Rabbi Levi Harlig journeyed to a Las Vegas hospital Monday on a mission of mercy for one of the hundreds of victims of Sunday night’s massacre on the city’s famed Strip.
Harlig sat and sang Jewish songs with the husband and mother-in-law of Natalie Grumet, a Jewish California resident who was injured in the shooting that targeted a sprawling country music festival.
“They were very emotional,” Harlig said. “They were crying, ‘Why us?’”
Harlig stayed with the worried relatives as Grumet underwent an exam.
“You have to ask questions, but answers are not always there,” said Harlig, spiritual leader of Chabad of Las Vegas. “We don’t always understand the ways of God.”
Across Las Vegas and the country, Jewish communities were counting heads, making sure their members were accounted for, and taking stock after at least 58 people were killed and more than 500 hurt in the worst shooting spree in recent American history.
At Ramaz, a Jewish day school in New York City, 400 students gathered Monday to pray for Samantha Arjune, daughter of the school’s recently retired and much-beloved superintendent, who was injured in the attack.
“You could have heard a pin drop in the room during Shemoneh Esrei,” said Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the school’s principal emeritus. “I have never heard such silence in a school [prayer] as I heard today.”
Even amid what seems like an unending string of bloody shootings across the United States, the details of this one are unbelievably horrifying. Armed with an arsenal of more than 19 rifles, the killer took dozens of lives and indelibly altered hundreds more in the space of just a few minutes.
No students or teachers at the Adelson Educational Campus, a Jewish day school in Las Vegas, were injured in the massacre. But a number of students’ parents attended the concert where the shooting took place, and some of them watched as people around them were killed.
Early in the day, community members seemed not to fully grasp what had happened, said Matt Boland, the school’s communications director. As the severity sunk in, some parents called and asked to pick up their children early. Others wrote in to offer to help in whatever way they can.
“Our community has just exploded with people wanting to help,” Boland said. “That’s all of Las Vegas. I don’t think Las Vegas has ever experienced anything like this before. It’s always been a city of entertainment.”
The killer was identified as Stephen Paddock, 64, a retiree from Mesquite, Nevada, with no known history of violence. He targeted a star-studded annual country music concert packed with tourists near a massive resort hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, the economic lifeblood of the city.
Vegas is home to a large Jewish community, with multiple synagogues and two day schools. On Monday, locals were reaching out to each other to comfort their neighbors.
“There’s a strong sense of protectiveness over one’s fellow city dwellers,” said Rabbi Malcolm Cohen, spiritual leader of Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation in the city. “My experience so far is a softening and an opening to other people.”
Cohen said that the girlfriend of a synagogue staffer’s son was shot and is out of the hospital. Another community member’s friend was killed.
“There’s a spiritual and emotional response, which seems to be saying, ‘This is my city — are you okay today?’” Cohen said. “’I’ve got your back. Let’s help each other out.’”
The shooting came just a day after the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, when many Jews spent the day in fasting and prayer. Cohen said that the community was still working off the spiritual momentum of the holiday.
“That sense of community and togetherness that we had on the holiday just a couple days ago, and something achieved together, is now sort of going forward in a similar way,” he said.
Cohen’s synagogue is holding a service Monday evening for people to come together. Cohen, who was born in England, said that he planned to speak about his love for the city of Las Vegas and the people there.
Todd Polikoff, president and CEO of Jewish Nevada, the state’s Jewish federation, said that his staff had been bringing supplies to the blood service sites and sending food to the trauma center. “Once the physical wounds heal, there are going to be a lot of people who need a lot of care dealing with this in a mental way,” he said. “There were 22,000 people there. We know there were a number of members of Jewish community who were there who got out unscathed physically. But know they’re going to need help.”
In New York, Lookstein said that he spoke with Rudolph Arjune, the father of Samantha Arjune. He said his daughter was badly wounded in the leg and is undergoing surgery. At the prayer service at Ramaz, Lookstein praised Rudolph Arjune, who worked at the school for more than three decades.
Grumet, who lives in California, may need to be flown back to Orange County for further treatment. A GoFundMe page is raising money to transport her to a medical center there. The campaign had already raised nearly $5,000 by Monday evening.
Harlig said that the wake of such a tragedy can be a time for spiritual renewal.
“Although it’s a challenging time, it’s a time to connect to God in a stronger way,” he said.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.