In the days following the mass murder on the Virginia Tech campus last month, the school’s Hillel chapter joined Blacksburg Jewry and the wider university population in addressing students’ immediate physical and spiritual needs. Hillel sponsored a series of well-attended events, including nightly dinners and an end-of-semester picnic.
Now, with many emotionally shaken students leaving the campus for the summer, the focus is on the long-term psychological health of students and Blacksburg residents.
United Jewish Communities, which dispatched a rabbi with clinical pastoral training to counsel students, is planning to resume the outreach efforts soon in Blacksburg and in several communities where Virginia Tech students live, and on campus when classes resume in the fall. “We will make certain there is continuity,” Howard Feinberg, head staff member on the UJC emergency committee, said in a conference call this week with representatives of Virginia Tech Hillel and the Blacksburg Jewish community.
Feinberg said the Crisis Response Team of Chicago’s Jewish federation will send “responders” to Blacksburg this summer (about 30 percent of the school’s Jewish students will stay in school this summer), and to about eight cities in the region where large number of incoming freshmen and returning Jewish students live (the trauma experts will also work with parents).
An estimated 1,400 Jewish students attend Virginia Tech.
A team of experts will return to the campus in the fall, Feinberg said.
In addition to a $10,000 donation from UJC for the Hillel chapter’s grief counseling and other programs after the shootings, Hillel has received checks from individual federations and private donors, said Sue Kurtz, executive director of Virginia Tech Hillel, which has an annual budget of $200,000.
Most of the students “are moving on,” but they are “still stressed,” Kurtz said. “You can feel a little anxiety.”
“My concern now is the delayed reaction that many of them will experience,” said Ellen Piilonen, former religious school director of the Blacksburg Jewish Community Center, an unaffiliated, egalitarian synagogue with 40 member families. “There is potential for a lot of secondary trauma.”
“It’s a lingering tragedy — we have to face our feelings,” said Bernice Hausman, the religious school’s current director. Many members of the community knew people who were killed. “It’s a small town.”
During Shabbat services after the shootings, lay leaders of the congregation discussed the tragedy, and the religious school incorporated sessions with Rabbi Zahara Davidowitz-Farkas, the pastoral counselor sent by UJC and the New York Board of Rabbis.
Rabbi Davidowitz-Farkas, who has returned to her home in Tucson, Ariz., has remained in touch by phone and e-mail with Virginia Tech students and other Jews from Blacksburg, she said. “The community is not going to be left without support.”