Unlike most civilian religious leaders, JWB Jewish Chaplains Council rabbis and lay leaders live in a world whose hallmarks include security risks and trauma. Following the recent terrorist attack at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, Rabbi Irv Elson, director of JWB and a vice president of JCC Association of North America, asked several Jewish chaplains to reflect on the events of that fateful Shabbat and offer insights to fellow clergy and other Jewish communal leaders. The writings of our colleagues, Rabbis Gary Davidson, Sean Gorman, and Yonatan Warren, shared here, feature the spiritual resiliency that is so vital to all communities of faith—especially as we continue to face so many disparate challenges in our day-to-day world.
Air Force Chaplain Rabbi Gary Davidson
On January 15, 2022, British national Malik Faisal Akram entered Beth Israel Congregation in Colleyville, Teas. Taking four hostages including Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, Akram demanded the release of terrorist Aafia Siddiqui while telling hostage negotiators he was not going to leave the synagogue alive. The ordeal lasted close to eleven hours and ended with the release or fleeing of all four hostages and the FBI hostage Rescue Team killing Akram. In a TV interview following the incident, “Rabbi Charlie” talked about how he maintained a “non-anxious presence” around the hostage-taker and how he threw a chair at Malik as he and two other hostages ran from the building. Rabbi Charlie admitted to being “terrified” by the event, but he was grateful to his family, friends, colleagues and well-wishers from around the world for their love and support.
Thankfully, most of us will never undergo the sort of trauma these four hostages endured. However, each one of us have experienced trauma in one way or another. Perhaps it was the break-up of a relationship, loss of a job, experiencing abuse, a serious illness, the unexpected death of a loved one, etc.
In my case, as a military rabbi who has deployed multiple times while also dealing with trauma cases at military hospitals, I have: run for shelter from an incoming rocket attack, awoken in the middle of the night by a nearby exploding mortar, offered spiritual care to badly wounded or bloodied service members, been around children in a war-torn country who lost limbs or suffered burns , and I have officiated at or participated in memorial ceremonies for approximately 90 war dead whose bodies lay in flag-draped coffins.
So how does one deal with trauma, whether it’s the ordinary type or the major kind that upends lives?
In an article entitled “Building your resilience” dated January 1, 2012, the American Psychological Association presented a “roadmap for adapting to life-changing situations, and emerging even stronger than before.” Here are the coping strategies they presented: avoid isolation and seek out empathetic and understanding people who can validate your feelings, join a support group or faith-based community, take care of your body (eat properly, get enough sleep, exercise, etc.), avoid numbing your pain with alcohol, drugs, volunteer or help others which will also boost self-worth, acknowledge and accept your feelings, learn lessons from your painful experiences, set and achieve meaningful goals, be balanced in your thinking, accept that change is a part of life, focus on the good, apply past learned lessons to your present ones and if needed, seek out a professional counselor
The diversity of above suggestions reminds us that everyone is different and we all have unique coping mechanisms. Resiliency, or “bouncing back from adversity”, is thus a personal experience that differs from person to person. Therefore, by knowing yourself, recognizing what has typically brought you strength and comfort in the past and leveraging those same (or similar) resources in your current situation while adding new coping skills to your “repertoire” of self-care will aid you in overcoming many of life’s obstacles. By successfully doing so, may we each echo the words of Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker who said after his ordeal concluded “I am grateful to be alive.”
Rav Sean Gorman, LCDR, CHC, USN
There was a time when such disturbing events took place far away. We would read about a terrorist attack in Europe or on a subway in Japan. We might have glanced at the article, but quickly turned to the crossword puzzle. Even if it involved the local Jewish community, this was still elsewhere. This did not happen in our country. This was not the United States.
The last several years have shattered that sense of distance. Pittsburgh, Poway, and now Texas...these are places we know. Our friends live in these communities. These are shuls where we might daven. When violence takes place in our backyard, we find ourselves without words, wondering what to say. How do we find comfort in words when circumstances leave us speechless?
I have been privileged to witness reaction without words. In December, I took part in rehearsals for Dignified Transfers at Dover Air Force Base (AFB). When the remains of US combat deaths are repatriated, Dover AFB stands ready to honor our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Guardsmen, Airmen, and Guardians. Dover AFB neither slumbers nor sleeps.
Quiet conversations on the tarmac come to an abrupt halt at the words "family in sight." Inside the C-130, a chaplain offers a short prayer. The carry teams lift each transfer case. Uniformed personnel execute a slow salute, holding that salute until the transfer case is placed in the vehicle. Throughout the transfer, those present will hear only the commands of the officer in charge. Dignified Transfer is otherwise silent.
In January, I accompanied my colleague and friend, Rabbi (Major) Steven Rein, USAF, to the funeral of a Jewish Air Force officer at Arlington National Cemetery. Again, the absence of spoken word was striking, broken only by terse orders to the casket team during the transfer of the casket to the caisson and a muffled drum beat as the deceased is borne on this final journey. As military honors conclude, the concussion of a rifle volley tears through that silence. A lone bugler sounds "Taps," the gentle lament of a nation in mourning.
The aura of military ritual is gripping. To witness Dignified Transfers and Military Honors...to hear the clipped phrasing..."family in sight..." orders to the carry team...slow salutes...walking behind the caisson...rifle volley..."Taps..." and silence. That silence is part of the ritual. It is as heart-rending as the bugle call. That silence reminds us that for many situations, there are no words.
Words of solace will come only in their time. They will have meaning only when we are able to hear them. For now, we remember Aharon's reaction at the tragic death of two of his sons (Leviticus 10:3). וידם אהרן - Aharon fell silent. As we struggle to find words, as Aharon's silence is suddenly, unwillingly our own, let us remember that words often fail to capture magnitude of trauma or depth of emotion. We hear instead the power of ritual and hopefully find comfort in the solemnity of silence.
May we be comforted from the Heavens - מן השמיים ננוחם.
Rabbi Yonatan M. Warren, LCDR, CHC, USN
The people of Israel were scared last Shabbat.
Staring at a gunman hostage-taker: they were scared. Staring at news reports from Texas into the evening, I was scared. We were scared.
Staring down the Egyptians at the Yam Suf in the Torah: the people of Israel weren’t singing “When You Believe”, they were scared. The Talmud Yerushalmi relates:
Our forefathers formed four factions on the Sea. One said, let us fall into the Sea. And another said, let us return to Egypt. And another said, let us fight with them. And another said, let us shout against them (Y. Taanit 2:5). The people of Israel were scared.
For some of our ancestors, fear manifests as an intense experience of depression, a collective suicidal ideation. If you are feeling this way, please reach out to a trusted professional.
For some, fear manifests as fatalism: a resignation to slavery. They look at the options and accept that they are fated to stay slaves to a resurgent Egypt.
For others, the fear turns into an impulse to fight; to grab their swords, chairs, staffs and battle the overwhelming Egyptian chariots. (Warrior and worrier have the same shoresh.)
Fear, for the last group of Israel, manifests in just yelling. Because Pharoah reads and appreciates their Facebook rants and TikTok videos.
In many ancient texts, heroes are imagined super humans who had no fear: Hercules, Gilgamesh. My people’s heroes freaked out at the Yam Suf!
We often like to imagine our military members as the former. Technologically superior, brave, courageous, undaunted: our military service members have no fear. I would suggest they have fear, but the great ones are resilient.
I have been working as a chaplain in the Navy for nearly 11 years, and I recognize manifestations of fear in our service members. If you tell me that you do not experience fear as bullets fly past you in battle or in the indiscriminate experience of indirect mortars... You are either a robot or a liar. Fear exists. Every encounter with death and with the unknown sparks fear, but what are we supposed to do with it? I return to the Yerushalmi.
There, a frightened hero responds to his frightened people. Using Moshe’s language to the people in Ex.14, the Yerushalmi relates.
To the one who said, “Let us fall into the Sea," Moses said, "Stay firm and see the help of the Eternal." To the one who said, "Let us return to Egypt," Moses said, "For as you are seeing Egypt today." To the one who said, "Let us fight with them," Moses said, "The Eternal will fight for you." And, to the one who said, "Let us shout against them," Moses said, "And you be silent."
Moshe, who is also scared, takes the time to pause and create sacred space in the moment. To listen to the fear within his people in the moment. To respond appropriately to each person’s experience not projecting his own experience on them.
Only then does Moshe himself reconnect to his meaning and purpose, to his truth. Only then can the people trust in Moshe, entrust him with their lives. Only then can all of us see the path forward, to put one foot in front of the other and begin to walk.
It’s as true on the shores of the Red Sea as it is in Ramadi as it is in our home communities.
We will sing eventually, but that’s the next chapter.