For Colorado Jews, Mass Shooting Hits Close to Home

The Colorado Jewish community is coming together and reaching out, following the movie theater shooting that nearly claimed two of its own.

Shani Reflow cannot stop shaking, sleeps only in fits and starts and keeps her cell phone on full volume. She has been in this state since her children came home at dawn on Friday and told her they had just fled a shooting rampage at a local movie theatre.

It is now clear that the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, near Denver, is one of the most gruesome mass shootings in United States history. A 24-year-old man who recently dropped out of a neuroscience doctoral program is suspected of killing 12 people and injuring 58 when he opened fire at a crowded premier of the latest Batman movie.

But that morning, the 42-year-old single Jewish mother could barely comprehend what had happened as she looked at the faces of her shaken and exhausted children.

“Everyone kept telling me ‘calm down.' Initially no one understood the severity of what happened and what my kids witnessed – that they were in Theatre 9 and saw the carnage,” Reflow said in a phone interview from Aurora.

Her son, Brandon DiRito, 16, said the last thing he saw as he fled the theater was a woman’s body lying sprawled on the stairs, legs askew.

Her daughter, Taryn DiRito, 18, was pinned against a wall by panicked movie-goers fleeing the theater. As she struggled to free her small frame from the crush of the crowd, she recalled hearing the creaking of broken chairs and seeing people covered in blood.

Reflow says both children have since suffered anxiety attacks. Her son’s episode was especially frightening, she said. At a restaurant over the weekend, he began to hyperventilate and was unable to talk. The day after the attack, Reflow looked into family and individual therapy for her children.

A human tragedy

According to representatives of the Denver Jewish community, none of those killed or injured in the shooting were known to be Jewish. But the community has responded by offering counseling and raising funds for victims and their families.

“We are all in shock. We are all in solidarity,” said Rabbi Joe Black of Denver’s Temple Emanuel, the state’s largest synagogue, at a vigil that filled the streets of Aurora on Sunday night.

“This is not a sectarian event, it’s a human tragedy and we were all deeply affected by it,” Black told Haaretz. “What I have been saying to my people is that this underscores the importance of being part of some kind of community – not necessarily faith communities. But faith communities help people see holiness when people come together for whatever reason and that is what gives us strength, I believe, to help us get through a tragedy like this.”

After being flooded by calls from Jews across the state and country who wanted to contribute, the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado on Monday announced the launch of the “Jewish Response Fund for Victims of the Aurora Movie Theatre Tragedy” to support victims of the shooting and their families.

“As Jews, we are guided by the principle of tikkun olam, 'repairing the world.' And that’s not just the Jewish world. We are obligated to help in every way we can,” said Doug Seserman, the federation’s president and CEO. Because of Israel’s experience, the American Jewish community is particularly attuned to the dangers of terrorism, he said.

Colorado's Jews plan to hold a vigil in Denver on Sunday, Tisha B’Av, (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av) a day of fasting to mourn the destruction of the ancient Jewish temples in Jerusalem and traditionally all Jewish tragedies. Known as the “saddest day” in the Jewish year, local rabbis and Jewish leaders are currently deciding whether or not it will be a multi-denominational event.

Jewish Family Service of Colorado, which has expertise in counseling, has offered its services through local authorities.

“Everyone wants to be part of the healing process,” said John Kayser, the organization’s director of marketing and communications.

The organization has published a list of recommendations to help individuals and families affected by the shooting, even if only indirectly. The tips include not letting children watch repeated accounts of the attack on television and talking about the event as a family. 

Finding lessons in pain

Synagogues were exceptionally full for Shabbat services following the shooting. And the debate over gun control was a topic of conversation among congregants, community members said.

American Jews, whose political tendencies run liberal, are often in favor of tighter restrictions on gun ownership. But it is not easy to broach the topic in Colorado, where the governor and other leaders have said now is the time to mourn, not to discuss public policy.

Rabbi Salomon Gruenwald, an assistant rabbi at Hebrew Educational Alliance, a conservative synagogue in Denver, is distressed that not even the horror of the shooting – where James Eagan Holmes opened fire with automatic weapons – has put the topic on the agenda.

“It saddens me we cannot even have the conversation," he said. "Even talking about gun control is a non-starter in our country. Our politicians have been timid to respond. I don’t know what the answers are but I would like to have the conversation."

Black from Temple Emmanuel agreed.

“I think we need to learn lessons from tragedy," he said. "This is not a political statement this is common sense that two issues need to be discussed. One is easy access to guns and the other is a lack of adequate mental health care. This tragedy may or not have been prevented. We need to find ways to make some sense out of this tragedy that is senseless."

The greater Denver area is home to some 85,000 Jews. It’s a community that has deep roots in the area – with many families having lived there for generations—and also features new arrivals from across the country.

The community is largely unaffiliated, with some 25 percent belonging to synagogues and an intermarriage rate of around 70 percent among couples under the age of 40. Yet a recent poll found that 90 percent of community members have a strong sense of Jewish indentify.

“We are focused on Jewish continuity and how children are raised as opposed to what the religion of the spouse is,” said Seserman.

At Sunday night’s vigil, Black told the crowd: “We are drained. We are in pain. And we are angry. Tonight we pray: Spread over us the shelter of shalom - of peace – knowing full well that peace can seem out of reach in the aftermath of devastation.”

Meanwhile, Reflow grapples in the most personal ways with the aftermath.

“My kids survived and I am so extremely thankful," she said. "Every day I thank God they are here. But the fact they have to deal with the aftermath is hard to swallow."