In the summer of 1999, a self-proclaimed white supremacist walked into the North Valley Jewish Community Center and started shooting. The bullets hit the school’s secretary, a teen counselor and three children, all of whom survived. But the trauma of the shooting rippled beyond the immediate victims and throughout the community — to parents and other children present, and to every witness and bystander of every age.
Among the first responders were volunteers from the Crisis Response Team (CRT), a citywide program coordinated through the L.A. mayor’s office. As soon as they arrived at the scene, they immediately began tending to the needs of everybody there. “We made the kids feel safe, secure and let them know that they’re in a safe environment and that nothing is going to happen to them,” said Jeffrey Zimerman, team manager for the CRT, who is on the mayor’s staff and is a trained social worker.
The work of Zimerman and his CRT volunteers didn’t stop at the North Valley JCC. They connected parents with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and worked with Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles to conduct support group sessions. “We told parents what to expect from the children,” he said. They told them kids might have trouble sleeping or might eat less, and that they should watch out for signs of trauma. They also offered cautions: “We wanted them to make sure that the kids didn’t watch [the incident] on TV.”
Whenever there’s a fatality from a fire, suicide, shooting, infanticide, homicide or any other traumatic event in Los Angeles, the damage often extends far beyond the immediate victim, leaving family, friends and even unwitting witnesses traumatized. To help these people, in 1998, L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan’s office established the CRT, a team of highly trained volunteers, led by Zimerman. These volunteers are at a trauma scene within 30 minutes, ready to immediately step in to provide comfort and resources for anyone in need.
The CRT includes both men and women, all over 21, speaking some 20 different languages; they are lawyers, clergy, teachers, social workers, business owners and a wide range of other professionals. About 20 percent of the volunteers, which includes rabbis and rabbis-in-training, are Jewish, Zimerman said.
The CRT is available day and night, whenever they are needed. After the police and fire departments arrive at a scene, the officers immediately call the mayor’s office whenever there are witnesses. The volunteers all receive alerts sent out by Zimerman — or one of 10 trained volunteers on call — via text messages, e-mails and phone calls. This occurs as often as one to two times per day, and whoever is closest to the scene and available will respond.
In any given month, CRT answers about 35 calls. Zimerman, whose office is part of the city’s Department of Homeland Security and Public Safety at City Hall, only goes out a few times per month. A majority of his time is spent supervising call-outs and volunteers as well as working with the police and fire departments to build closer working relationships.
Bruce Weinberg, who has served as a volunteer for four years and is a professional therapist, said his primary job has been to help witnesses who are in shock and to insure they receive the additional help they need. “Our work is not work that everybody can do, or wants to do, but it’s work that needs to be done,” he said.
Growing up in Long Beach, Zimerman was involved with his synagogue and local Jewish community center. After receiving his master’s in social work, he worked for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, served as program director for Sinai Temple, did community outreach for Jewish Family Service and was director of community events for the Jewish Community Centers Association. When CRT was started due to an increase in shootings and traumatic incidents in Los Angeles in the 1990s, Zimerman was recruited to lead it.
He started the program from scratch, seeking the first group of volunteers, which currently numbers 175 but is expected to reach more than 200 by the end of April. Press releases to recruit new members are sent out by the mayor’s office every fall and spring, when Zimerman looks for more CRT members. Alerts are sent out through social media now as well.
From among 100 applicants this spring, Zimerman hopes to add 35 new members to his team next month. Applicants are interviewed and, if accepted, must undergo 45 hours of training with a mentor. Zimmerman said volunteers must have active-listening skills; perform well under pressure; want to give back to the community; be reliable, responsible, passionate about helping others and resourceful. Once accepted, volunteers are asked to be on call for three 12-hour shifts per month and to make a one-year commitment.
As soon as the volunteers arrive at a crisis scene, they attempt to provide any immediate assistance that the victims may need. Many of the CRT members keep blankets, water bottles, informational pamphlets, tissues and coloring books and stuffed animals for children in their cars at all times. The volunteers make sure the victims and their families are set up with the necessary tools to help them recover, such as multilingual booklets with referrals to support organizations.
The CRT volunteers often come into the aftermath of heartbreaking events. Matt Rosenberg, a volunteer and rabbi-in-training who has volunteered for five years, once responded to a call when a father had woken up next to his dead daughter. On other occasions, Weinberg comforted a 7-year-old boy who had lost his mother in a fatal stabbing and some children who found their mother dead on Halloween.
“While the police interview them, or the receptionist gets them food, we sit with them and become their pal during this difficult time, because there is nobody else,” Weinberg said. “This work is very intense, but it’s so rewarding.”
Before he joined CRT, Rosenberg worked with the Red Cross, which he said often took two hours to arrive at a crisis scene. “A half hour [to get somewhere] is just amazing in a city like L.A. where traffic is the biggest hurdle,” he said.
“The way we divided the city, I have been able to meet that half-hour requirement most of the time. It’s needed. The family is standing there, and maybe the fire and police departments are still there. When CRT arrives, they know they are in good hands.”
Seeing the pain and suffering that families and witnesses go through has not desensitized Rosenberg and Weinberg, they said, although at times they might want some aid for themselves. If they need to speak to somebody, there are mental health professionals available 24 hours a day, and they also have one another for support. “It’s like a big family,” Rosenberg said. “I have Bruce and other team members I can call upon. I can call Jeff if I want to get something off my chest.”
In a statement provided by his office, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said that the volunteers “are dedicated to public service and know the importance of working with the community. By providing support in so many emergency and crisis situations, CRT members help defuse tense situations. They help comfort victims and their families, and most importantly, they allow our fire and police departments — our first responders — to do the jobs they were trained to do.”
Rosenberg said working with the team has taught him skills that will come in handy when he earns the title of rabbi later this year. “In my role as a member, I got to practice and use sacred silence and active listening in the most traumatic instances possible. To be there at those critical times is very powerful and rewarding but so much good can be done,” he said.
CRT volunteers are invisible to all but whom they serve; they don’t wear fancy outfits, or drive loud first-response vehicles. Most people probably don’t even know they exist. And after incidents, even the victims might not recall who came to provide aid and comfort outside the uniformed officers. That’s OK, according to Weinberg.
“I have no expectation that someone will even remember I was there,” Weinberg said. “I know that what I did will outlast my time at the scene.”