Friday morning, July 20, my iPhone wakes me up at 5 AM with horrific and devastating news. A gunman had opened fire on a packed movie theater in Aurora, just a few miles from our synagogue community, on the opening night of one of the biggest movie premieres of the summer season. Conflicting reports began flooding in of the number of people murdered or injured, but regardless of the exact number it was clear that this was a tragedy of significant proportions. Later in the afternoon, the final number of dead was released: 12 people, mostly young, one as young as six years old, were murdered in cold blood and another 60 people injured by a former Ph.D. student in neuroscience who had in his possession three different firearms and six thousand rounds of ammunition. How was I going to respond to this tragedy? How was our community going to respond?
It was only a few weeks prior that I assumed the pulpit as the senior rabbi of BMH-BJ Congregation, Denver’s largest and oldest OU member synagogue. As I got into my car that Friday morning for Shacharit, the morning prayer service, marking Rosh Chodesh Av, the beginning of the month of Av, I knew we had to do something that would provide a forum for people to express their pain, fear and hurt.
We needed to acknowledge this tragedy as a Jewish community. The coincidence of this horrific occurrence transpiring at the same time that we ushered in Chodesh Av was almost too much to even ponder. The first act we did was we said after davening (praying) several Tehillim (Psalms) for the victims who lost their lives and for a refuah shelaima (complete recovery) for the scores of wounded.
I looked at my sermon that I had prepared for that week and promptly filed it away for another time and went about the work of directly addressing the shooting. What words are there to offer when the unspeakable occurs? The Torah teaches us that when Aharon lost his two sons and was confronted with the grief of mourning his own children, that his response was “Va’yidom Aharon – Aharon was silent.” Oftentimes, any attempt at condolences or resolutions to the age-old questions of theodicy (why does G-d permit evil in the world?) fall short because they strive to penetrate the inner depths of HaKadosh Baruch Hu (the Holy one, Blessed is He): “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, says G-d. (Yeshayahu 1:8).” Thus, I crafted a sermon that addressed the need for community to come together and to not let fear overwhelm us.
As I was delivering my sermon on Shabbat morning, I was struck by the idea that what is called for us a community-wide gathering of the entire Jewish community to properly memorialize those lost and to stand up for the dignity of life and the value of every human being. We must never let ourselves become desensitized or insensitive to the loss of any human life. I announced from the pulpit a community gathering to be held on Tisha B’Av afternoon to remember those lost in Aurora, as well as the innocent Israelis murdered in Bulgaria and to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the massacre at the Munich 1972 Olympics.
Over the course of the week prior to Tisha B’Av, my staff and I worked tirelessly to put together the gathering. The entire community responded positively and BMH-BJ Congregation served as the center for the Jewish response to this horrific tragedy. With 300 people in attendance and representation from many elected officials and Jewish communal leaders, we paid tribute to those who lost their lives and declared our protest against these acts of brutality and terrorism, whether they occur in Munich, Bulgaria or Aurora, Colorado.
Our response to this tragedy continues. This coming week I was invited to meet with the Mayor of the city of Aurora to discuss ways in which we can partner to make a difference. A meeting with the Governor of Colorado is also in the works to continue the important conversation on collaboration and partnership. I recently learned this week that members of my congregation, Brandon and Denise Axelrod, who only got married three weeks ago, were in the theater during the attack. Brandon suffered extensive injuries as his shielded his wife with his body and protected her from further injury. The Axelrod family has set up a fund to help Brandon with the multiple surgeries he will now require, including an artificial leg as he was crushed under exploding movie theater seats and sustained shrapnel damage. (If you would like to help this young newlywed couple, please go to http://www.giveforward.com/shortchangedbyshrapnel.)
My prayer is that a tragedy like this never occurs again and that those were injured find a full recovery while the families and friends of the deceased can find some nechama (comfort) in knowing that the entire Denver area, including the Jewish community, is with them in their pain and ready to support them in any way possible.
Rabbi Ben Greenberg is the Mara d’Atra (Spiritual Leader) of BMH-BJ Congregation in Denver, Colorado. He and his wife, Sharon Weiss Greenberg, served as the Torah Educators for the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program at Harvard University until the conclusion of the past academic year, when they relocated to Denver.