December 10, 2018

Las Vegas Embraces Torah in Time of Tragedy

Three days after the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas, the Jewish community there headed into Sukkot, and the words recited at evening prayers, Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha — Spread over us Your shelter of peace — never seemed more apt.

Rabbi Sanford Akselrad, spiritual leader of 600 families at Congregation Ner Tamid in nearby Henderson, Nev., held a small vigil on Oct. 2 alongside the community’s sukkah that was still under construction.

“I wanted to have an outdoor vigil,” Akselrad told the Journal, “because when you looked up, you could see the stars and see how small we are, and there has to be something greater we can draw upon and give us courage.”

His Reform synagogue also plans to host a fundraising concert called “Vegas Strong in Song” on Oct. 15 for the victims of the attack, in which 58 people died and more than 500 were injured. The event will include Jewish performers from around the country.

Rabbi Yocheved Mintz of Congregation P’nai Tikvah, which holds services in Las Vegas and has about 100 families as members, said that during Sukkot services “we acknowledged that life is certainly as fragile as a sukkah. In lieu of any kind of a sermon I might have given, I acknowledged that sometimes words are inadequate and gave my congregation the opportunity to break out in small groups and simply share what they had been going through since the massacre.”

Jewish Federation of Las Vegas President and CEO Todd Polikoff said he was proud of the community and its response to the shooting.

“Whether it’s been collecting food and water for people, donating blood, or the upcoming concert, our community has been nothing short of miraculous and has responded to those in need,” he said.

Mintz personally called every family in her congregation after the attack.

“It’s unfortunate that it took such a tragedy for this to happen, but it happened instantaneously,” she said. “The interfaith community, especially, became galvanized, and rallies and vigils sprung up all over the city.”

Among them was the interfaith vigil at Guardian Angel Cathedral just off the Las Vegas Strip on Oct. 2, which Akselrad helped organize. “I spoke at so many vigils last week,” he said, but noted that his mantra at each of them was the same: “I choose to love love more than I want to hate hate.”

He said he spoke of what it was important to remember and what should be forgotten: “I don’t want to remember the name of the [shooter]. I want to remember the acts of courage and faith and of love. And the emphasis will be not that this was the worst tragedy, but that there were heroes who came forward in a time [they were] needed most.”

Beyond dealing with the physical needs of the victims, it became a priority in the Jewish community to make sure area children felt safe. P’nai Tikvah member Arlyn Katz said that in addition to the phone call from Mintz — who has two adult children and one who is 10 — she received an email on how to talk to her children.

“I was really grateful for that,” she said.

Mintz’s youngest child, Kayla, had to deal with a particularly close connection to the tragedy: The secretary of the dance academy she regularly attended was shot twice in the chest and hospitalized in critical condition as of Oct. 8. The secretary’s 13-year-old daughter was shot in the arm.

“When I woke up to get ready for school, I was really scared. That was a hard morning,” Kayla told the Journal.

While local public schools were closed the day after the shooting for security reasons, the private Jewish day school Kayla attends held classes as a result of the security already in place there. However, the school’s social worker came and spoke to the children, and the first hour of classes was canceled.

“It was a really heartfelt hour,” Kayla said. “It was emotional, but they kept asking us how we were and tried to calm us down.”

During Sukkot, Akselrad said he spent time doing a “trust walk” with the 15- and 16-year-old youths at Ner Tamid. The teens wrote prayers, wishes and poems and hung them in the sukkah. “They talked about their hope for healing and no more gun violence,” Akselrad said.

Yonina Kronfeld Schnee, a P’nai Tikvah member and special education teacher who lived in Israel for more than a decade, said the community came together following the shooting spree.

“I always felt safer in Israel than anywhere else because Israel is more prepared for things like this,” she said.

Journalist Chris Sieroty had attended Yom Kippur services at Beth Sholom, a Conservative shul in Las Vegas, and was staying at the Mirage on the Strip for a conference when he heard sirens on Oct. 1. Initially, he thought nothing of it. 

“It’s Vegas,” he said. “If you’ve lived here long enough, you always hear sirens on the Strip.” 

But then his phone started buzzing. It was his niece who lives in Israel and is in the army calling to see if he was safe.

“I thought, ‘What’s she doing calling so late?’ so I didn’t pick it up,” he said. “But then I looked out the window and saw all the police, and the Strip was empty.”

He later realized that was because everyone had run into the casinos. Sieroty said he tried to get downstairs to see what was happening but the Mirage wasn’t letting people move about due to the concern that there might be another active shooter in the area.

More than a week after the shooting, the community now is focusing on how to move forward.

“The shooting affected everybody, and I suspect that the shock and the grief that initially fell over the city will give way to a plethora of other emotions, including anger and hopefully action,” Mintz said. “The prayers that sprung up will hopefully become what Abraham Joshua Heschel said: We will pray with our feet.”

Mintz said she hopes that will translate into “some sort of change that includes common-sense regulations for both firearms and for mental health.”

Akselrad echoed Mintz’s sentiments, adding, “We have to get involved in whatever we can do to help stop this horrific violence that guns cause.”

Polikoff said the Federation is thinking about “the long game.”

“We’re working with the Israeli Trauma Coalition and hoping to bring some of the Israeli expertise out here to help people deal with the trauma, the mental trauma,” he said. “The physical trauma will heal, but those first responders and those who were there that night are going to need help in the future, whether they know it now or not.”