Sitting Shivah in Parkland

Women react during a candlelight vigil for victims of yesterday's shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, U.S. February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

I never imagined that my Shabbat sermon in Los Angeles would lead me straight to Parkland to make shivah calls with grieving families. Here’s how it happened and what I learned.

In my Shabbat sermon, I spoke about the purpose of God’s hiddenness in the Megilah. From there I reflected on the horrific tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., where 17 innocent people were brutally murdered. After my sermon, the chairman of Yeshivat Yavneh, where I am Dean of School, approached me and suggested we go beyond the lecture: Why not take some eighth-graders to visit the families sitting shivah in Parkland?

This was unexpected, but he was right. Judaism is not just a religion of ideas, it’s also a religion of action. We decided to take Estee Einhorn, our daughter, and Benjamin Rubin, David and Gitel Rubin’s son. They both lived with a shivah this year as my wife recently sat shivah for her mother, and David sat shivah for his father. Perhaps a little of what they experienced would help them process what they would witness in Florida.

We took the red eye to Fort Lauderdale on the night of Feb. 18 and hit the ground running at 6 a.m. Feb. 19. We got off the plane and started our experience with a visit to the school. It was beginning to get real. The memorials, wreaths, press and candles laid out in front of a giant school immediately drew us in to the scene of the crime. We carefully read the testimonies and letters of love laid out in front of a picture of each child killed. At that moment, our heart was officially in Parkland.

Next we went to the Chabad of Parkland to pray. It seemed like the appropriate way to start our morning. Rumor had it some family members were going to be there. They never showed. The Chabad rabbi said, “Last night was just a very difficult night; nobody was going to join this morning.”

And then it was time. We made our way from shivah to shivah. The pain, the suffering, the anger and resilience all filled the air. We did what we needed to do. We were there to support, experience and become the sounding board for their pain.

The best response in the face of unspeakable tragedy is exactly that — to unspeak.

There is so much to say and describe about these individuals, the lives they led, and the world they leave behind. But I will simply share a few impressions we walked away with:

1. Diversity. It was unexpected to see how the grieving process varied among people who suffered the same tragedy. Some were in a state of shock, some were in activist mode, others were in a state of deep reflection.

2. There’s a chance that we may have witnessed history. More specifically, we may have been witnessing how law and policy really start to change. Our history teachers may educate us on the three causes of the Civil War, but often there are less-noticed triggering events that set off the actual sea changes. I witnessed family members actively engaging lobbyists and lawyers, instructing to use the emotional moment to create significant change in our gun control laws.

3. Our children learned how sometimes the best response in the face of unspeakable tragedy is exactly that — to unspeak. Silence, comfort and a hug.

4. Evil is possible in the middle of paradise. Parkland and the greater Broward Country is just stunning. The blue sky and deep white clouds almost look too good to be real. Many of the houses are gorgeous, with surrounding lakes and everglades and Roman fountains. In the middle of this paradise, the worst kind of evil entered and darkened the heart of a community.

5. In times of darkness, it’s OK to break the rules. When we landed, we found out that the shivah times we were given were wrong. The shivahs would only be open to the public after we would be on our way back to Los Angeles. That didn’t stop us. If they don’t want to see us, they can tell us to leave, and that’s fine. But no one did. We were welcomed at every shivah call.

Our experience taught us that, when people are in pain, sometimes the biggest mitzvah is just to show up.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn is Dean of School at Yeshivat Yavneh.