The Jewish community in the south Florida suburb of Parkland was devastated last week when four Jewish students and one Jewish teacher – nearly one-third of the casualties – were murdered in the massacre of 17 students and adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
They are mourning the Feb. 14 deaths of
· Ninth-grader Alyssa Alhadeff
· Ninth-grader Jaime Guttenberg
· Ninth-grader Alexander Schachter
· Senior Meadow Pollack
· Geography teacher and cross country coach Scott Beigel, 35, a hero of the tragedy, killed while trying to slam shut the door of a room where students were hiding.
Shmuley Bifton, rabbi of the largest synagogue in Parkland, a city where Jews have a strong presence, rushed to the campus, two minutes away, as soon as he received a text.
Ever since, the Chabad rabbi has been comforting frightened youngsters and rattled families almost without relief.
No, said Rabbi Bifton, he is not reliving the terrifying scene in his mind as many near-miss students and their families may be doing.
“Honestly, I have not had time to process it myself,” he said during a Saturday night interview. “I am just running now, burying the dead, dealing with the funerals and the shiva houses. I have not had a moment to stop.”
A Florida native who has led Chabad of Parkland for 17 years, Rabbi Bifton said of the community of 31,000:
“This is a very small town, one high school, one middle school. Everyone knows everyone.
“There are 4,000 Jewish families, and about 500 of them are members of Chabad.”
According to the rabbi, about a third of the high school’s 3,000 students are Jews.
“There is not much you can say. This is a community tragedy…but we will not be defined by this tragedy. We will be defined by our response.”
It was a quiet early Wednesday afternoon, while Rabbi Bifton was working in his office around the corner from the school, when he received a text asking if he knew what was happening over at Douglas. He didn’t.
“But I heard helicopters overhead and sirens blaring. I realized I had to get there quick. I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew I had to get there.”
As a chaplain for the Broward County Sheriff’s office, Rabbi Bifton was permitted to hurry directly to the front lines of the terror.
“I saw kids running and screaming,” he said. “Parents were running toward the area trying to find their kids. Mass chaos.”
The rabbi’s voice seemed to quiver as he continued to describe the harrowing scene. “Being that I know so many of the students, so many of the parents, they were running over to me. I was trying to call parents, and parents were finding me. I was trying to get ahold of the kids and reunite them with their parents, and get a grip on what was going on. I was speaking to kids who were just absolutely shocked. There was absolute chaos at the moment.”
Rabbi Bifton was asked about a rabbi’s role in this kind of crisis. “At times of tragedy and grief, people turn toward spirituality,” he said. “They are looking for uplifting.”
The rabbi said “Chabad is very well accepted in this community. Two city commissioners and the sheriff are members of Chabad.
“We are very well connected. So naturally we become almost like running point as far as a lot of the recovery, the response, the funerals, the shiva.”
He said Parkland has been ranked as Florida’s safest community numerous times.
Although mass shootings are not new, such a scene as last week’s “never crossed my mind.”
As for comforting those who are grieving, “there is not much you can say. We don’t have the answers. This is a community tragedy. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder. We are going to take real action to make change in our community. We will be there a long time for the recovery.
“Parkland,” Rabbi Bifton vowed, “will not be defined by this tragedy. We will be defined by our response.”