Being in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, may have been one Jewish man’s most frightening moment.
Then it got worse.
A week after the man was in the shul during a mass shooting that left 11 people dead and seven injured, he was involved in a traffic accident. The man had his 14-year-old daughter in the car when the other driver came running toward him screaming anti-Semitic epithets laced with expletives.
There was no physical harm done, but it was Jews like this, fearful he wouldn’t be able to protect his child from haters, who needed Rabbi Yonason Meadows.
Meadows, of Milwaukee, was among many volunteer clergy who went to Pittsburgh in the wake of the deadliest attack on this country’s Jewish community to offer his rabbinic, chaplaincy and social work skills to Jews with spiritual and emotional needs.
“I mainly listened to the man and gave him space to express his feelings of sadness, helplessness and rage in an atmosphere that was supportive,” said Meadows, a 49-year-old ordained Orthodox rabbi who is the senior staff chaplain at UnityPoint Health Meriter Hospital in Madison.
Meadows came into the picture because the Pittsburgh Jewish Federation needed a volunteer who was both an Orthodox rabbi and a qualified chaplain to focus on its Orthodox community.
Meadows was contacted on Nov. 19 and remained in Pittsburgh from Dec. 6 to Dec. 11.
“I met people where they were – a combination of in synagogues or in their homes,” said Meadows, who counseled Jews of all denominations. “The Federation reached out to both the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities alerting them I was coming and would be available as a resource. People contacted the Federation in advance to request some of my time, or would come up to me after I was introduced to a congregation. I often would follow up with additional support. People would tell me aspects of their life stories, and how they reacted to the shooting.”
“One member of an Orthodox synagogue recognized me in the street and struck up a conversation that led him to telling me how he was struggling to understand his response to the shooting.”
Meadows, who has been a chaplain for eight years, said what people needed most “was someone to both listen to what they had experienced and were feeling both then and now.”
He met a man who had been inside the building during the shooting and told of his frustration with a therapist he consulted afterward. “She mainly offered advice,” the man said of the therapist. “I needed someone to listen and be compassionate.”
Another man lost several of his friends in the shooting, which began just as the man entered the building. He heard the shots and was able to get out. He was struggling over why his friends died and he was still alive. “I wanted the man to express his intense feelings of guilt over surviving, and begin to find his own understanding of what his new life was and what his purpose might be in living on,” Meadows recalled.
Meadows, who stayed in Pittsburgh with a host family, said the best indicator that he had helped people was the feedback he received. “The same man who told me about his therapist gave what I consider the most profound compliment of my professional career,” Meadows said. “This man, who had watched friends killed in front of him, told me before having to leave, ‘I am sorry we didn’t have more time together; you are a very compassionate man.’ For him to consider that I had been of help to him was extraordinarily humbling.”
The experience was “life-changing” for Meadows. “It was tremendously emotional and psychologically difficult, but gave me a profound sense of privilege to have been in some way a part of the Pittsburgh Jewish community in that moment,” he said.
“It was an honor.”
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At a glance
Who: Yonason Meadows, an ordained Orthodox rabbi and a certified chaplain at a Madison hospital
What: Volunteered for five days counseling members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community following the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting
Residence: Milwaukee (He was born in St. Louis and grew up in Shorewood.)
Family: Wife Michele; six children, ranging in age from 12 to 21
Congregation Affiliation: Beth Jehudah
Education: Graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1992 with honors in history, and from Yeshiva Kol Ya’akov in 2006
FYI: Meadows was raised in the Episcopal Church and converted to Judaism under the auspices of the Conservative movement in 1992 and under the Orthodox Chicago Rabbinical Council in 1996. He is fluent in four languages.