THERE WERE LOTS of questions — from students asking why the tragedy happened, from youngsters wondering about God, from people whose friends hadn’t called to check on them, even from the Jewish a cappella group Pizmon about how to interact with audience members after the group decided not to cancel a scheduled performance in Pittsburgh.
It fell to Rabbi Shira Stern — a disaster chaplain certified by the American Red Cross and deployed to Pittsburgh to provide support in the wake of the Shabbat massacre at Tree of Life synagogue — to respond.
On Nov. 14, she spoke via videoconference from Pittsburgh to about 35 community leaders at a conference sponsored by the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ at the Aidekman campus in Whippany. The session, focusing on responses to trauma, was added to the roster, which was originally planned before the Pittsburgh shooting.
“In light of recent events, we felt it was important to provide skills to the community and lay leaders people look to when trauma hits home,” said committee director Cecille Allman Asekoff. The annual Creating a Caring Community Together conference is a day-long event for area health-care professionals, social workers, congregation lay leaders and volunteers, agency representatives, and chaplains.
Also presenting in the session (and in the room) were Red Cross disaster chaplains Father Joe Ciccone and Rabbi Ziona Zelazo, as well as Jocelyn Gilman, executive director of the American Red Cross of Northern NJ. They had been planning to host a question-and-answer period following Stern’s talk, but snow cut the session short.
Stern alternated between sharing some of what she was encountering in Pittsburgh and providing advice and training for audience members. She outlined three phases of a traumatic event: preparation, response, and recovery; in Pittsburgh, she said, they were in the response phase.
Stern, who has been on teams that have responded to everything from floods and hurricanes to bombings and school shootings, said the only thing for certain is that no two deployments are the same, and that any plans you make for dealing with a disaster will probably go awry. “When you’re trying to make seder out of chaos, it gets very complicated,” she said.
Still, she urged representatives of area synagogues to engage in active-shooter drills.
And she acknowledged that while disasters involving weather may be preceded by a warning, in Pittsburgh, “there was no warning, and the awful irony is that the sanctuary — the very place we consider holy and safe and protected, and God’s home — was violated.” In those situations, she said, “Don’t judge how people are going to behave. People are going to behave in a variety of ways. There will be anxiety, sadness, fear — and there’s going to be a lot of anger.”
Some of the advice she offered was practical: “If something happens in your town, chas v’chalilah, you need to figure out where the command center is. Information is like gold.”
Other suggestions involved building self-knowledge, such as knowing your vulnerabilities, and not biting off more than you can chew. “When you do too much, everything falls apart, and people are looking to you for strength.”
And, she said, “Expect many questions for which there are no answers.” She said that for the most part, people who have suffered a trauma just need to have their stories heard. In Pittsburgh, Stern added, many of those stories started with tales of the Holocaust. “For anyone Jewish, Pittsburgh raises a meaningful question: What does this mean for our country? For our community?” She added, “One young man said, about a relative killed in the shooting, ‘My relative was the best human being I knew, the best role model. Now I don’t know. Did God take my relative from me?’”
The most important piece of advice she offered to the conference attendees was perhaps the simplest. “It’s not about what you say. It’s how you listen.”