This post was originally written for the Times of Israel by Renee Ghert-Zand.
Santa Barbara Hillel executive director Rabbi Evan Goodman’s and his staff have been on call consoling and counseling students around the clock since last Friday evening, following a murderous rampage that took place in part just a short block away from the Jewish student organization’s building in Isla Vista.
As far as Goodman has been able to ascertain, no Jewish students were victims of 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, who killed six young people and injured another 13 before apparently lethally turning a gun on himself after a shootout with police on May 23.
However, the situation could have been much different had it not been the beginning of the long Memorial Day weekend. Because of the holiday, the usual Shabbat services and dinner were not scheduled for Friday evening at the Milton Roisman Jewish Student Center on Embarcadero Del Mar in Isla Vista, the densely populated neighborhood adjacent to the University of California, Santa Barbara campus.
Normally around 9:15 or 9:30 is when there would be 100 or 150 students exiting our building after Shabbat dinner,” Goodman said, relating to reports that Rodger began shooting victims outside the nearby Alpha Phi sorority at 9:27 p.m.
"As soon as we got word about the shootings via social media, we started communicating with students and parents to make sure everyone was accounted for,” the rabbi said. There are several thousand Jewish students at UCSB, which has the highest percentage of Jewish students in the University of California system, said Goodman.
Goodman, who has been at Santa Barbara Hillel for five years, soon learned that a number of Hillel members were walking or sitting in restaurants in the vicinity of the sorority house, where Katie Cooper, 22, and Veronika Weiss, 19 were killed. One Jewish student was shot at by Rodger, but not hit.
Christopher Michael-Martinez, 20, was killed when Rodger, who was not a UCSB student, opened fire inside a deli market. Earlier that evening, Rodger stabbed to death his roommates George Chen, 19, and Cheng Yuan Hong, 20, in the Isla Vista apartment he shared with them. He also stabbed to death the roommates’ friend Weihan Wang, 20, who happened to be visiting at the time.
Rodger is the son of Hollywood writer and director Peter Rodger and the grandson of renowned British war photographer George Rodger, who was the first to capture images of the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. He had outlined his murderous plans (and in particular his desire to target young women) in a 141-page manifesto and in YouTube videos.
Saturday, the university set up two official counseling centers for students, with the Hillel building serving as one site. In addition, Goodman personally met with students to provide comfort and counseling throughout the holiday weekend.
Hundreds of people took part in a spontaneous candlelight vigil on Saturday night. “It gave our students an opportunity to walk in a meditative way, as well as to listen to speakers,” the rabbi said.
The university designated Tuesday a day of mourning and canceled all classes. Goodman helped plan a university-wide memorial event that took place in the university’s soccer stadium that afternoon. He, along with three other clergy members of different faiths, spoke during the event.
“Many of our students knew the victims. Some of them are members of the same sorority that the murdered girls belonged to. For these students, the deaths have a direct and deep effect, and they are retreating in to their own support system,” the rabbi noted.
“Students who were there during the shooting are processing by recounting what happened to them. And others are standing by in solidarity. Students are hugging each other and supporting each other,” he added.
Goodman insisted that despite the explosion of discourse in both traditional and social media in the aftermath of the deadly rampage about gun control, mental illness, and misogyny, the students he spoke with preferred to regard the tragedy in personal and community terms, rather than in political or ideological ones.
He has taken a similar approach to dealing with what happened. “This was a psychopath who happened to live in the community. I don’t disagree with some of the perspectives out there on gun control, mental health, and other issues, but there are all sorts of people with issues that would never do this.”
Goodman said that students have so far not raised theological questions in their discussions with him since Friday evening.
"People are still in a state of shock. They are not reflecting on the why,” he said.
They are, however, finding comfort in being with one another in this difficult time. This coming Friday, Santa Barbara Hillel will host a Shabbat service in memory of the victims of Rodger’s killing spree, and Goodman is expecting a large turnout.