December 14, 2012: This date will forever be etched into the minds of the American people. It will join the ranks of others such as 9/11 and Columbine: days flooded with tears and sorrow as loved ones and neighbors were killed; days which we pray will remain nothing more than memories.
It was the day of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
It may be unfortunate, but it is tragedy that brings people together and is a mirror that blinds us with society’s weaknesses. This could not be any more the case than with the Sandy Hook shooting. In the days and weeks that followed, gun rights and mental illness became the talk of the country. Family members turned to one another in love and gratitude. There were an overwhelming number of teddy bears sent to Newtown. When there is a tragedy, nearly every human being can understand the pain.
And it also hit close to home among Yeshiva University students. Stern junior Rachel Lunzer was propelled to action, and she created a movement called Project 20/20. This project consisted of a week-long commitment among over 2,000 people to do something good for 20 minutes a day in honor of those who died. Among other activities, this 20-minute period included learning Torah, refraining from gossip, or doing chessed. When the thirty-day mourning period, or shloshim, came to an end on January 23rd, members of the YU community came together to commemorate the deceased and complete the Mishna and Tanach at the Project 20/20 Siyum.
The highlight of the evening was a speech given by the Newtown, Connecticut Rabbi Shaul Praver. As one of many among a community of closely-knit religious leaders, Rabbi Praver was at the aftermath of the tragedy early on to provide emotional support. The Rabbi stoically revived painful memories of arriving at the fire station. The station was surrounded by news teams, and within its walls were the CIA, police forces, and despairing parents. There was a “good room” and a “bad room”; the former was filled with parents who were reunited with or had children who were accounted for, and the latter held families who were waiting for their unaccounted-for children. Rabbi Praver stated that this room was “the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” These parents were filled with anguish and anxiety, and when the news was released that their children had died, a tsunami of sorrow drowned the room. Rabbi Praver was there all along to provide comfort. He spoke candidly about his responsibility of comforting mourners and how he goes about doing it. One recipient of this solace was Veronique Posner, a member of the Jewish community and mother of six-year-old Noah Posner, the sole Jewish victim of the shooting. He gently assured her of his certainty that the soul is eternal and that one day, she will see her son again.
After this painful retelling, Rabbi Praver pieced together the broken pieces of confusion surrounding the event, and he entreated upon us all to contribute to a more peaceful world. He noted a culture in which the most popular movies and video games focus on violence and murder. He mentioned a culture of bullying and isolation, a culture which puts down social outcasts and breeds hatred. He pointed out the powerfully negative consequences of embarrassing someone, and emphasized the importance of reaching out and giving respect to every human being. Rabbi Praver provided an example of this from the Torah: when Yaakov gives Eisav presents in the midst of war, an act which surely goes against basic human instincts. Ultimately, however, we can see from this biblical example that respect eventually defeats animosity.
We will never truly understand what happened, a notion made clear by Rabbi Praver. Yet Rabbi Praver continued to clarify that we have the power to make our society, our country, and our world a better place. Every individual, through reaching out to a friend, neighbor, or even a stranger, can spread kindness like a flame, and can reconstruct an upside-down society that “appeals to our lowest senses,” in the words of Rabbi Praver. This entreaty was imparted into the minds of all those who attended. Stern College junior Leah Gottfried, who is majoring in film studies, said of the evening, “I expected to walk away from this event heavyhearted, and though it was heartbreaking to listen to at times, more than anything I left inspired—inspired to work towards a world of peace, to respect people instead of humiliate them, and to make positive movies instead of violent ones. To do something, instead of sit in sadness.”
We would like to believe that such a message is intrinsic and always consciously revived in our minds, but unfortunately it is not, and unfortunately it takes a tragedy for it to cling to our minds like a magnet. This message stuck with Rabbi Praver the most, and this was the sentiment he shared with us. Project 20/20 and its culmination, the Siyum, were successful programs to instill in us the realization that we must always be good people—not only in the worst of times.