When Disaster Strikes By R. Miriam Berkowitz


How do we respond to tragedy?  One Saturday night in November 1995, I was making Havdala with JTS rabbinical students spending a year in Israel Matt Berkowitz, Matt Eisenfeld z”l and Shai Held in their apartment in Rehavia. The calmness of the evening broke down when an urgent announcement of the tragic and unexpected murder of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was made on the radio.

I was numb, frozen, unbelieving. My first reaction was to sweep the kitchen, wash dishes, clean the counters: busy myself with mundane activities that would prove that life goes on, no matter what. Twenty-three years later, in the wake of the murder in Pittsburgh, I reflect on the event and try to understand what caused me to respond the way I did.

We live in an uncertain world, and worry about many things that could go wrong. We have lots of roles and much responsibility to juggle any given day. In this busy world of ours one additional event can put us over the edge. Taking a step back, distancing oneself, refusing to internalize the full impact of tragedy when it strikes and instead performing a simple, repetitive activity with a predictable outcome can be very comforting.

Reactions to disasters, whether natural or man-made, are as varied as the cultures, personalities, upbringings and communities we represent.

While the Meyers-Briggs personality scale, which divides people into 16 different personality types, has limitations, I find it a useful tool for analysis.

Sandra Krebs Hirsh & Jane A.G. Kise built on Meyers-Briggs and the Jungian types they incorporated, in their book Soul Types: Matching Your Personality and Spiritual Path.  They identify four general approaches to religion/spirituality.

  1. The rationalist or theologian seeks to understand the big questions through study and analysis, to make order, to learn from the past.
  1. The gathering type thrives on community, shared worship and meals, singing and socializing, which feeds their emotional need for fellowship.
  1. The mystic wants to experience union with the Divine, in solitude, nature, meditation or other rituals.
  1. The activist has a passion for ethical behavior, social justice, and tikkun olam, working across cultures and borders.

We may attribute our different ways of coping with disaster to differences in culture, upbringing, and role models, or, in part, to types described above.

So how do we usually respond to tragedy?

As a community, the Jewish people are good at addressing the aftermath of tragic events through the liturgy.  Whether by saying Psalms or writing personal prayers, saying Kaddish or lighting memorial candles, standing vigil or attending services, we know how to mourn, to give honor, to make sure we do not forget. Some take a practical approach- sending food to a shiva home, caring for orphans or raising funds for refugees. Others seek to understand the root causes of the event and make sure it does not recur.

Yet on the individual level, we develop vastly divergent reactions. So want to know every little detail of the disaster that transpired, while others suffer from nightmares once they see one drop of blood.

For those of us charged with expressing the collective emotion – rabbis – trying to add something when all has been said and done is sometimes challenging.

Sometimes it is just too much to fathom.

My hope is to expand the range of acceptable ways to respond to tragedy.  We need all kinds.  We need people ones who respond in the first hour, the first day, the first week.  And we need ones who, 10 years later, are foster parenting a child who was traumatized when disaster stroke, or mentoring a PTSD sufferer.

We need people who will embrace the victims and weep with them, gather communities and give them a chance to grieve. We need those who can meditate and pray and invoke Divine mercy. We need those who are strong and seemingly unfeeling, who can write the eulogy, bury the bodies, analyze the event and understand the causes, and field the impossible question, “why?”

We need people who take care of practicalities and make sure the widow has a ride to her checkups and hot food for dinner, who install better metal detectors and train security guards, who educate school children about tolerance or change the gun licensing laws.

I even suggest that wanting to revenge, or being angry, embarrassed, and a broad range of other harsh emotions – are all normative and acceptable reactions.  Indeed, being proactive rather than only responding to past disasters is also worthy of our time and energy.

I suggest that distancing oneself from a disaster, on whatever scale, is a way of protecting oneself. Even this is a legitimate response to tragedy, whether far away or close to home.

Time gives us the distance we may need to process, to accept, to try to fathom the full scale of the disaster.

Hopefully, this resilience will not be called on again. Hopefully, we will not test the limits of our wisdom, empathy, spirituality or activism. Hopefully, we will not have to respond to tragedy again.  Yet if we do, we should not judge or rank the various responses, individual and communal, but rather celebrate and synchronize them.

Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz was ordained at the Schechter Institute (today Schechter Rabbinical Seminary) in 1998 and certified in the first cohort of Israeli chaplains in ADD and the NAJC in ASS. She is the International Coordinator of the Spiritual Care Association and Founding Director of Kashouvot: Pioneering Pastoral Care in Israel.

The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies was among the first to offer pastoral care training in Israel, starting with courses in C.P.E. (Clinical Pastoral Education) taught by an American chaplain Zahara Davidowitz-Farkas, continuing with courses taught by Hila Eschar in the C.P.E. style, and culminating in the opening of Marpeh, an MA track program in pastoral care and Jewish text under the guidance of Dr. Einat Ramon.

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