one stage to another. Grief and loss is messy, uneven, irrational, and powerful. As stated before, the best we can often do is just to be present.
The Mental Health System
Gender and Privilege
Looking back and forward after our service, it is clear how important religious communities are to create safe places for people to share diverse and even contradictory opinions, beliefs, feelings, emotions and frustrations. People experience a lot of sadness, fear and anger, which needs a safe container that religious leaders can provide. It is also critical for religious professionals to be humble about their skills and the helpfulness of their theological answers. As stated above, not every question or comment needs to require a response. And, professional therapists have training and insightful perspectives.
Moreover, often the best we can do is nurture the community by helping the individual members realize the important role played by concepts of compassion, non-judgmental listening and developing a welcoming environment.
Finally, it may be important to keep in mind that we, the trained clergy, are also feeling sadness, anger, loss and even powerlessness. We may not feel that we have the right words, can create a powerful ritual or even know how to begin to respond when such an overwhelming tragedy occurs. It is at these times that prayer, finding a good partner, and knowing that no one has all the answers becomes very helpful. So, just be you, be present, and be authentic. And that will be enough.
Examples of Service Remarks:
In answer to the questions, what is it that we, as a Jewish community can do to help one another grieve and comprehend what happened in our own backyard, and, what is our responsibility to the larger community when tragedy strikes so close to home, Rabbi Stone shared the following remarks during their service:
Hold them tight. Hold your children, your friends, your parents, your loved ones, your neighbors and even the strangers you encounter on your way—Hold them tight.Hold on tight to the memories of those we mourn. Let not this mass tragedy obscure the fact that these students were individuals who have individual lives and stories to tell. Hold on tight to your dreams and aspirations. Hold on tight to a vision of a world redeemed—a world in which our children no longer live in fear and isolation, anxiety and heartache.
Last but not least, our tradition teaches us to hold on tight to our tzitzit, the fringes of our garments. As it says in Numbers 15:38 and Deuteronomy 22:12, these fringes are to be placed specifically on the k’nafot-- the corner of our garments. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chaim 11) teaches us that a tallit that does not have tzitzit placed exactly in the corner of the garment is not fit for use. While one may argue that this decision was simply a product of legal minutiae, I would suggest that this halakhah is deeply symbolic.
Just as we are commanded to hold on tight to the fringes of our garment, we must hold on tight to the fringes of our society. While we are often quick to run away from that which we don’t understand, or that which appears too sharp or jagged, we are challenged to grab onto those narrow places, to examine the fringes before our eyes, and hold them close to our hearts.
In other words, we are commanded to gaze upon that which lies just out of sight by bringing the fringes of our garment (and society) to the front and center of our lives. As we recite this passage from the Shemah twice a day, we are reminded that what seems peripheral is actually central to our lives and the healing of our society.
With this in mind I will end with two diametrically opposed thoughts. As individual citizens, operating as independent advocates, it will be nearly impossible for us to have an impact on the public sphere. But if we join together in conversations and forums, and through real honest-to-goodness debate, we may have an opportunity to act as a unified Jewish community to influence the public policy in our county. As Rabbi Tarfon once taught: “It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:16).
On the other hand, it is far easier to make a spiritual impact than a political one in in the immediate days and weeks following such a tragedy. So I urge all of you to hold onto the fringes a bit tighter so that less people in our society fall prey to irreversible grief, isolation or alienation.
With heavy hearts and inconsolable grief, our tradition asks us to err on the side of hope and transformation. We yearn for a day when all of our children will be free from fear, isolation, loss, tragedy, and senseless acts of hatred. In doing so, we recommit ourselves to our ancient people’s call for ever-lasting peace.
Rabbi Gross-Schaefer shared the following remarks during the service:
Ever made a call or received a call beginning with the words, “First, mom or dad, I’m ok.” We hear such a call with both relief mixed with dread. What will the next words entail knowing it can’t be good.
And sometimes, we receive a call from a doctor or a police officer about a loved one, such as the calls the families of the victims of last Friday night’s tragedy received, and lives of those families as well as their friends are altered forever.
We choose from a whole list of possible responses. There is the ‘what if.’ What if my loved one decided to take a different direction or was just one minute earlier or later. What if my son or daughter decided to attend another university or get a different roommate? We may even pray for what happened to be magically undone. Our rabbis teach this is a meaningless prayer. There is the reality of what happened and we must deal with reality, no matter how painful.
Then there is the ‘if only’, often tied to blame. If only we had a better mental health system, if only there was stronger gun control, if only the police had done a better job, if only. There may be some truths in the ‘if only’ focus, however, not now. We don’t really know what could have been done and if it would have made a different. More importantly, the ‘if only’ focus is really about the future and possible future responses we will share after our service.
At this moment though, it is the present demanding our attention. How am I feeling, what am I grieving. While Rabbi Stone drew out attention to the fringes, think now of the tallit itself. When we are wrapped in our tallitot there is often a feeling of safety and connection. It is the very fabric of a sense of security that has been torn and we feel more vulnerable and unable to persist in the belief we can control all events. As we often joke, we plan and G-d laughs.
So what do we do then at this time.... we embrace the sheltering presence of community, we remember to act with kindness and compassion to all those we encounter, and we seek the light of blessings present even in darkness.
There are always blessing of friends and family, the angels that surround us. The angels like Raphael, who simply hug and carry us during these times. There are angels such as Michael whom, in spite of all else, help us move forward one step at a time in this corporeal reality. There are angels like Gabriel, who will sit with us as we risk grappling with the spiritual questions of G-d’s presence or absence. And then there are the angels of Ariel, who remind us we indeed are a unique creation with distinctive gifts to contribute to the healing of others, our community and ourselves.
So again I ask, what do we do at this time? For now we put aside the what if and the if only as we hold on to the angels around us, we act with greater kindness, appreciation and caring towards each other as we pray for healing.
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