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Naomi Kalish
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At the Tree of Life trial, I learned that a courthouse could be a place of healing

As chaplains with the unique task of offering on-site spiritual support, we saw how the process helped piece together a fragmented story
Rabbi Naomi Kalish, Dana Gold, and Rabbi Kara Tav in Pittsburgh, PA on June 6, 2023, meeting regarding chaplaincy at the courthouse during the trial for the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue building.
Rabbi Naomi Kalish, Dana Gold, and Rabbi Kara Tav in Pittsburgh, PA on June 6, 2023, meeting regarding chaplaincy at the courthouse during the trial for the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue building.

As a chaplain at the Pittsburgh federal courthouse for the trial for the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue building where three congregations held Shabbat services on October 27, 2018, I discovered that the courthouse can be a place of healing. 

The role of the team of seven trained and certified chaplains from across the Jewish denominations was to provide spiritual care and comfort during the trial. (See Chaplains lend an ear and offer help during synagogue shooting trial | The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle (timesofisrael.com)) This group of trained professionals, with numerous years of experience dealing with trauma, came together and formed an almost unprecedented team to provide spiritual care at the courthouse and in the community for the duration of the trial. While so many in the courtroom were focused on the victims and the accused, our job was to focus on the experience of the trial for survivors, families of victims, witnesses, first responders and others dealing with the aftermath of this tragedy.  

Throughout the trial and since the announcement of the sentencing, the question of the death penalty loomed with strong opinions both in favor and in opposition. As so often happens in our judicial system, another ethical question embedded in this trial was about the impact of the trial itself on those most directly affected and how others care for and support them. 

The Pittsburgh Jewish community leaned on and learned from another wounded community stricken by an act of hateful violence: the Mother Emanuel Church (Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church) in Charleston, SC, which had drawn from their faith and spirituality as an important aspect of healing and recovery after the June 17, 2015 anti-Black attack that killed nine people. Specifically, Pittsburgh Jewish leaders learned that the US attorney had established a team of chaplains under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Eric Skidmore, a chaplain for the State Police of South Carolina, to provide spiritual care at the courthouse in Charleston and in the community for the duration of the trial. 

The unprecedented placing of chaplains at the courthouse in Charleston was a creative and forward-thinking way to deploy spiritual resources and support. Chaplains have a long history of providing religious services and spiritual care specifically when people are too far away from their own congregations and clergy, but having chaplains serve at a courthouse was something new.

The Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in November 2018. (AP/Gene J. Puskar).

In March 2022, I was invited by Dana Gold, the chief operating officer of the Jewish Family Counseling Service (JFCS) of Pittsburgh, to help coordinate a team of courthouse chaplains in Pittsburgh like they had done in Charleston. Gold explained that the Mother Emanuel and Pittsburgh Jewish communities were similar in that they both experienced mass shootings with hate motivations (that combined religion, race and ethnicity, and politics), the attacks took place at a house of worship during religious activity, the perpetrator survived, a decision was made to prosecute, the death penalty was a possible sentence, and survivors, physically injured victims, and family members of murdered victims were thrust into the public spotlight in ways they never could have imagined. 

Gold oversees the provision of social services at the JFCS and was collaborating with Maggie Feinstein, the director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, a nonprofit organization providing mental health services to the people most affected by the attack. Gold reached out to me in my capacity as the Director of the Center for Pastoral Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary, wanting to ensure that the chaplains would reflect a high level of professional standards.  

We were tasked with bringing in chaplains from outside the local community, just as the Red Cross does in the immediate aftermath of disasters. Our services were to complement the deeply meaningful work being done by local congregational clergy and chaplains, as well as other caregivers, including victim advocates and mental health professionals at the courthouse.

Drawing on wisdom and insight from religion and spirituality, chaplains provide an embodied caring presence through journeying with and accompanying people during difficult times. While available for prayer, ritual, and religious needs, our emphasis is on compassionate listening and is built upon the idea that each person has a distinctive experience, sense of meaning, and story to tell. We seek to “meet people where they are,” especially in the margins — whether geographically, institutionally, emotionally, or in their beliefs or opinions. The field of spiritual care understands that aspects of a person’s spirituality — hope, meaning, purpose, and connection — are fluid and may change from day to day and moment to moment. We are available to talk with people and help them explore their spiritual strengths and pain, including existential questions of why suffering happens, how they understand their sense of purpose, and where God is during a catastrophe.

A trial regarding heinous violent crimes is inherently disturbing and distressing. Through listening to people at the courthouse, I discovered that the process of the trial could also be healing. The trial gave some people the overall story of what had happened. Before, individuals only had fragments, but the trial put pieces together. 

Moreover, we found that not only could the trial bring healing, but the courthouse itself could also be a place of healing. What I learned and witnessed this summer was the way in which an institution, a building, a place, and a process do not need to be either/or. The courthouse in Pittsburgh was a beit mishpat, a house of law and also what I am calling a beit refuah, a house that could provide some healing.

Though chaplains provide an important approach to healing, chaplains working with first responders are few and far between and often volunteer positions. Chaplains in courthouses are virtually unheard of. It was a privilege to provide spiritual care to a community so impacted by an act of hateful violence and the pursuit of justice that followed.

We are grateful to the Charleston community for this suggestion that brought support and solace to the Pittsburgh community. Sadly, there are likely to be times in the future when judicial proceedings will reawaken memories of traumatic events in our communities. Hopefully, chaplains will be there to provide support and solace, bringing some of the wisdom we have learned from our experience in Pittsburgh.

About the Author
Rabbi Naomi Kalish, PhD, is the Harold and Carole Wolfe Director of the Center for Pastoral Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a board certified Chaplain and Educator of Clinical Pastoral Education, and an interfaith activist.
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