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A Shiva In Newtown

Yeshiva University’s commemorative ceremony for the victims of the Newtown Massacre, like any commemoration of an immense tragedy, left me with more questions than answers. Because the service was so thoughtfully and carefully crafted, I was overwhelmed with discordant thoughts: If this tragedy is unspeakable, why are we speaking about it? Can we really take a moment to pause and reflect with the increasing pressure of papers, classes and looming finals? Is a moment enough? Speaking on that night, President Richard Joel said, “This is surely not a time for answers, it is first and foremost a proper time to mourn and a time to direct our thoughts and prayers towards those suffering indescribable heartache, and in that way we grieve together and bond together.” Are we really mourning together? If indeed there are no answers, what are we left to do? I left the ceremony feeling incomplete. I had to take those feelings somewhere.

The next day I visited Newtown, Connecticut. I joined a small rabbinic delegation from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale who were delivering letters and funds from the congregation. I was hoping to bring the hundreds of letters students from Yeshiva University wrote to the families of the victims in the university-wide vigil held the night before, but I was unfortunately unable to get hold of them on time. Instead, I hoped to represent Yeshiva University as one student among many who would surely have joined.

Newtown is a small and hilly town of beautiful old Victorian homes, streets named “Meadow Road” and “Sunny View Terrace,” diners on Main Street, and old stone churches. It could be, in the words of our President, “any town in America.” We knew we were getting closer to Newtown as spray painted signs strung across highway bridges read “We are Sandy Hook. We choose love.” As we turned into the town, we read “rest in peace, little ones 12.14.12” on doors and windows. On the side of the road stood 26 angel figurines. It was emotionally jarring to see a town wreathed in holiday lights and red bows and, at the same time, adorned with notes of comfort and of solemn scripture.

The houses, stores, diners, and churches were shrouded in sadness and shock. At the town center and before the entrance of the road leading to the school, stood makeshift memorials of candles, Christmas trees, Menorahs, flowers, hand-made signs, cards, balloons, toys, statues, and teddy bears—hundreds and hundreds of teddy bears. The sense of innocence lost, of goodness torn away at a time of holiday joyfulness, of unanswerable tragedy was inescapable. It felt as though walking into shiva house (a Jewish house of mourning), except that the entire town was grieving.

It’s one thing to participate in a ceremony, to light a candle, to see a slide show of photographs, to hear a speech, to try and resurrect—in some tangible way—the unknowable grief faced families of victims. It’s an entirely different experience to be surrounded by candles, enveloped by pictures of those killed, encircled in a sea of material mourning.

People had gathered by the memorials. Some people came to pay their last respects to children and adults they never knew. Others were neighbors visiting the memorial, adding ornaments on the Christmas trees or relighting candles. One woman could not stop crying; she was the mother of a kindergartener from the other elementary school in Newtown and shuddered at the thought of her son in that classroom on that ill-fated day.

The police had cordoned-off Sandy Hook Elementary School so we decided to do a memorial service near the sign for the school. Rabbi Ari Hart spoke about silence in the face of tragedy. I recounted the words of the university’s president, Rosh Ha yeshiva, students, and faculty members as best I could. We said a prayer, sang a dirge-like niggun, and hoped that we would never again have to speak about these unspeakable catastrophes.

The roar of motorcycles punctuated the end of our memorial service. Eight motorcycles drove past us. Then came police cruisers, black SUVs, then a hearse carrying a tiny coffin. The funeral procession slowed down as it passed the school, a silent salute to the 25 other victims. In the third and fourth cars in the precession, mourners held  handwritten signs against the window, “Thank You,” they said. “Thank you.” They wanted to thank us?  I was stunned, broken and tearful. In the depth of their sorrows, in their innermost time of desolation, they acknowledged the anonymous support of pedestrians on the street. They had invited us into their mourning and, in a small way, we had grieved together.

The car ride from the Sandy Hook Elementary School memorial to the nearby Adath Israel Temple took us through the rest of the town. Another funeral service was being conducted at the town’s Catholic church. Rows of police motorcycles were lined up ready to escort the next funeral procession of that day. Tens of news trucks were parked on the opposite side of the street. A crowd of men and women in dark suits and dresses congregated outside. The town had turned into a funeral factory.

We arrived at Adath Israel. The parking lot was empty. We got out to see if any information existed in the synagogue about the shiva (the seven day mourning period) of Noah Pozner, the youngest victim of the massacre and the first victim to be buried. We had heard that the family wanted to mourn privately, but we wanted to see if there was anything we could do to help. Just then, two cars pulled into the parking lot. 

Rabbi Saul Praver, the spiritual leader of Adath Israel, introduced himself. The woman with him then introduced herself, “I’m Noah’s mother,” she said with stoic resilience. “Noah might be gone, but part of him is still with us.” My heart froze.

As Jewish law prescribes, we waited until Veronique Pozner asked us our names to break the silence. Rabbi Pozner thanked us for coming and “not exploiting the situation” as so many news crews attempted to do over the past five days. We gave them the cards the congregation wrote. “Come to our shiva,” she said. “Please come tonight or Thursday or Friday.” She wanted us, five strangers, to join her grieving family? “Oh,” said Rabbi Pozner, “we are having a Havdalah service at the end of Shabbat, it’s a small community gathering, but please come.” The rabbi invited five outsiders inside the tiny community as it transitioned from the week of shiva to the month of sheloshim. It was an unimaginable gesture of compassion. It was both the reverse of what we were expecting and an act of unthinkable emotional and spiritual strength.

I left Newtowndumbfounded. Neighbors and visitors carefully tended makeshift memorials of flowers sent from communities in Montana to congregations in Poland, and posters sent from schools around the nation. Firefighters stood vigil outside the memorial for the entire day. The entire town was adorned in a show of support for the families and signs of mourning for the victims.  That was dreadful but expected.

What had us startled—what left us stunned into silence on the ride home—were those two acts of humanity. An acknowledgment and a request by families to, in some small way, share in their deep totality of their own grief was not only unnecessary and unpredictable, but heartbreaking and unforgettable. Had I stayed longer, there is no doubt in my mind that I would have seen the same thing play out again and again.

Did Newton provide answers? No. Newtown taught me that when there aren’t answers, there are actions. Newtown countered senseless acts of violence with senseless acts of love.  It understood that “Love is as strong as death” (Song of Songs 8:6) only when that love is expressed in acts of unprecedented kindness and affection.

If you or anyone else would like to send a letter to the family:

Noah's Family
261. South Main St. #332
Newtown, CT 06470