Rabbi Jonathan Miller on the Tornadoes

Our thoughts are with all of those communities suffering from the recent tornadoes in the South. Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Birmingham, Alabama, has offered to let us share his sentiments about the ongoing tragedy. They are quite moving. It is an honor to share them with you:

First, I want to thank everybody for your prayers and those who reached out to me and my community in Alabama.  Caring means so much, and when we are hurting, just to be cared for is all that we need for now.

These days after the storm are kind of surreal.  Those of us who are alright are living in an eerie kind of silence.  There is really nothing that we, the non-first responders can do.  So we sit around and live our lives as normally as possible.  It is a strange kind of silence.  Still today, some of the people who are in need are still not being heard from.  There is no power or telephones or ways to communicate.  So it is strangely silent.

I went to the dentist early this morning.  The receptionist lives in a mobile home that was on the path of the tornadoes.  Her home survived the storm.  Five lots away, homes are destroyed.  She comes home to her home, without power, and she sees the destruction her neighbors endured on the same street.  She doesn’t know where the neighbors are either.  My dental hygienist has a niece on the Tuscaloosa Police force who was sent to Holt, a neighboring community.  She walked the streets there and found dead children in the debris.  All she could do was cover them up.  One by one, the coroner has to identify the bodies.  The fatalities are not yet counted.  All you can do is cry.

It is odd.  My wife’s yoga teacher cancelled class yesterday.  Her parent’s house in the country was destroyed, and she was asking her yoga students if anybody knows anybody with a chain saw to cut up some trees so they can get out?  Yoga ladies with chain saws, go figure.

My cleaning lady came this morning.  “I am fine, but my church members have lost so much.  The Lord was good to me.”  And then what do you say?

The Maronite church in town has a local food festival.  I try to go to all the food festivals, and they come to ours when we have them.  Since the storms, the weather has been absolutely picture perfect.  I asked a friend how she was doing?  “Fine.”  “And your family?”  “Oh, my father lives in Pleasant Grove.  He lost his house.  Only the foundation is standing.”  “What can I do for you?”  “Nothing, they won’t let us into the neighborhood yet.”  And we go get our food and ate together and nobody talked about it.  What can you say?  Here is a family that lost everything they owned, and we are eating our baklava.  There is nothing they can do and nothing we can do, yet.

Yesterday, talk radio left behind Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck to hear from local people calling in to tell their stories.  Parents were killed covering their children.  Pets are gone, and so are entire blocks of homes.  The stories were heartbreaking and numbing at the same time.  I had to turn the radio off.  How long can you listen and bear witness to this pain?  I came to Temple Emanu-El this morning (actually I slept here last night after my generator conked out—not the end of the world), and a Temple member whose family lives in Tuscaloosa told me that the people in the shelters need tote bags.  They go to the distribution centers for water and food and light clothing, but they have nothing to put them in.  So we are collecting tote bags.  Who would have thought?

We are beginning to plan a local interfaith service for to commemorate the dead, offer thanksgiving for being alive, and to build for the future.  We will do it next Wednesday, a week after the tornadoes hit.  Tomorrow morning we will do birchat hagomel.   And that is what we are doing.  And we are living in silence.  It is eerie and strange and sad.  Someday, we will all break down.  But for now, there is nothing else on our minds, and we don’t talk about it much.  What can you say?

My people in Alabama need God today.  They need God to get them through this devastation.  They need God to give them meaning when they suffer.  They need God to help them get through one lousy day after the next.  They need God to keep them sober and focused and good and generous.  They need God for all that stuff that makes life so damned difficult to get through.  I can talk to them about all the different God options that we have studied and discussed, and you know what they will say to me, “Rabbi, pray with me, pray for me, speak to God, let God know.”

For those of us who deal with people and not with eternal truths, we stop and pray.  We beseech.  We implore.  We turn to Avinu and Malkeynu.

We are blessed to have a generator at home to power the lights and refrigerator and TV.  Last night, I watched groups of people standing outside the ruins of their homes offering prayers of gratitude for being alive.  They proclaimed for the Channel Six and Channel 13 viewers that God is good and that life is good and that God is with them.  And I was very moved.  I was moved in ways that Rambam and Spinoza will never move me, not ever.

I don’t have it all figured out.  Not by a long shot.  But when the rubber hits the road, friends, lesser people like me and the people in my pews need a message of comfort and purpose and meaning.  And that is what I aim to give them.

I sent an email to my congregation this morning.  I asked them to do lots of things to help our community.  I invited them to a special service for Saturday morning.  I ended it with a religious message:

Finally, on a personal note.  As your rabbi, I cannot promise you that prayer will keep tornados away.  But I can promise you that prayer will help you endure the uncertainty with the knowledge that no one is alone, not now and not ever.  That people suffer in life is a given.  This seems to be our turn.  That our lives are filled with the prayers of others and with a caring God; this is an axiom of faith that gives us meaning and comfort.  Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us.  And we are with each other.

On the morning after, I think they needed to hear this.  And on the morning after, I think I needed to say this.

Pray for us and for the people who are suffering more than anybody should
ever have to suffer.

The Birmingham Jewish Federation has initiated a Tornado Recovery Fund to allow donors to participate in the rebuilding effort. Checks may be sent to:

The Birmingham Jewish Federation, PO 130219, Birmingham, AL, 35213. Please mark them for “Tornado Recovery.” In addition, contributions can be made by going to this link. Please indicate in the comments section that your contribution is for Tornado Recovery.


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1 Response to Rabbi Jonathan Miller on the Tornadoes

  1. Rosemary Kauhn says:

    Thanks for hosting the Holocaust Remembrance program. I so appreciate the survivors who came to tell their stories. These stories should be archived on dvd. You should contact Alabama Public Television & see if they would take on the project. I watched a documentary they played not long ago about the history of Reform Judaism in America. I treasure these first -hand accounts of the holocaust, and I don’t want the memory of their experiences to fade when these people pass on.

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