Shepherding a Jewish Community through a Mass Shooting

Photo credit: Ryan Loew/PublicSource.

By Rabbi Amy Bardack

I could write a book on how to guide a Jewish community in the aftermath of a mass shooting. I pray that no one will have to read it. But given the rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes, your town might be next. So let me help you.

I am a rabbi at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Our job, in normal times, is to assess the needs of the community and determine how to meet those needs. It is because of the way we worked and the networks we created before the massacre, in the Jewish community and in the city as a whole, that we were able to care for our community after it.

We mobilized an initial response to the shooting in one hour. Next, the staff divided up responsibilities. First came supporting the victims and their families; then, serving the community. “I’m on rabbis and educators,” I volunteered. There was no road map to follow. We rolled up our sleeves and went to work. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Invest in Relationships:

Two years ago, I spent the first three months in my job meeting with everyone in the community. It sometimes felt frivolous. But in this time of crisis, I needed those relationships. “Let’s huddle and strategize,” said my Orthodox male colleague in his black coat and hat, standing next to me at a funeral. “Here’s who I’m hearing needs help,” said the Cohenet, a feminist spiritual leader. Pittsburgh is known as a community where Jews of different stripes talk to each other and work together. That is not the case in other cities I’ve lived in. After the Boston marathon bombings, a team of disaster-trained chaplains was unable to convene a meeting of rabbis. I’ve convened three meetings thus far, all widely attended. Because of the way we’ve always worked together across denominational lines, we were able to collaborate in an atmosphere of mutual trust in the wake of a massacre.

Work with Partners:

We were fortunate to be able to mobilize an initial response within one hour of the shooting because we already had strong partnership with two communal agencies: the Jewish Community Center and Jewish Family and Community Services. We worked hand in glove with those organizations, alongside the American Red Cross and the FBI, to create a crisis center immediately. Our community security director at the Federation had already forged strong ties to local and federal law enforcement, which made creating a security plan in the aftermath both smooth and speedy. Our Community Relations Council had well-established relationships with clergy of other faiths, local and state government, and other minority communities. That meant that vigils, rallies, and interfaith services were coordinated within 24 hours. All these partnerships, built in times of peace, were crucial in the aftermath of the shooting.

Teach People How to Help:

We were flooded with offers of help from throughout the world. It was wonderful to hear that others cared, to be enveloped by people of all faiths, near and far. But many of the offers were not helpful. Some asked us to provide personalized service like itineraries and customized maps of the area so they could provide what they hoped would be support. Others wanted us to organize a public lecture for them to share their wisdom with us. At an emergency clergy meeting, we all agreed: We’re going to say no. No to the busloads of young people who needed us to provide housing and food. No to the self-proclaimed mental health gurus who thought they alone had the skills to heal us. “Unless you have low ego, high emotional intelligence, and unique expertise, we cannot welcome you now,” became my stock response. My advice for potential helpers: be humble, don’t create more work for us, do what we ask you to do, and don’t be offended when we say no.

Support the Jewish Professionals:

Rabbis and Jewish professionals were ourselves traumatized, not just caretakers of those who were. In order to take care of others, we needed to take care of ourselves. We relied on our network of national rabbinical and chaplaincy associations to bring in rabbis to provide pastoral care to clergy and to extend our reach to those who wanted to speak with a rabbi. We used our connections to the Pittsburgh medical community to deploy trauma specialists to help Jewish professionals both care for themselves and understand the many reactions they were seeing in others. Chaplains also helped Jewish leaders supervise their employees who were traumatized, and guided us in striking the right tone when it was time for some of us to begin to return to regular business.

Give a Message that We Are Moving Forward Together:

Our Israeli brothers and sisters knew terror well, and they had unmatched expertise. The Israel Trauma Coalition, which helps communities around the world manage these kinds of attacks, sent a delegation of five experts. They met with rabbis and educators, helping us craft the right message and tone that would help promote healing. They helped parents and children understand the symptoms of acute traumatic response. Our message, they advised, needed to be that we can make a choice to move forward as Jews together.

Pittsburgh is a resilient city, the Steel City. We have always known how to move forward. And we will again, serving as a model for the profound strength of pluralistic community-building for Jewish communities everywhere.

Amy Bardack, a rabbi, is the director of Jewish life and learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and resides in Squirrel Hill.