Bergenfield’s Rabbi Ari Sytner of YU talks about trauma counseling in San Diego.
Before this past Saturday, few had ever heard of Poway, Calif., a small city of 50,000 in San Diego County. But by now, everyone in the Jewish world knows that a 19-year-old gunman entered the Chabad synagogue there during Shabbat-morning services on the final day of Passover and killed one woman, Lori Gilbert-Kaye, H”YD, while injuring three others, including the Chabad center’s founding rabbi and an 8-year-old girl.
The remarkable story of the heroism of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who got up on a chair and comforted his frightened congregation even after having been shot in both hands (subsequently, he lost his right index finger), has since become widespread. Returning to his shul following his hospital release, he told reporters: “I say to all Americans, no matter what religion you are, we’re here in America because God gave us a country that allows us to have religious freedom. God gives us constitutional rights to be here and to be proud Jews, and we’re not going to let anyone take it away from us.” He encouraged all Jews to “fill up your synagogues,” this Shabbat. “Show them that it’s not going to deter us. We’re not going to give in to terrorism. Terrorism will not win. But peace and love will.”
Rabbi Goldstein’s innate strength of character—and the quick thinking of two military-trained congregants who rushed the gunman and prevented a significantly worse massacre—were bright lights in terrible darkness. Images of Kaye, 60, who was killed almost immediately as the shooting began, as well as the injuries of Israeli Almog Peretz, 34, and his niece Noya Dahan, have been seen around the world as a clarion call uniting Jews for the second time in a year as a Jewish house of worship has been targeted by an active shooter.
Chabad of Poway isn’t any different from the synagogues and temples that congregants go to daily, weekly or a few times a year. After Pittsburgh, which claimed the lives of 11 Jewish worshippers, the questions came pouring in: “Could this happen again? Could this happen here? What do we do to prevent this and prepare?” Six months to the day later, after Poway, the new question: “Is this our new normal?”
Speaking to Children in the Aftermath
While the direct trauma of the event in Poway can be seen as most disruptive to those who experienced it in person, vicarious trauma can be easily overlooked, said Rabbi Dr. Ari Sytner, a crisis-response counselor who had just returned from Poway at press time, where he spoke mainly to students at the Jewish day schools in the greater San Diego area. He was welcomed and accompanied by two of San Diego’s Orthodox community leaders, Rabbi Daniel Reich of Congregation Adat Yeshurun and Rabbi Yoni Danzger of Congregation Beth Jacob.
Rabbi Sytner, an educator, community rabbi and director of community initiatives at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, which provides, among other things, rabbinic support, placement, continuing education and a support-network to its rabbinic graduates, also offered on-the-ground counseling in Pittsburgh in the aftermath of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, and in Parkland, Fla., following the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, which killed 17 people and injured 17 others.
“In my work with the Parkland and Pittsburgh communities, I observed the subtle impact of vicarious trauma, where those in shock may not ask for help nor recognize that help is needed,” he said. “When it comes to treating trauma, the research shows that early intervention is key. The quicker the support is delivered, the sooner people will heal and resume normal functioning. However, if the same services are offered a week or two later, it is likely to produce longer-lasting negative impacts.”
And no one is immune: “In today’s ever-connected world of social media, an observer, whether living down the block or thousands of miles away, can experience increased anxiety simply by reading a frightening news article.”
Sytner reported that help in Poway was being provided from many communities, avenues and individuals. “While standing in Chabad’s packed sanctuary during the funeral of Lori Kaye, I felt a palpable sense of unity and strength,” he said. “It was clear by the outpouring of such caring and diverse attendees that the very environment which was abruptly transformed into a source of anguish had quickly returned to a space of healing, love, warmth and hope. The national response was an outpouring of compassion and support.”
Sytner and other YU staff have worked closely with synagogues in San Diego over the last few years through rabbinic placement and lay-leadership development, so it felt natural for him to reach out to his colleagues there.
YU Dean of CJF Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, who sent Sytner to San Diego, said Sytner’s goal was to assist Rabbis Reich and Danzger “in facing the communal challenges relating to the aftermath of the shooting.”
“Unfortunately, our work in Pittsburgh, almost six months to the day of what happened at Chabad of Poway, provided Rabbi Sytner with both experience and guidance in how to most effectively assist the community of San Diego,” he said.
The two community rabbis took Sytner up on his offer, and he ended up speaking multiple times over two days to school-aged children; he also spoke to a larger group of parents. Sytner also teaches in YU’s Wurtzweiler Graduate School of Social Work, where he has worked to develop and provide directives on how to discuss trauma in age-appropriate ways. The Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education school has also compiled resources that can be used to complement Torah wisdom, and the traditions and comfort that tefillah (“prayer”) and emunah (“faith”) offer in times of great sorrow.
“Unfortunately, trauma, tragedy and loss find their way into the lives of children. Whether events occur on school grounds or within the community, schools and the students that attend them are impacted. Jewish day schools are a powerful resource for communities struggling both during, and in the aftermath of, trauma, tragedy or loss,” said Dr. Rona Novick, dean of the Azrieli graduate school.
“These resources were provided in the hopes that we will join together in simcha during times of celebration, but with the knowledge that we are am echad belev echad [“one nation, one heart”], in times of tragedy as well,” she said.
Rabbi Sytner described being in a day-school classroom where a second-grader raised her hand during a session and “stoically disclosed to the class that she was in the Chabad at the time of the shooting and proceeded to describe all that she witnessed. I observed as she was speaking that none of her classmates seemed particularly moved by her heart-wrenching description. I then noticed other children finishing her sentences and telling her story word for word. It then occurred to me that it was a story she had already told repeatedly on the playground and spread throughout her class. Like a small flame, vicarious trauma can quickly grow into a raging fire in the hearts and minds of vulnerable children. Yet it can also be easily extinguished by the act of processing and discussing these memories and feelings,” he said.
Continued the rabbi: “When one teary-eyed teenage girl described to her classmates the guilt she carried for not going to shul, or a fourth-grader told me how nervous he felt because ‘it could have happened to me,’ I was glad to be there to soothe their worries. If left untreated and unprocessed, early-life traumas can trigger more serious issues later in life, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, addictions, depression and anxiety, as well as lead to major life disruptions.”
Sytner also said his rabbinic colleagues expressed gratitude for him being there at such a tricky time in their careers. “Rabbi Danzger looked at me with tears in his eyes and said the word that comes to mind is dayeinu [‘it would have been enough’]. If only you would have come to San Diego to speak to one single child, it would have been worth the entire trip. The fact that you were able to help so many families who did not even realize they were hurting is a gift that will change all their lives forever.”
By Elizabeth Kratz