By Rabbi Tamara Miller
Director of Spiritual Care, George Washington University Hospital
There are no good protocols for the unexpected and the unfamiliar.
Early Wednesday afternoon on June 10, my on-call chaplain stood inside my office doorway. The trauma pager beeped. The phone rang. Something big was going on
in the emergency room. Something terrible had happened at the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
Immediately, the word “holocaust” sent a series of visceral reactions through my body. I am a first-generation American Jew whose parents and grandparents left Europe before the war that destroyed six million from my historical and biological family tree. My aunt Paula saved my Uncle Hyman. Uncle Joe escaped but lost his entire family. Two family members survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Hannah and Saul had a series of numbers tattooed on their arms, but they were not the only ones who suffered by the hands of the Nazis. During my childhood years, there would be other couples with the numbered tattoos, and they would sit around my parents’ kitchen table counting and recounting their losses.
The word “holocaust” reminds me that I am a Jew in hiding from another Anti-Semitic act, another planned suicide bombing, another round of hate rhetoric. So when they said there had been a shooting at the Holocaust Museum, my genetic history caused an internal earthquake. I felt violated and incensed that on this holy ground of remembrance and sanctity, someone dared to defame and disregard the very truth of that living museum and memorial.
But I had no time to analyze or condemn the attack. In a moment, I was in the emergency room holding hands in prayer with the wife of Stephen Johns, the wounded security guard. In real time, I am a spiritual care giver, a hospital chaplain, a female rabbi.
At 1 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, racism and bigotry rang out on the National Mall. A mere thirty minutes later, unconditional love, contagious compassion, brotherhood and sisterhood permeated the hospital corridors. Three chaplains kept vigil with the Johns family and friends. A veil of harmony and community was covered with tears and tenderness.
Inside the operating room, doctors of every faith and cultural background gathered their medical skills to save their wounded patient whose big heart had stopped beating. Outside the operating room, there was waiting and wailing, praying and punctuated sobbing.
When the news of Stephen’s death was pronounced, for a brief moment, we all went into our own magical thinking and reimagined a different outcome. In our shock and grief, we made a wishful switch to resurrect the hero. Then, reality reared its fearful face.
My High Holiday prayers echoed in my mind: On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall leave this world, and how many shall be born? Who shall live and who shall die? Who in the fullness of years and who before?
It had already been written. It had already been sealed.
Stephen Tyrone Johns died in the Divine arms of the medical personnel. His young life truncated by a shotgun powered by evil. The mourning has just begun.
Rabbi Tamara Miller is director of spiritual care at George Washington University Hospital in Washington DC.