Mourning in Melbourne: Aftershocks of Tragedy

Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox
Director of Intervention and Community Education, PROJECT CHAI

Dam. Tzefardaya…Shechin, Dever….Choshech, Makas Bechoros.

Our Torah readings at present depict for us the miraculous signs and wonders which afflicted our captors during the exile in Mitzrayim. Recounting them is part of our familiar Pesach Seder, and we recite the Ten Makos, our young ones sing about them, as we give thanks for being saved.

Blood, infection, chaos, epidemic, darkness, death of first born…we read all about it, year after year. Yet when those wondrous signs strike close to home, when those miracle events erupt among us, r’l, suddenly there is no wonderment. These are not miracles. These are nothing to recite and to sing about. And then they are called tragedy. Trauma. Horror.

Melbourne is in mourning right now. The unthinkable occurred in our very midst, with unspeakable viciousness and hate. Blood. Injuries. Death. Makas Chosech – a plague of darkness has settled over the community. Innocence has been robbed from our children, our students. Parents enveloped with agony and torment which cannot be soothed with words or forgotten by time passing.

We do not like to speak about catastrophic acts such as these; we do not like even to think about them, and only admit them into our untamed fantasies at the most chaotic moments. When a Jewish person mentions illness, death, dying, homicide, assault, attack and everything else on that dismal abominable list of everything which we fear and want to avoid, we will say Rachmana Litzlan – may the Merciful One save us. We assert, Chas v’Shalom – Heaven forbid! We mutter, Chalila v’Chas – Far Be It. We whisper Lo Aleinu – not us. Please not us.

And when tragedy is among us, when it is close by, and not far away, when we have not been spared, the Jewish soul also speaks out. We say Rachem Aleinu. We ask for Rachamei Shomayim. We cry for help and for mercy and eventually seek some meaning, something to make sense of the senseless as we cry and turn to one another with commiseration and compassion. Ana HaShem, Hoshia Na!

Death of a child under any circumstance cannot be grasped by the mind. It is contrary to nature. It is undeserved. And when it is the consequence of intentional malice, our feelings can be combustible as the emotions of hurt and horror vie with the urge of eruptive anger and despair which embroil each heart and mind and soul.

There are no answers. There are no solutions. There is hardly, these days, little prevention either.

But, for the Jewish community in Melbourne along with your loving brothers and sisters in every kehilla across the globe, there is support and there is compassion. We all cry together, whether standing nearby or across the sea. We join you in struggling to accept this bitter and twisted reality, and in struggling to breathe in and compose ourselves.

You are blessed with dedicated Torah leaders who shepherd you along every turn of the road, and who will lead you to still waters and to safer pastures. Your Torah institutions focus on raising a generation who will continue on your path towards a better world iy’H. You also have an exceptionally devoted team of volunteers who have been trained to provide guidance, structure, emotional support and spiritual succor in the aftermath of crisis and trauma: a year ago, your community reached out to Chai Lifeline International and arranged for a full intensive training on crisis intervention.

Project CHAI, the crisis, trauma, and bereavement department of Chai Lifeline, has been providing both intervention and formal training in Jewish communities throughout the world. For 17 years, we have been the go-to resource whenever our communities, our families, our children, face illness, or loss, or disaster, or unexpected tragedy and need support and tools for making it past the shock and finding skills for coping, for focusing, and for healing. Project CHAI has trained teams of volunteers in such diverse communities as the Chassidic centers of New York, Midwest metropolises, Canadian towns, British cities, European countries. Each team receives clinical face to face training by experienced experts who are on the cutting edge of research and education in their fields. They are provided with written material to offer those who seek their input in knowing how to respond to crisis of every type and magnitude, whether in schools, in homes, in synagogues or in other settings where disaster has struck.

Our department features as its associate director Zahava Farbman, MSW, ABD, whose doctoral studies have focused on traumatology, of which she is regarded as a superior expert. She has served Chai Lifeline in key roles for over two decades and is also a sought-after lecturer on matters of spiritual and Torah import. I direct Project CHAI and my own field is clinical and forensic psychology and trauma, while also serving as a rabbi and dayan. Together, we supervise the team members in all cities, both via remote consultation and through direct collaborative work when we are called in to assist in coordination of intervention and other services.

During this time of uncertainty, it is very normal to experience changes of mood, of physical wellbeing, of clarity, of functioning and of spiritual comfort. Children, at different ages, react in different ways. Adults also struggle with reactions to trauma, and all persons can benefit from skills which your own Project Chai team will offer you. It is entirely true that most people who have experienced or have witnessed, or survived a tragic event do not require formal treatment. One of the key factors, nonetheless, which can assist persons in moving past immediate crisis is the structured process utilized in helping the brain and heart to process the internal experience with a skilled, caring interventionist. Your Project CHAI team has the tools and the guidelines for providing this intervention, and for advising parents about their children, teachers about students and reaching out to each adult with helpful insights and hopefulness.

Because of the enormous impact of an attack so near to home, and the immense tragedy of a child dying, a mother and sister impaired and the rippling reach of this in touching so many of us in ways unique to each individual, it is very important that all of us make these next weeks an interval of closeness, of understanding, of taking more time to listen and to promote caring and warmth at home, in shul, in yeshiva, and with one another. During times of crisis, we know that our sages warn that \"haSatan mekatreg.\" Sometimes this means that confusion and pain and anger generate chaotic thinking and impulsive behavior. This means that tension, impatience and staying distracted only add to the fears and the agitation of those around us. For these reasons alone, our department encourages all individuals to take life demands with composure, invest extra time in calming yourselves and extending soft reassurance to your children when they seem fearful. It is normal for children to show some temporary signs of uneasiness, and for older children to press us with difficult questions. When you feel able to respond, do so with tenderness. When you are not sure how to respond, seek consultation and consider directing them to a trusted learned person, a rabbi, rebetzin or teacher, who will lead them through their quandaries.

Dovid HaMelech tells us that \"shivtecha u\'mishantecha yenachamuni\" - the stick and the staff - can comfort. It is easy to see how the dependable staff of the caring shepherd can be a source of comfort. In what way, though, is the stick going to feel comfortable? Being jabbed with a stick is painful. When comfort seems far off when we have felt the harsh stick, and when we are trying to seek out that sturdy staff to lean on instead, we ask HaShem to show us that comfort and that spiritual embrace. We trust that comfort will find us in its time. We can facilitate that Divine intervention by showing comfort to others, and becoming staffs for others to lean on. May HaShem continue to guide us along ways of pleasantness and peace.

This article was originally published in the Australian edition of Hamodia. It is reprinted with permission.