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Heartbroken Town Feels Like ‘One Big Shiva House’ On Shabbat After Shootings

You might say it was the first Shabbat after south Florida’s 9/11. It goes by the name Stoneman Douglas and the hashtag #ParklandStrong.

It might seem like an exaggeration to allude to the worst-ever attack on American soil – and of course it doesn’t compare in scope or casualty counts – but the Talmud teaches us that whoever destroys a life, destroys an entire world. Seventeen worlds were destroyed this past week, which is a lot for a little corner of Florida considered to be one of the safest places in America.

The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school last Wednesday was a national tragedy – but also a very local one. And, it could be said, a Jewish one as well. Five of the 17 victims were Jewish: Alyssa Alhadeff, Scott Beigel, Jaime Guttenberg, Meadow Pollack, Alexander Schachter. Nearly 10% of Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale and Parkland, is Jewish, and Florida has the state’s third-largest Jewish population after New York and California. The attacker didn’t just murder 15 students and two teachers, he also punctured our sense of security in the places we study, work and live. As in 9/11, it feels like things will never be quite the same.

“I think you can say that the whole area is like one big shiva house right now,” said Rabbi David Baum, the leader of Congregation Shaarei Kodesh, as he began his Shabbat sermon on Saturday before a community in need of comfort and connection. Shaarei Kodesh is in West Boca, which is just north of Parkland and close enough to attract members from there. It seemed like everyone there had a connection to one of them; even those few who didn’t were grappling with some mix of outrage, sorrow and disgust at the fact that the very act of sending your child to school could mean they never come home again.

In Parkland itself, the two main synagogues are Kol Tikvah, a Reform Congregation, and Chabad of Parkland. Both have played a critical role steering the families through the worst three days in their lives, and in bringing their communities together.

“Shabbat shalom,” said Rabbi Brad Boxmann of Kol Tikvah as he began the service on Friday night. “Usually it’s a greeting. Today it’s more of a prayer.”

Earlier in the day, Kol Tikvah had been the location of the funeral of Meadow Pollack.

That night, there was a special “Unity” service in place of a regular service. All members of the community — including those from other faiths — were invited to participate. This included several representatives from the state legislature and Congress; the mayor of Parkland and students from the community. They ascended the bima alone or in pairs to light a candle for someone they knew who died at the hands of Nikolas Cruz, a former student armed with an AR-15 assault rifle that he was able to buy legally in Florida.

Boxmann talked of letting the Parkland youth affected by this tragedy lead the next steps. “I know I’m hitching my wagon to this group of students who are going to Tallahassee and Washington to demand change,” he said, eliciting a raucous round of applause. “Parkland will be the tipping point.”

Everything about this Shabbat was a little bit different, everything infused with some mix of sadness that sits in tension with the fact that, as Baum reminded his congregants, Jews don’t sit shiva on Shabbat. Even in mourning we lighten the sadness in honor of the Sabbath. Danny Tuchman, asked to read “a prayer for our country” out of the siddur, made an unplanned comment: “This prayer for our country usually seems like the least important thing in the siddur – kind of a throw-away. Today, it seems like the most important.” Cantor Yaakov Hadash changed his usually energetic tunes for the Kedusha in the Mussaf service to more solemn ones, borrowing from melancholy Israeli ballads like “Al Kol Eleh” and “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.”

Adam Dier, a Parkland father who lives close to the Stoneman Douglas school with his wife and daughter, read a prayer for peace.

“This didn’t ‘hit close to home’ — this is home,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion. Dier is a 1998 graduate of the high school, and expects his children to go there one day.

He spoke about saying the modim part of the amidah, a prayer that thanks God for everyday miracles.

“My thought while saying the amida silently was what a great gift this shul was,” he told me afterwards, “and how in the turmoil, it is a place for us to find peace.”

The sense that what happened in Parkland could be the catalyst for a younger, gutsier, more insistent campaign for common sense gun regulation seemed to be the buzz over Shabbat. We had heard the anguish of Lori Alhadeff (mother of Alyssa) on CNN, yelling at President Trump to “do something!” and we heard the cry of Fred Guttenberg (father of Jaime) at the Parkland vigil. We also began hearing increasingly vocal youth – survivors who escaped with their lives and who won’t shut up and accept more “thoughts and prayers.”

While the more observant Jews of this corner of south Florida were in shul, many others were at a rally at the Broward County Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. It was called with little notice, but attracted several thousand people, and the teens of Parkland were the most notable speakers.

“We’ve failed our children, failed to keep them safe,” Rabbi Baum said at Shaarei Kodesh. “I think we need to let them lead, or just get out of their way.” Baum spoke of the need for gun reform in terms of tikkum olam. “Today, tikkum olam means fixing broken systems.”

Chabad has also played an important role in helping families cope with the tragedy. It negotiated with Broward County officials to ensure that the bodies of the victims would be released from the county coroner’s office as soon as possible, in keeping with Jewish law that requires us to bury as quickly as possible, ideally within a day. It was one the organizers of the vigil attended by thousands, in conjunction with the city of Parkland, and was inclusive of other religious leaders and officials. Chabad is trying to help people hold onto hope, and not succumb to the end of Parkland as we know it, Rabbi Mendy Gutnick said.

“I want people to realize that we can’t allow this to define who we are,” says Rabbi Mendy Gutnick. “Yes, it will change us. But we’re more than that, we’re bigger than that. This isn’t a community forever tarnished by evil. There is no positive look at this, but there’s a positive step forward.“

That hope is hard to find right now.

On Thursday, right after the shooting, a private school nearby, North Broward Preparatory, had a shooting scare. SWAT teams burst into the school, ordering students to put their hands in the air and evacuate when they were still reeling from the school massacre so close to home.

“I haven’t ever felt such a deep sense of heartbreak and fury at the same time, and trying to balance the two of those has been really challenging,” said Amy Pessah, one of the synagogue’s founders, and a rabbinical student in the Jewish Renewal Movement.

Two of her three children attend North Broward Preparatory. Her daughter and other students benched gomel – the prayer said when one survives something life threatening — on Shabbat.

“I was feeling so grateful that she could be up there and be alive and recite these words,” said Pessah, all the while feeling the pain of the moment: Somewhere nearby, others will sit shiva again when Shabbat ends, or are facing funerals on Sunday.

Ilene Prusher is a freelance journalist and a professor of journalism at Florida Atlantic University. Follow her on Twitter at @IlenePrusher

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