Sandy Hook And The Childhood Shooting That Changed Me Forever

On Friday, December 14, 2012, a man entered Sandy Hook Elementary school and gunned down twenty six people, including twenty children. When I learned of the horrific news, I couldn’t help but notice that this mass murder took place on nearly the twenty-fourth anniversary of a tragedy that changed my life forever, which also involved the murder of small children, albeit on a smaller scale.

I grew up in a quiet, suburban town in Northern New Jersey, probably not so much different than Newtown, Connecticut.  But on a cold, grey Monday morning on December 13, 1988, I knew that something was wrong the moment I entered my fourth grade homeroom. My classmates were huddled around their desks – whispering, quietly crying.

“What’s going on?” I asked, as I put down my bag.

“Angela was shot,” a boy named Tommy explained.

My heart started pounding as I heard those surreal words. They didn’t make any sense. Angela (there was only one in our school) was  in the grade above me, my best friend’s next door neighbor – a girl my older sister was friendly with. She had been over our house a few months earlier for my sister’s tenth birthday party. I looked up to her; she was beautiful and popular and nice to the less popular kids like me. Children aren’t supposed to get shot, certainly not children like Angela.

“Oh, my God!” I exclaimed, “Is she OK?”

“She’s dead,” my teacher muttered, as I felt the room begin to spin.

Angela’s father had apparently been suffering from severe depression. He kept telling his wife that he was going to die – that she could survive without him, but that their kids wouldn’t be able to. And so the night before that fateful Monday morning, while his wife was at her brother’s birthday party, Angela’s father shot her and her younger brother, then turned the gun on himself.

Angela’s triple funeral was the first funeral that I had ever been to – I was only eight years old. I couldn’t help but think of her lifeless body as the tiny white coffin passed by and wonder where the stuff that made her living had gone. This tragedy ripped our town apart for quite some time – it was right before the holidays, just like it is now – but it changed me forever.

Although Angela was not a close friend, her murder affected me so deeply because it burst the bubble of stability that my parents had provided  up until that point. The safety and security that a child feels growing up in a loving, upper middle class family can be destroyed in an instant when you see that there are things that your mother and father can’t protect you from. I realized that there were no guarantees in life, that nothing in this world was going to last, and that whenever I died it was going to be forever. I was terrified when I thought of eternity.

I also realized that before I met my end, I needed to figure out what it was I was living for. I was certain my parents knew the answer – they were the ones who had brought me into the world! But when I asked them (shortly after the funeral) why we’re here, they had nothing to offer me. And neither did anyone else I asked.

So I spent eight years after this tragedy searching and struggling. I was such a happy person as long as I was distracted, but the moment that my mind would go back to the place where it remembered that nothing here lasts or comes with, that death could get me when I least expected it – lasting for all of eternity – I was overwhelmed.

Through all those years of suffering, little did I know that within my very own heritage there was talk not only about “the meaning of life” but a detailed  plan about how to fulfill it. Although my parents raised us to be proud Jews and valued secular education, there was no priority when it came to Jewish education. When I began discovering the wisdom and depth of the Torah at sixteen years old, I was relieved to finally have profound answers, but I also felt somewhat betrayed. Why had no one ever exposed me to these beautiful teachings, to this meaningful way of life? Why did I have to suffer for so many years when the smartest people around me were so clueless in terms of providing me with spiritual direction?

It is this feeling that pushes me every day to not stop until all Jews have access to what is theirs. There is so much pain in the world and a Torah life has provided me so much comfort and humanity needs comfort now more than ever. When something horrible happens – we want to DO something. With Hurricane Sandy, people donated money, cleaned up debris, opened up their homes. There is very little to do in the wake of the Sandy Hook murders and the one from my childhood – there’s not even a culprit to bring to justice.

People are talking about gun laws and the mental health care system and while we should certainly work to make the world as safe as possible, that is not *the* answer in my opinion. Spreading knowledge that there is more to life than what we see, that trusting in God can provide tremendous strength in the darkest of times, that Judaism believes that this painful exile we’re in can be repaired – these have become my responses to the tragedy I faced in my formative years. And I hope more light is being brought into the world than was taken out of it.

May God comfort the survivors of the Sandy Hook massacre and all the other suffering people in the world, and may we remove ourselves from life’s distractions and commit to a more spiritual, purposeful existence. And may the redemption come speedily in our days.

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Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.

Comments

  1. Beautiful Allison! Thank you for sharing

  2. Beautiful…you have a Eloquent way with words…

  3. Wow.

    Spreading false hope is more important than stopping violence?

    Somehow, I don’t think this is even what Judaism teaches.

    • Thanks for your comment, Reader, but who doesn’t want to affect change in this world? I said that we SHOULD look for ways to make the world safer. But no matter what we do, the current state of the world is one of suffering.

      In terms of spreading “false hope,” how do you know that you’re not spreading “false pessimism?” Yes – I do live with hope. I look at the Jewish people – what we’ve been through – irrationally hated, yet have irrationally survived – and I am filled with genuine hope. You can choose to view the world however you want to, but *I* must live with hope.

  4. julia rothman says:

    Hi,

    I read your article and found it tragic that you had to suffer something so horrble at such a young age. I didn’t suffer like that but I also looked for the meaning in my life and no one had answers for me. I was very young and found great comfort in orthodox Judaism- especially to someone like me who was always “less popular”. They made me feel that I belonged to something greater and I fit in. This is my own personal experience- I was fixed up with a man who, well, wasn’t for me but I have beautiful children, so I never say it was a mistake- however I wasted many years of my life with him because to divorce would put my children in a difficult place when it was time for marriage. I began to see cracks in the beautiful life I once saw in orthodoxy as well. One of them was that Judaism never seemed to change with the times- as it did in days gone past. It stayed stuck in one place and some things got even stricter for no reason at all. I felt that women were brushed to the side and the reasons they gave that they were not involved in ritual Jewish life just sounded like a lot of balony. I wanted to do more and it was forbidden to me. I am not religious in that way anymore. I chose a Gd of my understanding that doesn’t feel that men have all the power. One that lets women have a say in what life is meant to be. I’m happy that you found your way and your happiness in Judaism. I only ask you to beware and not fall for it lock stock and barrel. There are other opinions and other ways to approach Gd- and the ONLY true truth is Gd- the rest is human- and humans err.

    • Thanks for your comment, Julia. I’m so sorry for what you went through – it must have been very difficult to stay in such a bad marriage, though it’s quite laudable that you put your kids’ needs in front of your own.

      I’m not sure what community you were part of or what things felt stuck to you. I’ve found the rabbis in my community to be open-minded and in touch with the world (while maintaining halacha).

      I WAS more involved in synagogue ritual in my pre-religious days and it wasn’t meaningful at all to me, so I’m coming from a very different place.

      And look at the voice I have and what I’m doing with JITC. I have SO much support from the Orthodox community, so I simply haven’t felt squelched.

      It sounds like you got the short end of the stick in many ways and for that I am sorry. If you ever would want to join us for a Shabbos – perhaps things in our community are different from what you experienced – it would be our pleasure to host you.

      I believe that there is a path to God for non-Jews and that the Torah itself has many paths (elu v’elu) and unfortunately sometimes in some places a path gets corrupted.

      But like I said, if you ever want to stick a toe back in the water, we’re here for you.

  5. Thank you for this and all that you do, Allison. When I was a kid, a 6 year old boy we knew disappeared. His name was Etan Patz. The tragedy affected me deeply, as it did all of us in the neighborhood and school community. It wasn’t until I read Rabbi Benjamin Blech’s book “If God is Good, Why is the World so Terrible” that I was able to deepen my emuna and try to find some kind of peace even despite horrible tragedies in the world.

  6. Wonderful and meaningful post, Allison. We do need to stop and think about the bigger picture. We are so focused about certain issues that we tend to forget about who is ultimately in control.

  7. did your teacher really announce the news like that?!

    im so sorry you went through that. I think you brought forth your message beautifully.

    much hatzlacha with jitc!

  8. Thank you for reminding me to be grateful for the wonderful Jewish education that I received as a child, both at home from my parents and from the teachers in the Jewish day school that I attended. They imbued my life with meaning from a very young age, and gave me the confidence and wisdom to deal with whatever life challenges come my way. You are fortunate to have found the wisdom of the Torah as a teenager, but I sometimes wonder where I would be today if I hadn’t been born into a family that values the mitzos and Torah learning as mine does.

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