Leading Through Tragedy: Heard Round WexWorld
Our nation and our communities continue to grieve over the senseless loss of 49 precious souls from the devastating tragedy that unfolded in Orlando on Sunday. As Jews around the world were reaffirming the Covenant on the holiday of Shavuot, recommitting to a tradition and a Torah which sanctify life — a murderer was unleashing his fury on innocent revelers. Our hearts are anguished and we share in the pain of the Orlando community, the LGBTQ community and all those who are mourning loved ones still. We join with all people of conscience in condemning violence and bloodshed.
Amidst our shared sadness, fear and anger, the Wexner network takes special responsibility for exercising moral leadership in communities across the nation and around the world. Recognizing that our unique community of leaders is tasked with guiding others through loss and grief, we asked some of our members, fellows, alumni and faculty to share with us the ways in which they have led their respective communities in response to this tragedy. Our hope is that their leadership will inspire us all to be ever more courageous and present to the need for deep humanity, moral courage and heartfelt vision as we face the challenges of tomorrow.
May we all be present for those who need our support right now and may we see each other through this dark time toward the light of hope and peace.
The Wexner Foundation
Andrew Feinstein, WHP Member (Denver 14)
Managing Partner of Tracks in Denver, CO
I am the proud owner of Tracks, the largest LGBTQ nightclub in the Mountain West which has served the community for over 25 years. My family and I have owned and operated locations in Denver, Washington, D.C., New York, NY and Tampa, FL and have proudly stood alongside our brothers and sisters from the LGBTQ community as we have tackled challenges such as teen bullying, discrimination, HIV/AIDS, adoption rights, marriage equality and transgender rights…we’ve even had unisex bathrooms way before they were cool!
As you can imagine, the tragic incident that took place at our sister nightclub, Pulse, in Orlando over the weekend strikes right at the heart of our community and our family of Tracks’ employees, friends and customers. Like Pulse, we have prided ourselves on being a fun and safe haven for those in the LGBTQ community and their allies to express themselves as they wish.
In response to the tragedy, we hosted a vigil in our nightclub on Sunday evening and had more than 2,000 attendees from all corners of our community here in Colorado. I made it a point to reach out to my friends at the ADL (where I serve on the board) and my friends from the Muslim community, who were overwhelmingly supportive. To kick off the vigil, we had a rabbi, an imam and a reverend speak, as well as Denver’s Honorable Mayor Michael Hancock, US Senator Michael Bennett and US Congresspeople Diana DeGette and Mike Coffman. It was an incredible night, though sadly, it took a tragedy like this for us to all come together at our club…
With Denver’s 41st Pridefest taking place this weekend (our 36th Pride!), we are moving forward with our plans to throw Colorado’s largest weekend Pride party and look forward to ending this tragic week in joyous, inclusive celebration.
Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY
“Yesterday morning at 2 AM I was here at CBE with hundreds of people studying Torah all night together in celebration of the festival of Shavuot. The purpose of this night of study is to relive the experience of receiving Torah at Mount Sinai, to remind ourselves about the values we ought to live by, about what’s most important and most meaningful in human life. During the night I taught a text from the Mishna that I’m quite fond of, a text about the infinite value of each and every life. We emerged from our dawn prayers in gratitude, joy and exhaustion and were confronted by the news from Orlando.
We don’t know yet exactly what the shooter’s relationship was with ISIS. But we do know that he chose to drive for two hours to target a Latino LGBT dance club, a place of refuge and community where 300 people were gathered to celebrate love and life. I know what it is like to be a young person in need of a feeling of safety and community. Perhaps you do too. The shattering of that safety, the callous destruction of lives, the targeting of the other — an act like this ripples out beyond the Pulse nightclub sending a chill to every human heart.
We are beginning to see the pictures of the young people who were killed. We are beginning to hear their stories. As we see their faces and learn their stories, the question lies open before us: who will we be? How will we remember them through our actions? How will we change?
Judaism is centered on the idea of a great Oneness connecting all that seems disparate, separated, conflicted. We assert in Shema that the response to this Oneness should be love, a love expressed through action. In response to this tragedy, let us turn toward the other instead of turning away. Let us insist on policies now that honor and preserve life. And let us commit ourselves to love.”
Mark Kravitz, WHP Alum (Miami 11)
Board Chair of the Miami Jewish Film Festival in Miami, FL
The Miami Jewish Film Festival is more than just an entertainment venue and has become an integral part of the Miami Jewish community’s expression of itself. When our community was hit with the horrible news of what happened at Pulse in Orlando, we knew that people would want a way to express their solidarity with the LGBT community beyond just attending a vigil or memorial service. That’s why we decided to host a screening of the movie Milk together with various LGBT partners, including MIFO (South Florida’s LGBT film festival) and other LGBT advocacy groups. Milk tells the story of one of the LGBT movements most important pioneers, Harvey Milk. We anticipate that this screening will be very well attended, giving our community a way to express its concern and connection to the LGBT community at such a heartbreaking time. We hope that this event will enable all of us to connect with one another through common memories and values that we all share and will remind us that when we are together we are all consoled and empowered — that our community as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Jason Rodich, WGF Alum (Class 22)
Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, CA
I drafted this statement with input from the whole Emanu-El San Francisco clergy team. We sent this message to the congregation several hours after learning about the horrific attack:
“We, your rabbis and cantors of Congregation Emanu-El, join you in expressing grief, outrage, shock and horror at this morning’s devastating act of terror and hate in Orlando, FL.
We join in the chorus of voices from around our nation calling for so much: the transformation of our culture of violence into a culture of love and justice, a renewed effort to pass gun control laws that would have prevented this terrorist from accessing tools of destruction, a firm and unapologetic stance against all fundamentalist religious violence and a reaffirmation of our love for our Muslim sisters and brothers, the vast majority of whom reject this violence along with us. During this month of pride, this violence targeted at LGBT people feels particularly frightening for the LGBT and allied communities, many of whom call Emanu-El a place of home, safety and refuge.
As a Jewish community with so many strong ties to Israel, we know this fear and pain all too well. Our hearts also go out to the families who lost loved ones in the terror attack in Tel Aviv. In an instant, innocent people out for an evening with families and friends were killed by those who wrongly believe force will help their views hold sway. Instead, we become more determined to stand up for our rights as Jews and promote peace and freedom for all.
Today is Shavuot, the festival during which we celebrate Matan Torah, the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai. This was a moment when truth sparked for all to see. It sparks for us, again, here and now. Today we cling tightly to our Torah; our Torah that paints a vibrant, bright and beautiful picture of what community can and should be. We cling tightly to our Torah that cries out to each of us now, tzedek, tzedek tirdof, be in bold and relentless pursuit of justice!
The prophet Micah imagines a future in which “they shall sit under vine and under fig-tree; and none shall make them afraid.” We refuse to accept a reality of fear and violence. We share our tradition’s prophetic vision for our future and in our grief and heartache commit ourselves to the hard work of making it a reality.”
Dr. Erica Brown, Faculty, Silver Spring, MD
Orlando has always been about Tinkerbell: all sparkles and light. Until now. After late night Shavuot teaching, I spent Sunday blurry with prayer, people and an occasional yawn. Manhattan’s West Side was thrumming with kosher ice cream in Central Park and happy thoughts of community, text study, cheesecake and sleep. At the night meal, someone said the word “Orlando” and every else but me nodded sadly; the table got quiet. “What happened in Orlando?” The strange and beautiful thing about traditional observance is the absolute, almost hermetic way you’re sealed off from the world. The doorman told a friend who didn’t want to tell me before I taught that day; it’s the kind of news that blocks all ideas, that saps holiday joy and leaves only terror and fear. But, in truth, I wish I had known earlier. This is where Jewish teaching does its hardest work, when we come together as a community of study and compassion. This is the tikkun, the way all communities and, indeed, society, must come together after tragedy. Bring people together in conversation. Force understanding. Create space for us to be together in silence, the only authentic response. Meaning is healing. And then there was yizkor, and everyone left individual loss — when, for a few sacred minutes — we were all from Orlando.
Dr. Zohar Atkins, WGF Fellow (Class 28)
Rabbinical Student at The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, NY
After Sinai, a marked wilderness
The form is not ours
After Sinai, another
Orlando, mirages of Canaan,
After Sinai, emails asking how was it
Where I wasn’t. Emails seeking automatic reply.
Underground, Sinai is the clogged exit.
Overground, the shape of a sage’s nose
In polluted sky.
At Sinai we learn there is no substitute
No substitute for saying
Your exile shall be my exile.
Your poem, my poem.
Rebecca Stone Kagedan, WGF Alum (Class 25)
Director of Development — Campus Excellence at Hillel International
The shooting in Orlando is a national trauma. As with all traumas, reactions of rage, powerlessness and despair are natural. Traumatic events kick our biological fight, flight and freeze responses into high gear — for victims, and for witnesses near and far. This kind of terror forces us to remember that tragedy of this kind can happen to us — that we are not in control of our worlds. Trauma can disrupt our ability to trust in the world and in fellow humans. It can cause us to disconnect and feel more alone. Restoring healthy connection and the ability to trust in life is the work not only of therapists, but of spiritual communities as well.
Perhaps the most important part of healing from this trauma will be helping our community to feel less isolated and to restore a sense of collective power. In states of trauma, we feel that we have no control over our lives and our bodies. In states of empowerment, we sense restored choice and a voice to say yes and no. We regain our sense of self-determination.
Here are a few ideas to share with your community:
- Encourage people to talk about their feelings and reactions within circles of friends and family with whom they feel safe. This could be a communal project or just happen informally.
- Expressive writing can be a powerful means to process and gain perspective on a distressing situation. In the spirit of restorative justice, individuals and communities might try composing letters, which will never be received, to the victims or to a particular victim of the attack to convey their sorrow and outrage. Some may even try writing to the murderer himself to confront him with the pain he has caused.
- Making meaning out of trauma: taking positive action. Perhaps nothing is as collectively healing as committing to new forms of activism to honor the victims and restore a sense of power and meaning for communities. As Jewish leaders, we can create forums in which our communities may begin to build something sacred out of this terrible shattering.
Rabbinical Student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, NY
That moment when Moshe turned on his iPhone after all those blissful days up on Sinai and realized that if you want to receive the Torah, you better prepare yourself to walk down the Mountain.
What should have been the sound of dancing, what should have been the sound of celebration, suddenly became the sound of gunshot and war. Ringing through Moshe’s ears.
The commentaries debate whether he was protecting the Torah from the People or the People from the Torah, but either way, he must have been shocked to realize that Holy Word in the hands of an unholy humanity can lead to some pretty horrible things.
So his calling was to smash the Tablets.
Ours is far more difficult: somehow piecing them back together.
Sharon Mars, Associate Rabbi of Temple Israel in Columbus, OH
An Interfaith prayer I wrote and shared at a special service on Tuesday:
God of Love,
Source of Love,
Creator of Love—
Hear our voice.
You have commanded us to love You—
V’ahavta et Adonai elohecha—
With all our heart,
With all our soul,
With all our might—
But then all these things
Happen to your creatures, O God,
And we are left speechless.
Hate seeks to eclipse love,
And we are made afraid.
Violence tries to blot out peace,
And we are struck dumb.
We fumble for words
Because they are all we have
We grasp for straws,
We gasp for answers.
Before we can collect our thoughts,
Before we can bury our dead,
Before we can form a syllable of protest,
All these words spill off some of the tongues of those in fear
Intended to wound those of us who live by love.
God of Love,
Use Your powers of love
So that those ugly words should find no ears to fill.
Use Your powers of love
To ensure that instead of empty platitudes
There are full-voiced multitudes
Demanding safety and acceptance,
Commanding peace and love
For our dance clubs,
For our bathrooms,
For our classrooms,
For our court rooms.
Let us not be satisfied
By moments of silence for long.
Let us be satisfied instead
By moments of loud and proud cries of love,
Insisting on the right to love
Whomever we choose to love,
Wherever we choose to love.
You whom we call Adonai,
You whom we call Allah,
You whom we call Jesus,
You who called us to love each other—
Help us to love ourselves.
Help us to love those who cry out in need of love
You command us to love You
In order to multiply the love of acceptance,
The love of mercy,
The love of justice
In the world.
Now command each of us
To follow Your love
To its natural conclusion:
A world dignified by love,
A world magnified by love,
A world sanctified by love,
A world we are proud to live in
And allowed to love in.
May Your words of love be in our hearts,
God of love,
As we seek to improve upon the world You birthed into being,
The world which we were birthed into
To fill with love
In partnership with You .
Let that love
Whisper to us when we walk by our way,
Anchor us when we sit in our homes,
Soothe us when we lie down,
Strengthen us when we rise up.
And when we raise up our voices
To insist on creating the world we wish to see
Let that love seep into every pure heart
Across this blood-saturated and tear-stained land.
Let that love find its way into every mind
Which chooses love over fear.
Let that love build bridges
Of understanding and healing
So that Your word has the final say.:
Love your God.
Love each other.
Feel free to add what you are creating or how you are responding in the “Comments” section below.