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October 30, 2018 8:16 pm

‘We See Such Strength and Solidarity:’ Israeli and Jewish Relief Groups Rush to Pittsburgh After Synagogue Massacre

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Members of United Hatzalah of Israel on their way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo: Miriam Ballin.

Israeli and Jewish relief organizations tending to Pittsburgh’s Jewish community following the antisemitic massacre last Saturday at the Tree of Life Synagogue have been dealing with a range of challenges, from handling the bodies of the victims to providing therapy for survivors and loved ones.

Rabbi Elisar Admon – the Israeli-born commander of the Pittsburgh branch of emergency response organization ZAKA –  spoke to The Algemeiner after entering Tree of Life Synagogue on Tuesday, where his team was allowed to clear a portion of the crime scene for the first time.

Admon originally visited the scene of the massacre on Saturday with officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation as well as Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, head of the Chevra Kadisha society, which tends to the bodies of deceased Jews.

“That was tough,” said Admon, who had also volunteered with ZAKA while living in Israel. “I came home afterwards and just sat in my bed and cried. That doesn’t happen often.”

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He reflected on the nature of his work in the community, both with newborns and the deceased — “two types of blood for the same hands,” he said.

“I was touching the blood of the bris this morning, and now I’m walking on a crime scene cleaning the blood of people who were killed just because they were Jewish,” Admon said. “It’s a very emotional situation, emotional day, but we have to live with it.”

Miriam Ballen – Director of the Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit of United Hatzalah of Israel – said that her team of four mental health professionals had flown in on Sunday.

“We all have experience working with terror attacks and other mass casualty incidents across Israel on a pretty regular basis, unfortunately,” Ballen told The Algemeiner. “We wanted to bring our skill set  and show solidarity with the Jewish community.”

Ballen said that she and her team had been “constantly surprised and inspired by the amazing unity we find here in Pittsburgh.”

Said Ballen: “They have a natural, healthy support system that I am very hopeful will assist in them bouncing back.”

Asked about the difference between Israeli and American responses to atrocities against civilians, Ballen noted that Israelis have become more acclimatized over the years.

“Israelis are always on guard, always expecting something to happen, not that it’s a pleasant way to live. but that’s the reality,” she said. “Here nobody really thinks something like this will happen, so the shock factor, and being caught off guard, is contributing to a much more traumatized reaction. It’s still very raw three days later, so it shows you how affected they are. In Israel, a day after a terrorist attack, it’s old news, because now we’re worrying about the next one.”

Ballen’s view was shared by Talia Levanon, the head of a five member team from the Israel Trauma Coalition that landed in Pittsburgh on Monday.

“In Israel, people understand the possibility of terror happening more than people here do,” Levanon said.

Levanon – who also helped trauma victims in Florida following the shooting at a public school in Broward county in February – praised the Pittsburgh Jewish community for its response to the tragedy.

“What we see is such strength and solidarity. People are doing everything they can to help others, and it’s very impressive,” she said.

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