February 25, 2020

Shootings, Elections and Dust in the Wind

There are certain weeks in the news business when the pressure becomes almost unbearable. Last week was one of them.

First, there was the continuing shock of the deadliest attack against Jews in U.S. history, when 11 Shabbat worshippers were shot dead by a neo-Nazi at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. This was not an event that we could just grieve over and move on. This was a communal trauma. The shock lingered. The questions multiplied. The grieving stayed.

Virtually every synagogue in the world honored the 11 victims on the Shabbat following the massacre. If you’re looking for signs of Jewish peoplehood, consider that Exhibit A.
A few days later, on Nov. 6, all eyes were on what some called the “most consequential midterm election of our lifetime.” That night at the Journal, we extended our print deadline to midnight so we could include an initial take of the results in the Nov. 9 print edition.
In the aftermath of those two major events, our online staff was tested. Day after day, they posted stories and analyses on both Pittsburgh and the elections, including videos and special podcasts.

For this week’s cover story, our plan was to do a deep dive into the election results.
Then, before we could catch our breath, another mass shooting grabbed our attention late on Nov. 7, this one at a bar in Thousand Oaks that left 12 people dead.
We managed to get in touch with one of the survivors, Ben Ginsburg, who put into words the story of his nightmare, which you can read in this week’s issue.
Then, the next night, all hell broke loose as vicious Santa Ana winds unleashed their rage across large swaths of Malibu, Westlake Village, Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Agoura Hills, Calabasas and surrounding areas, forcing hundreds of thousands of residents to evacuate and wreaking devastation over the next two days that damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and some Jewish institutions.

“So, which nightmare to put on the cover?”

Nightmare was following nightmare.

On Saturday morning, Nov. 10, as I walked out of synagogue on Pico Boulevard, I could smell the burn. Shifting winds had brought smoke and tiny flakes of ash from those distant fires to our cozy Jewish neighborhood, creating a reddish haze that hovered in the distance. We felt the pain of our faraway neighbors through the dust in the wind.
Dark stories were colliding and overlapping. Some of the families touched by the Thousand Oaks shooting had to evacuate their homes because of the fires. A rabbi from the area, Rabbi Paul Kipnes, who had written a poem of mourning for the shooting victims, now wrote a special prayer for these “fire-filled days.”

So, which nightmare to put on the cover? I had already asked our columnist Ben Shapiro to write a cover story on how to deal with the madness of mass shootings. But we couldn’t ignore these apocalyptic fires, which have touched everyone in the greater City of Angels (not to mention all those in Northern California).

“Dark stories were colliding and overlapping. Some of the families touched by the Thousand Oaks shooting had to evacuate their homes because of the fires.”

As you can see, we decided to feature both events on the cover and give each story top billing. Shapiro analyzes the complexity of the mass-shooting phenomenon, and what we can do to address the epidemic of gun violence; and the Journal’s reporting staff and editors cover the devastation of the fires and the compassionate response from our community.

We also have a column from Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles head Jay Sanderson on how he and his team dealt with the crises over 72 hours.
And, as if all that weren’t enough, the winds of war were blowing again in Israel, with nearly 500 rockets fired at Israel from Gaza within a few days. (As I write this, it looks like a ceasefire is in the works.)

One of the cruel aspects of journalism is that it doesn’t allow much time for emotion. We hear about a horrible event and, almost instantly, we have to think about getting you the story, and how quickly and accurately we can do so.
As we continue our coverage during these nerve-wracking times, I’m tempted to come up with words that will make us all feel better, or at least help us cope. Beyond the usual cliches, I don’t really have any.

My only wish is that we will be blessed, very soon, with a few weeks free of human tragedies.