Newtown, Conn. — The library walls of Congregation Adath Israel, this community’s only synagogue, are lined with messages of comfort sent by congregants of synagogues in Wellesley, Mass., and Columbus, Ohio.
Donated stuffed animals are stored in a library closet.
On the floor waiting to be placed on the library’s shelves are two boxes of books written to help children cope with grief.
These are among the thousands of unsolicited items sent to the synagogue to help this community of 27,500 deal with the crazed acts of Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old mentally ill resident. On Dec. 14, 2012, Lanza shot and killed his mother in their home before going to the Sandy Hook Elementary School here and killing 20 first graders and six faculty and staff.
Following this, the second deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, the synagogue as well as local churches became focal points for grieving and healing and for donations from throughout the country. The synagogue distributed what it could and brought the rest to Newtown’s town hall for further distribution.
The Rev. Mel Kawakami, senior pastor of Newtown United Methodist Church, said his church experienced a similar outpouring of support.
“We had tractor trailers filled with teddy bears, snowflakes, angels and books that were distributed to other communities and churches,” he said. “The generosity of people was incredible.”
He said a variety of healing programs were held in the synagogue and churches in the weeks and months that followed the shooting.
“They were really spread out throughout the town — and intentionally so — so that all of the houses of worship were understood to be a part of the commemorative services,” Rev. Kawakami said.
Andrew Paley, the immediate past president of Congregation Adath Israel, whose twin boys were in the Sandy Hook school the day of the shooting and survived, said his family and many others plan to be out of town Dec. 14 to avoid the expected return of media from around the world.
“The majority of the media are not ethical or nice and only want to take advantage of a situation,” Paley said. “We brought up with our therapists the idea of leaving before the anniversary, and they all said that was the best idea we could have.”
The families of at least two of the children who were killed have moved from Newtown since the tragedy to try to start life anew. Among them is the family of the one Jewish child killed, Noah Pozner, 6, according to Rabbi Shaul Praver, the synagogue’s spiritual leader, who officiated at the child’s funeral.
Meanwhile, the Sandy Hook elementary school is being demolished and a new school will be built on the same site. The work cannot be seen from the street because police are keeping the public far from the site.
Rev. Kawakami said parents and children could not bear the thought of returning to the school and that the new building would have a totally different design.
This Saturday, one week before the dreaded anniversary, Jews and others in this community plan to attend a Yizkor, or memorial service, at the synagogue. Rabbi Praver said he plans to read messages and poems of consolation he and others wrote in the aftermath of the tragedy for a special tribute issue of the local magazine, The Newtowner.
Paley said the 100-family congregation actually picked up about 10 new families in the aftermath of the shooting. Dr. David Elfenbein, the congregation’s president, said he believed it was because of the extensive programming it offered the community, including healing fairs and a variety of prayer services.
“A lot of therapeutic groups that helped people after Columbine and other shootings — as well as 9/11 — came here to offer their services,” Rabbi Praver recalled. “We also had different counseling and healing services.”
For instance, Paley said, “We had Christians come to offer different prayers for healing that attracted people from throughout the community.”
Elfenbein pointed out that David Kaczynski also traveled to Newtown to offer his observations. His brother, Ted, is the so-called Unabomber who conducted an 18-year terror campaign in which he sent 16 letter bombs that killed three and wounded 23 before he was arrested in 1995 and sentenced to life in prison.
“He spoke about discovering that his brother was the Unabomber,” Elfenbein said. “He is a devout Buddhist who lives in Woodstock (N.Y.). He came with Buddhist Monks and a Buddhist doctor who is a psychiatrist. He spoke here within two months of the shooting and this place was packed, mostly from people from outside the shul. They were here until 11 p.m. because the crowd broke up into little discussion groups.”
There was also a healing music program in which cantors from throughout the country flew to Newtown to put on a concert.
For the children in the synagogue’s religious school, three of whom were in the Sandy Hook school at the time of the shooting, the synagogue arranged for the Jewish Family Services of Bridgeport to conduct a special program.
“A guided narrative of a peaceful garden in a sort of play therapy model was employed with an appropriate soundtrack,” the rabbi said. “After some restful moments in this imagined garden, students were asked to write some specials messages they had on paper leaves found in this imaginary garden. There was also creative movement involved in the exercise that helped engage the students.”
Rabbi Praver said he himself had “pastoral therapeutic conversations with students” during weekday classes and in general assemblies on Sundays.
“I allowed them to express their thoughts, feelings and fears in the safe environment we created in our sanctuary,” he recalled. “The community came together in a beautiful fashion.”
The synagogue also became a magnet for those wishing to financially help families who lost loved ones in the tragedy and for those wishing to honor the memory of those killed.
“One anonymous donor from New Jersey gave us a check for $52,000 and asked that we give $2,000 immediately to each family,” Paley said. “One of the families we gave the money to said it was the first money they had received and that it helped with the cost of the funeral.”
Another anonymous donor from Florida sent a check for $25,000 and asked the synagogue to use it to provide services for the greater community.
And in June, the Great Vest Side Club, a social club founded by six Jewish men on Chicago’s West Side, dedicated at the synagogue a $100,000 ambulance they bought for Israel’s Magen David Adom. On the door of the ambulance was written the words, “In memory of the victims of the Sandy Hook Tragedy, Newtown, Connecticut.”
“It will save lives while preserving the sacred memory of our dear ones,” Rabbi Praver said at the dedication.
As the first anniversary of the shooting approaches, Rabbi Praver said, “The most important thing we want to stress is what has been done since the tragedy. Since this mini-Holocaust there have been at least a half-dozen family foundations set up by the 26 [victims’] families.”
He said some are political; others are for healing, fundraising and education.
Elfenbein pointed out that despite all it has done this past year, the congregation, founded in 1919, is still struggling to make payments on its $1 million mortgage and is planning major fundraising events.
“We don’t want to appear to be capitalizing on this tragedy, but two years from now we won’t be open unless something changes,” he said.
Among the poems Rabbi Praver said he intends to read at Saturday’s Yizkor service is one he penned, “We Dare to Live Again.” It reads in part, “And while our tears and blood were shed without mercy, we dare to live again. … And in the absence of 20 precious children and six beloved teachers, we dare to live again. … They would say, ‘We have gone and what is done is done — so arise and celebrate the years we lived together.’”
Another poem by B.T. Joy includes these passages: “To the people of Newtown, Grieving is the proper attitude because some things can’t be mended. …The tears in us are bridged by dreamscapes and by poetry. … Nothing here can be mended but there is a music chiming in the noiselessness of mourning, a shining light that centers the breathlessness of every separation.”
The synagogue has posted on its library walls some of the messages of consolation it has received. Among them: “Know that lots of people are caring and doing things to support you. We hope that you get better.” “I am sorry that I don’t know what to say.” “In the midst of this darkness, we all mourn with you. Please know that you are not alone. You and your loved ones are remembered and cherished.”
And there was a letter from Amy Witryol of Lewiston, N.Y. It accompanied 27 stones sent in a nest created from the oldest and youngest grapevines in Niagara County. People of diverse religions, race and ethnic background, she wrote, collected the stones from throughout the area.
“The Jewish community in Niagara County hardly numbers 27,” she wrote. “We cannot imagine the depth of grief in Newtown. Our entire population joins the rest of the world in mourning the loss of every family whose loved one never returned home from school. May these stones come to rest wherever the Jewish community deems appropriate, whether on a headstone or in the community. The stones are a piece of our hearts to remember the eternal souls in your hearts. We are with you.”