September 9, 1999
Where Were the Rabbis?
Where were the community's most prominent rabbis? They certainly empathized with the plight of the families that were suffering, and some were quick to speak out in support of gun control and the need for greater security at Jewish institutions. But with few exceptions, they weren't there to lend a personal touch in the days just after the shooting.
One rabbi told me his synagogue was quite some distance away. Another said he had been out of town. A third said he hadn't thought to visit. Valid responses, all, but a number of priests, ministers and nuns with no connection to the center simply showed up in the two or three days following the shooting to offer their prayers and themselves.
"We needed our rabbis," one JCC official offered, "and they just weren't there for us."
By contrast, staffers said that Rev. Gregory Frost of the Church of St. Andrew and St. Charles, next door to the North Valley JCC, was exceptionally helpful. He gave of his time, offered his church to be used for three days while the center was closed and spoke at a pre-Shabbat prayer and healing service at the center on the Friday after the shootings.
Similarly, while several restaurants and food chains each sent over hundreds of free lunches in the days after the shooting, no kosher establishment, including the pizza store from which the Jewish community centers regularly ordered, donated any food.
The media and communal story angle has shifted from the horrific shooting itself to broader concerns about security and anti-Semitism, but the people closest to the tragedy are still going through the healing process, and feeling sad, lonely and neglected by those they imagined would be most helpful at such a time.
Officials said that one local rabbi arrived at the JCC hours after the assault and seemed more focused on getting media attention, which he did, than offering solace to the campers and counselors. And on the day that the Rev. Jesse Jackson held a press conference at the center, a number of rabbis were on hand for the event, but none stayed behind to meet with the children and their families.
Still, Jewish officials said they did not want to appear cynical. They said they were truly moved by the outpouring of empathy from fellow social workers from Jewish family services and Federation and the Christian community. "We felt the hand of humanity," one person close to the JCC said, "but the hand of God was not extended from our own rabbis."
Perhaps the lesson here is that we sometimes become more involved in political or social issues than in caring about real people. We focus, for example, on the need for gun control, especially after a terrible shooting, but neglect to reach out to the actual victims and their families. That doesn't mean we're ogres, or even thoughtless people.
It's natural to shy away in such circumstances, to conclude that only the closest of friends or relatives should call someone at a time of grief or pain. But in Judaism, the shiva experience after a death, and the mitzvah of bikur cholim, visiting the sick, teach us that we act as a caring community by visiting when we are needed. We must overcome our tendency to pull back and leave the person in need alone. What is most important is not what we say to the mourner or one who is convalescing from an illness. It is simply our presence that speaks loudest, as a tangible way of showing our care and concern. Surely rabbis should know this.
Yes, security for our institutions is an important issue as we struggle to increase protection without giving in to paranoia. And in the aftermath of the JCC shootings, speaking out for gun control is more than ever an obligation. But it is particularly important on the eve of the High Holy Days season to remember that our No. 1 commitment is to our friends, our neighbors -- and to each other.
Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of the New York Jewish Week, where this editorial appeared.