Christchurch Shootings, Purim & Responding to Tragedy with Simcha

By Rabbi Ariel Tal

Everyone will remember where they were standing that day on March 15th. I was in the WJCC processing room packing chickens after our Kosher Shechita to send to Auckland. The radio was on and we heard about the horrific shooting in Christchurch mosques. Shootings? In New Zealand? This couldn’t be happening. Having lived in Israel for more than half my life, and unfortunately having lived through many shootings and terrorist attacks, I knew that even in these dire times, the tasks that were in my control needed to be finished. So, we finished packing the chickens, counting them and made sure that the Shechita’s final step was completed successfully.

At 4pm on Friday, instead of kicking back and having a lechayim with the Shechita team after a grinding week, I was on the phone with our Security officer and the Police just to get word that we needed to close the Synagogue for Shabbat, for the first time in the community’s 176 years. Tragedy had set in New Zealand. Today was a new reality, New Zealand’s version of 9-11. I reluctantly agreed to have the Centre closed on Shabbat, but insisted that Purim was going to run as scheduled and without change. Purim must not be cancelled or compromised.

It was a quiet Shabbat. We had a small Tefilla service at our house, instead of at the Centre, on Shabbat Zachor of all weeks. The Torah reading on Shabbat Zachor is one the Torah obligates to read, and possibly the most important Torah reading of the year, and instead of reading Zachor at the Synagogue, I spent Shabbat afternoon looking up in the Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, how to make up that Torah reading at another point.

Purim fell the week after the shooting. The country was still in a state of shock, and the Community Centre wasn’t open until Tuesday mid-day. Despite the chaos, the mantra I kept telling people was “stay the course.” We will not stop living even in wake of this tragedy. Purim was on as scheduled! The only adjustment Rachel and I made was not having live or even recorded music during the Purim celebrations. Purim ran as scheduled, Thank God. Everyone came in costume, we had the magicians for adults and kids, a great dinner made by Rachel, and the wonderful volunteers who made Indian food, and even hosted Ambassador Gerber for the night Purim celebration. The Myers Hall was decorated in beautiful purple decor, and Orot Purim party was a huge success! Even in our time of simcha, we still took the time to recognize the events of Christchurch. We started the Megilla reading with a moment of silence, and after that I said my mantra to the community – “stay the course,” and by doing so we make sure that love prevails and terrorism never wins! Just like in the time of Esther – we respond to tragedy by coming together in prayer, and strengthen the community, and continue with our Simcha, our days of happiness and joy, even in wake of this travesty.

The days before Purim were one of the most hectic days in my job as Community Rabbi. I was planning for Purim with Megilla reading, the events of the day and our Mishloach Manot, and the day before Purim flew to Christchurch with Rabbi Friedler, Juliet Moses and a delegation from Auckland. We arrived at the Hagley Park community centre in Christchurch, and met with the Muslim families and visitors that were gathered there. We were greeted with warmth, embraces and a feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood. We kept hearing how important it was that the Jewish community of New Zealand came to show its support for the Muslim community in this time of great need. Visitors came from Yemen, Pakistan, Canberra, Sydney and many from Auckland to just give their support. Some of the visitors had relatives who were killed or injured. The most unbelievable, yet true, story we heard was a local member of the Linwood Mosque who was caught at the back of the mosque during the shooting had 30 bullets fired at him, and was not harmed. One of the bullets, however, grazed the side of his head. He showed me the marks, and it was literally a matter of a few millimeters that the bullet had “missed” him, which was the difference between life and death for the Afghan mosque member. He also happened to be on their board, and told me where I can send donations to. I connected them with one of the foundations, in hope that the money would go to families that were in financial need and emotional support. The visit was emotionally draining, and very important.

After arriving home that same day, it was time to transition between tragedy and joy, between mourning and Simcha. Purim began in just 24 hours time, the happiest holiday of the Jewish calendar! I was pleased to see that everyone came to the Centre dressed up in their finest costumes, and brought with them the Purim spirit. Our magicians performed outstandingly, the Indian food at night was superb (Thanks Rachel and the cooking team for Purim night!) and everything was on schedule. My opening remarks before reading the Megilla for the first time on Purim night I kept the mantra I had been saying over the past 5 days – “stay the course.” If we stop celebrating our holidays, we let terror win. The real victory is the outpouring of love that we have in wake of the horror and hate, and our insistence of practicing religious freedom in New Zealand. Life is more powerful than hate. Simcha, celebrating joy as a community, is the ultimate response to tragedy, and this Purim we emerged victorious.

We did, however, make a concession during the celebrations and refrained from live music, and didn’t even blast music on a playlist to be sensitive to the national mourning of the Christchurch shooting. We also held a moment of silence before the night Megilla reading.

We do not understand why tragedy strikes where it does, and that is not for us to know. What is in our control is what we can do when tragedy strikes. We must continue to strengthen our community, be more connected to our Judaism, and never let terror win. Only then will we emerge victorious.

Rabbi Ariel Tal is the community Rabbi of the Wellington Jewish Community Centre, manages to National Shechita process, and has worked in education and marketing for nonprofits for the past 15 years. Rabbi Tal has a B.Ed from Ohalo College in Israel and an MBA in Marketing and Advertising from Ono Academic College in Israel.