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Explaining the Unexplainable

December 19, 2012 By:
Bryan Schwartzman and Eric Berger
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Interfaith clergy from Newtown, Pa., hosted a prayer vigil at the Lutheran Church of God’s Love in support of their Connecticut “sister” city. Here Madilynn Knapp (left) and Morgan Johnson, both 11, express their feelings about the tragedy. Photo by Laurence Kelly

“We believe that God has a reason for everything,” Rabbi Shmuel Jablon, principal of the Torah Academy of Greater Phila­delphia, told middle school students there, “but that doesn’t mean we know the reason or understand the reason.”

In the immediate days after one of the worst mass shootings in American history, Jablon felt the need to offer comfort to his students and perhaps even make some sense out of the senseless.

Jablon led the school’s sixth, seventh and eighth graders in a recitation of psalms and reassured them that the school has a robust safety procedure in place. He also pointed out that millions of children went to school on Friday, Dec. 14, and came home safely.

But mostly, he talked to his students about the age-old question: How is it that God can allow such atrocities to occur?

“Our lives and the lives of the Jewish people are filled with those kinds of things. We know there are reasons, but only prophets could know them, and we have no prophets,” Jablon said in an interview. “We know that when people are comforting mourners, helping those who are suffering, and people are praying for people, that God is there.”

Tragic news comes all the time — today’s hyperconnected world offers no shortage of reports of death and destruction — and even mass shootings don’t seem all that uncommon these days. Just this past summer, 12 people were murdered inside a Colorado movie theater.

But the particulars of this incident — the idyllic setting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the fact that 20 of the 28 dead were young children, their smiling faces splashed across newspapers and websites — have forced Americans of all backgrounds to ask just how something like this could have happened.

It might turn out to be one of those tragedies that people long remember where they were when they first learned of it.

As Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park put it in an email to members — one of many such rabbinic missives sent to various congregations — the name of Sandy Hook Elementary School “is now seared forever in our collective conscience.”

Over Shabbat, many area Jews turned to their congregations and rabbis for solace and comfort. A series of candlelight and interfaith vigils were held or planned at places like Hillel of the University of Pennsylvania, Congregation Adath Jeshurun and Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley to commemorate the victims and take a stand against violence. In the tragedy’s wake, many Jewish institutions also took time to review established safety procedures.

And at least one synagogue, Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington, said its religious school will donate its usual tzedakah collection to plant trees in Israel in memory of Noah Poz­ner, a Jewish 6-year-old who was killed in the shooting.

An interfaith service on Dec. 19 at Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley featured song, prayer and long periods of silence in memory of the Connecticut shooting victims. 

Rabbi Jim Egolf of Beth David Reform Congregation read the names of those who died. 

Melanie Etemad, of Baha'i Community of Lower Merion Township, recited a sacred reading from the Baha'i faith, which included the passage, "Therefore be thou not disconsolate, do not languish, do not sigh, neither wail nor weep; for agitation and mourning deeply affect his soul in the divine realm." 

The music throughout the service included Jewish songs and concluded with "Let it Be" by The Beatles as people slowly started to depart the sanctuary. 

Synagogue and Jewish organizational listservs and social media postings reflected the national debate on gun control legislation as well as policies regarding severe mental illness. The Jewish Social Policy Action Network featured a particularly robust string of emails.

For many educators, before they could begin to assuage students’ fears and insecurities, they had to confront their own feelings of grief and helplessness while privately and publicly reaffirming their commitment to children and education.

Wendy Smith, principal of the Stern Center branch of the Perelman Jewish Day School in Wynnewood, said there were no classes on Monday because of previously scheduled parent-teacher conferences, but teachers met to discuss their reactions as well as review safety measures.

“The tone was of resolve. We are responsible for the safety of our children, and we take this so seriously,” Smith said, adding that an outside firm would be conducting a security audit of the school building.

At Stern, Smith said that administrators made the decision not to address the incident with their students — who are as young as 5 — and instead left it to parents to decide how much to tell their kids about what happened.

She did say that counselors would be available if any students felt they needed to talk to an adult.

But with older students, there was no avoiding talking about the Connecticut shooting. Rabbi Michael Ross, a local Jewish educator who led a service for students at a Gratz College Jewish Community High School branch in West Chester, said he tried to calm students’ fears.

“I had to tell them that you’re going to be safe, that we are providing a safe, warm, trusting environment for you, but I knew in my heart it wasn’t true,” Ross said, adding that there was little that could be done to stop a maniacal gunman.

While many of the observances took place in Jewish spaces, many religious leaders and other community members also took part in interfaith programs.

Rabbi Elliot Strom of Congregation Shir Ami in Bucks County participated in a Dec. 16 interfaith candlelight vigil in Newtown, Pa., and was struck by a Christian clergy member, Pastor Mary Catherine Miller of Newtown United Methodist Church, who spoke about the need to forgive the shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza.

“She really made me rethink this position of how we approach people who are unforgivable and how that can help us to think that maybe everyone can be forgiven — or at least that we don’t make a judgment about them,” Strom said.

Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy, religious leader of Tzedek v’Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Newtown, Pa., was holding her 9-month-old daughter when she glanced at her smartphone the day of the massacre and read the news with disbelief.

“I was shaking and crying,” she said.

Within an hour, she had agreed to take part in the same vigil Strom addressed, and she offered opening remarks.

“When things like this happen, God didn’t cause this. I think that God is crying with us and God mourns with us,” she said. “When we lose souls that are this young and this pure, it is hard to sermonize about this. What I want to do is to get quiet and to feel and to ask people whatever they are feeling.”

Though Levy feels strongly about the need for stricter gun control legislation, she opted not to bring politics into the interfaith forum.

But some rabbis began to speak out immediately. During his Shabbat sermon, Rabbi Eliott Perlstein of Ohev Shalom of Bucks County, a Conservative synagogue in Richboro, talked about the need for the country to change its approach to gun legislation.

“While I have great respect for the president, I said that tears are not leadership, and this tragedy calls for leadership from the White House,” he wrote in an email.

Rosenbloom, in his email to congregants, expressed similar sentiments. “I am tired of candles and teddy bears, prayers and explanations,” he wrote. “I am tired of our lack of collective will to deal forthrightly with the plague of gun violence. I am tired of our politicians who cower in front of the gun lobby, and who hide behind the Second Amendment.”

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