NJ rabbi helps Pittsburgh community pick up the pieces

NJ rabbi helps Pittsburgh community pick up the pieces

After tragedy, pastoral counselor hopes to make parents, children, and others feel ‘safe’ again

Rabbi Shira Stern, co-leader of disaster spiritual care for the American Red Cross New Jersey, worked with the Pittsburgh Jewish community. Photos courtesy Rabbi Donald Weber
Rabbi Shira Stern, co-leader of disaster spiritual care for the American Red Cross New Jersey, worked with the Pittsburgh Jewish community. Photos courtesy Rabbi Donald Weber

Although the funerals for the 11 victims of the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh took place weeks ago, for Jewish community members the sadness and “overwhelming” fears linger.

“I have been with people who were right outside on their way in when they heard the shots and that is why they are still alive,” said Rabbi Shira Stern, a rabbinic associate at Temple Rodeph Torah and the director of the Center for Pastoral Care and Counseling, both in Marlboro. She’s also a co-leader of disaster spiritual care for American Red Cross New Jersey. The organization sent her to Pittsburgh Nov. 9-16, where she was assigned as liaison to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

This was the first time she has worked primarily with the Jewish community since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Stern said in a Nov. 14 phone interview with NJJN.

The aftermath of the tragedy has left the community shaken and fearful. For some, it has reawakened anxieties and fears of past trauma, she said.

“It’s overwhelming. Everything is overwhelming,” Stern said. “The idea that their sanctuary wasn’t a safe place. In their minds, it’s going to be an upward journey to make it a safe place [again]. Many people have a connection to their synagogue as a place to go for comfort and solace. For some, it will be very hard to walk through doors connected to a crime scene.”

A common concern within the community, Stern said, is how to move forward. “How do we make it possible for people to feel safe again in their synagogues?”

Additionally, the Oct. 27 shooting by white supremacist Robert Bowers served as a “trigger” for some locals, reminding them of past traumatic incidents in their lives.      

“There are a lot of people hurting,” said Stern. “It doesn’t have to be the same kind of loss. Any emotional, traumatic, or spiritual injury can be the trigger. I’m finding it a lot in Pittsburgh.”

Rabbi Shira Stern speaks to students, parents, and staff at the Community Day School in Pittsburgh on how to handle children’s fears and concerns.

During her stay, Stern worked with local rabbis, schools, and families as the initial shock wore off and a realization set in about the spiritual and emotional support needed by the community. 

“We are not telling the families anything,” said Stern. “We are there to listen. There are a lot of people who want to give advice at a time of grief, sometimes gratuitous advice,” she said. “We follow Jewish tradition and let the mourners make the first move. We let them guide the conversation. When they ask, ‘Will this feeling ever go away?’ we say, ‘Yes, it will go away.’”

As loved ones were buried and shivas concluded, Stern said the response has shifted to assisting families during shloshim, the 30-day period of mourning.

“I have also been counseling rabbis and congregants because everyone knows someone who died or knows someone who had a connection to someone who died,” said Stern. She attended Friday night Shabbat services at Temple Sinai on Nov. 16 and the following morning at Congregation Beth Shalom, whose building Tree of Life members are using until congregants can return to their own synagogue.

On Nov. 14, Stern accompanied representatives of the Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, and other federation representatives from across the United States and Canada into Tree of Life, where they held a candlelight service, the first service held there since the shootings.

She also addressed parents, staff, and students separately at Pittsburgh’s Community Day School, a multidenominational institution.

“I was talking to them about what kids are afraid of, why do bad things happen to good people, and using that as an opportunity to invite these kids to articulate their fears,” she explained. “It’s like a door opening. Some children are afraid because they think they’ve done something wrong and are being punished. The answer is, ‘Of course this is not retribution. It’s nothing we’ve done. It’s just one evil man.’”

Stern also spoke with parents and staff about how to alleviate the children’s fears, noting, “Stress in a stressful situation is normal and should be addressed, but I say to parents, you shouldn’t lie to your kids. Only tell them what they ask. If they ask if they are safe, you don’t have to go into a 45-minute soliloquy. Just tell them, ‘You are safe, and I will keep you safe as possible.’”                                

Since the shooting, Stern has been in touch with Christian and Muslim clergy who have offered help and funds. She called Pittsburgh “the most extraordinary community.”

“Both Jews and non-Jews have done so much to support and protect the Jewish community,” she said, adding that she attended a meeting of the local chevrah kadishah, or burial society, and ZAKA, a volunteer community response team, comprised of ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform members.

“It ran the entire spectrum of Jewish observance and every one of them said, because they had worked so closely to each other these last two weeks, they feel very connected to one another and had no problem with denominational lines,” Stern said. “They want to keep working together and have developed a sense of community, which they want to continue.”

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