A Jewish Louisville native is in Pittsburgh this week, assisting Israeli first responders as they train local providers to care for a community coping with the fallout from a mass shooting.
Cari Margulis Immerman, regional development director of the Friends of United Hatzalah of Israel (UHI), is with four psychologists and social workers from UHI’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit who are working with Jewish agencies, school and community leaders, counselors, children and adults to help vicitms and providers alike to deal with last week’s shootings at Tree of Life * Or L’Smicha synagogue, which left 11 dead and six wounded.
“Victim,” in this case, can mean anyone from the friends and family of those who were actually shot, to police who entered the synagogue, community leaders reacting to the crisis, even a neighbor or bystander who heard the gunshots or the sirens.
“We’re trying better equip the responders in terms of how do you deal with this,” said Immerman, a daughter of Louisville resident Marty and Judy Margulis. “You can learn everything out of books, but most people have never dealt with a mass casualty situation.”
As a regional development director of Frends of UHI, Immerman, who lives in Cleveland, promotes her organization in 17 states.
United Hatzalah is a volunteer rapid response unit in Israel. Using specially equipped motorcycles, its network of 5,000-plus medics can respond within minutes to any crisis, providing assistance until ambulance crews arrive, saving lives.
But UHI also has a psychotrauma team that provides emotional support and stabilization for civilians. Members of that unit are in Pittsburgh this week.
One of them is Miriam Ballin, founder and national director of the Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit. Ballin told Community in a phone interview that her team is working mostly with responders themselves, not the people who are experiencing the trauma.
“I’m not treating patients necessarily,” Ballin said. “I’m training people like mental health workers, like public figures, like staff members in schools to know what to do, because I’m leaving at the end of the week. That’s the best thing I can do.”
But it’s impossible not to come in contact with people who are experiencing trauma. Ballin said she’s actually walked the streets of Squirrel Hill ,the neighborhood where Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha is located, asking passers by how they are doing.
“You really see people feeling the trama,” she said. “We met people in passing, saying how are you holding up, and they burst out crying, particularly the adults who are busy taking care of the children.”
When she landed in Pittsburgh last Sunday, she met a couple coming home from Israel who were “terrified” to open their cell phones, lest they learn the names of friends who were no longer alive.
Her team has held literally dozens of workshops this week in Pittsburgh, passing on what they have learned from responding to traumatic events in Israel. They have also gone to funerals as represenatatives of the Jewish state.
Ballin is careful not to label what people are experiencing as post-traumatic stress. A more accurate condition would be acute stress reaction. Seventy-two hours after the incident, she explained, any reaction to an abnormal situation is considered completely normal.
She advised people working with children not to lie to them, but to give them age appropriate information, noting that kids are resilient and will recover.
She also advised community leaders — a Federation president, a school principal — who are knee-deep in responding to the shootings, to find time to take care of themselves.
Going forward, she added, much of the hard work of therapy and counseling, will be about restoring a sense of normal and safety.
“A huge part of our work is exactly that, normalization,” Ballen said. “The focus should be on the general safety and the emphasized safety. This is generally a safe neighborhood and generally a safe synagogue, and what happened is really an exception to the rule. It’s especially important that children be reminded of that.”
But even professional caregivers like herself can struggle with the reality of what happened.
“We stood outside of Tree of Life last night, she said, “and I tell you, it just hit me in the kishkes.”