Learning from Las Vegas for Succot

As the horror and tragedy of the murders in Las Vegas, continue to emerge, I had come to realize that I was tuning out. I think I was suffering from, “compassion fatigue”, something that our Rabbi Nissan Antine had highlighted during a sermon following the hurricane in Houston. His advice was, and is to try and focus on one story, one person, one act, and extrapolate from there. I knew I wanted and needed to heed that guidance however at first I resisted it, not having the emotional energy to engage. Then yesterday, I started to read about the victims of the shooting and this morning I heard on the news a narrative that epitomized the complex interplay of sadness, heroism and hope. A woman called Michelle had traveled the concert. She often traveled alone because she liked to make new friends and connect with new people. She was doing just that when the shots rang out she was shot in the chest and collapsed. She had made a new friend called Kody who held her until he thought it was safe to move. When he started to carry her towards the exit, more shots rang out and he covered her with his body to protect her. He and a friend managed to lift Michelle over a barrier and onto the back of a flatbed truck that was being driven by an off-duty Marine shuttling people to hospital. Many people would’ve thought that sufficiently heroic and beyond the call of duty for somebody who  only met Michelle a couple of hours earlier. However it was not enough for Kody. He realized that Michelle would end up in the hospital with no ID and her family will be calling her and there will be no answer.  However he could not locate her cell phone, it must have been dropped in the panic. The more his family called him to check he was okay, the more anxious he was to figure out a way to connect with Michelle’s family. He remembered that he had her cell phone number because they had exchanged numbers, and so he called it. It was answered by someone that found it on the ground and who was now in a lockdown at the Hard Rock Casino. Somehow our man got into the Hard Rock Hotel, recovered the cell phone and called Michelle’s parents to let them know that she’d been shot and was on her way to a hospital somewhere in an unknown condition. They thanked him, wished him well and said that they will continue to try and contact the emergency numbers that were perpetually busy. One might imagine that his work was done but to Kody, the work was just beginning. He tracked Michelle to the hospital and stayed with her, keeping her family informed as to how she was doing, and making sure that she knew she was not alone. Michelle did not survive, however she was not alone when she died, something for which her family said they would be eternally grateful. As if that wasn’t enough, he delayed his flight out of Las Vegas, until after Michelle’s family had arrived so that even in her death, she would be accompanied. This is one of many stories however something that struck me was his explanation to the media as to why he did what he did. Essentially, he said, “what else would I do?, that is how I was brought up, that is what our close-knit family would do for one another and so obviously I would do that for someone else. In fact,” he explains, “my brother got on the first flight he could to Las Vegas so they could be by my side when I was dealing with this.” This story is not unique, we hear similar stories from the too many mass shootings that are taking place in the USA, in the terror attacks terror attacks that occur Israel, and around the world. For whatever reason this story is challenging me to reflect on the question as to whether I am consciously remembering that my role as a parent and educator is to celebrate above all else, the acts of kindness and the values that my family and students demonstrate, because at the end of the day, that’s what defines who we are, and who we should be. I am fortunate to have been brought up by parents that role modeled a commitment to others and the community. I am blessed to be married to Gilly Bayes Canon whose professional and personal life dedicating to caring for others; my sons Benjy whose volunteer and professional work at J St. symbolizes his commitment to a peaceful future for Israel and her neighbors, Aron who volunteers relentlessly with the Rockville fire department, and Jacob who dedicates  so much of his time to working with camp Weimar.

The realities and pressure of our world make it all too easy to define success as the product of academic achievement and professional identity. These are critical competences, and not to be trivialized in any way, however they pale into insignificance as an element to define success, when compared to helping others, supporting one’s family and one’s friends, being up-standers, living a philanthropic life,  and improving our world. As we begin the Holiday of Succot that in part, acknowledges the fragility of our existence, this experience has reminded me of the importance of explicitly recognizing and celebrating the good that is being done. I want to ensure that my family are in no doubt that we believe that being there for one another, being menschen, and contributing to making the world a better place is the most important thing that they can be doing. As a professional Jewish Educator, I work with colleagues to improve the quality of our leadership and our schools. And while we must continue to be the best at Judaic Studies, STEAM, Languages and other academic and co-curricular activities, our success as Jewish day schools must be defined above all else, by the values and qualities  of the people the graduate from our communities. Chag Sameach