Tree of Life: My Experience
by JFS Community Chaplain Rabbi Lynn Liberman, BCC
I took a deep breath, made the call, said ‘yes,’ and plunged in. I have experience, I have degrees and a board certification to back me up, yet even with all that, I have never been on the ground and present for such a moment before. My daily journal asserted, “each day I want to find a moment of gratitude, and so will pause to hold that. Today I am grateful for the skills I have to be able to be present to another in their time of deep challenge and pain.” And thus, I began.
I was honored to be asked to be part of a special group of support comprised of seven Jewish chaplains. The JFS CEO gave me the blessing of time to join this effort. It was my turn to head to Pittsburg, PA, for five days to bear witness, to be present, to offer some measure of support walking along side those going through the trial of the perpetrator of the Tree of Life shooting. Seven Jewish chaplains, seven Spiritual Care providers, none of us local, who committed to coming in on shifts of a few days to a week and being present to fellow Jews and their loved ones, people who now must live with broken hearts, shattered lives, nearly incomprehensible pain, and deep trauma.
While every person I meet, every hospital room I enter or situation I encounter in my chaplaincy work always presents something new and unique, meeting some of the survivors, family and community members of this unforgettable event for the first time honestly caused me to be a bit nervous. I started the day when I met folks at the designated pick-up spot early the first morning. A school bus was arranged with armed police escort to carry those attending the trial back and forth to the courthouse in a secure and safe manner. I was not the first chaplain to join them; thus as I introduced myself I was warmly greeted and ushered onto the bus and later helpfully escorted through security into the courthouse.
From my journal I recall, “Wow, oh wow. Even after debriefing two times with trusted colleagues my experiences from this day, this is a moment that will sit with me for a long time.” The court was in session in one room with a live stream available to families and those related in another room as the courtroom could only seat so many people at a time. I sat in the second room all morning listening, sitting among those present, survivors and family members, sometimes close by and at other times in a spot just to the side so that I was able to be present and yet observe, be available quietly and respectfully as all attentively watched and listened to the proceedings unfold.
The lawyers were prepared and meticulous. My first day was filled almost exclusively by one witness who sought to validate the defendant as suffering from mental illness. The response from the prosecution was succinct and powerful, probing and bringing forward a different view on the presenting issue. Noting the copious notes one survivor was making, I asked how this was going for him. “I am taking these notes for my wife who could not be here,” he said. “This way I can be sure to tell her everything that happened.” Later that day another person came over and mused with an exasperated expression, “How can he think this person didn’t know what he was doing?” As a chaplain I pondered these human responses to an unthinkable act.
After lunch with the survivors, I was given the opportunity to sit in the courtroom itself. Instructed to show no or very little emotion, to stay quiet and still, attendees watched and heard as the testimony and cross examination continued. Sitting in the back row among several family and survivors I bore witness to their pain and their courage as challenging aspects of the incident and information about the defendant were again presented to the jury. Quiet tears, slightly shuddering shoulders, nearly inaudible gasps of air…. A break in the proceedings was taken and I stood in awe as I witnessed these people exit the courtroom for a moment to regroup, to pause, to calm the rhythm of their hearts, to let the tears fall and the anger and frustration flow. As each person left, I caught their eye to silently tell them, they were not alone. I bore witness to this pain as my own heart was breaking for them as a chaplain, as a human being, as a fellow Jew.
The trial would go on and I would continue to be present both in the courthouse as well as in the community for a few more days. There is no cure for what happened, but as one person shared, “perhaps there will be some healing.” “This still hurts” he said. “You would think after nearly five years it would be better. Maybe it will be…. even so, I will be here.” Being in that space, I saw the remarkable tenacity and will of so many to live and find meaning, to be present despite their lives having been forever changed.
As a chaplain and a Jew, this experience reminded me of, and more deeply embedded within me, the power of resiliency. I learned from these extraordinary individuals about incomprehensible pain that is deep, grief that is beyond measure, loss that even a number of years later is still palpable. Almost in the same breath, however, could be found sparks of life, and not only living, but Jewish living.
I was blessed to receive invitations from several at the courthouse for Shabbat meals that weekend and to attend services at one or another shul. At a Shabbat dinner that I was grateful and humbled to attend, while the food was simple and delicious, the hosts were eager to share their home, their family story and especially to sing Shabbat Zemirot because in their words, “that is what Jews do and this is why we need Shabbat. It has been too long.” I received requests for time to sit in quiet conversation on Shabbat morning after shul where I went to services, providing a space for people to tell their stories and to be heard. As one person shared, “I was running late that morning. I never made it inside.” And then there was the day in the courthouse when several seized upon the opportunity to say Birkat HaMazon after lunch because “that is what we Jews do.” Even in the space of seeking resolution to an unthinkable act, there was the presence of life, of God, of community.
I am grateful and humbled to be reminded by this experience of the power of our Jewish tradition and the possibility that even in the face of extraordinary adversity, life goes on and people manage to find their way forward.