When terrible events occur – from 9/11 to Charlie Hebdo to the truck driver in Nice – Jews react with the same sense of shock, pity and fear as everyone else. But, unlike those without a faith, we have the advantage of having communal structures in place and systems for mourning. At the time of the Twin Towers, for instance, all American families in my own synagogue in Maidenhead were phoned to check if they were safe, and if any of their family or friends had been affected. They were also invited to come to the following Shabbat, which would include a memorial service. Similarly for all French members at the time of the Paris killings, while the rest of the community was asked to support them. There was a clear message: you may be hurting, but you are not alone, we are here for you. We said special prayers, we lit memorial candles, we had a period of silence, we heard personal testimonies and we sang. It was a combination of creating space for individual reflection and of unifying our voices in song. Above all, it was camaraderie.
It is noticeable how the secular world feels the need for similar expressions. People have sought a focal point to meet and instinctively created rituals. Thus they have gathered at the place of destruction, where they light candles, bring flowers, leave photographs, write messages and sing. The growth of roadside shrines here in the UK to car crash victims indicates a similar example of secular religion. But those instant communities then disappear, whereas we still have our regular services and events, and those who need solidarity several days or weeks later know where to go and will find people waiting for them. The power of shared rituals and collective support is on offer, and will be for the next trauma too.
Elul is a month given to us to reflect and prepare for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is a month where we try to take account of our lives, so that we might make the most of this powerful time of renewal, regeneration, fresh starts and healing.
This year our daily Elul Thoughts are taken from ‘Terror, Trauma and Tragedy’, edited by Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain and Rabbi David Mitchell. Each is a short extract of a larger piece designed to help us find meaning, comfort or perhaps more questions in the aftermath of horrific events, which have seemed all too frequent this year. The horror of such atrocities can leave us in confusion, depression and fear. As we move into a new year we hope these pieces might variously offer some solace, be a tool of self-reflection, and encourage us to continue working for a better world.