The Feb. 14, 2018 shooting tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL in which 17 victims died still affects Rabbi Bradd Boxman five years later.
Boxman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Tikvah, a Reform synagogue in Parkland that is located about a mile from the high school.
He said, “It was the darkest period of my entire life to have to comfort families who have just witnessed the most horrific thing you could ever imagine, which is to send your kids to school and they don’t come home as they’re violently killed.”
“It took me a couple of years before I could let myself feel what was going on,” Boxman continued. “I had to be the center of strength for so long, then I had some moments where I did some serious counseling to deal with my own grief. I did that about a year and a half ago. It affects me deeply. For the first couple of years, I denied the pain, and then I had to face the pain, but I’m doing fine now. Still when this comes up, it’s very painful.”
Many students who were part of Kol Tikvah found refuge there on the afternoon of the shooting. While there was a tremendous outpour of volunteers who offered their counseling and support services to the synagogue in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Boxman said the trauma of the shooting had become less of an issue as time went on. That was until 2022 with the trial and sentencing of life in prison for the shooter.
“That did awaken some nerves and emotions, and brought back some memories that were unpleasant, especially for those closest to the tragedy in terms of families and extended families,” Boxman said. “I reached out to some of the families that I had done funerals for during those times this past year.”
Boxman said most of the families were upset the culprit wasn’t given capital punishment.
“They thought that justice was not done,” he said. “Some people felt it was unfair that their kids were gone and that he gets to live.”
Boxman also serves as co-chair for the interfaith group, Clergy Coalition of Coral Springs, Parkland and NW Broward, which is scheduled to host a service of healing and hope in Parkland on Feb. 14 to mark the fifth anniversary of the tragedy. Visit clergycoalition.net for more information.
Over at Chai Center Chabad in Coral Springs, FL, which is also located a mile away from Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Rabbi Hershy Bronstein said the synagogue has been much more determined and focused in a positive way since the tragedy.
“We recognize that the children are our future, and we have to make the world a better place,” Bronstein said. “The fact that such evil and destruction exist reminds us how critical our work is. We have to be a source of light and positivity to everyone around us, and impact as many people as we can so they can live their lives in a positive and meaningful way.”
Bronstein explained the impact the tragedy had on the Chai Center.
“It was a devastating day for our community being that it was so close to home,” he said. “One of our teachers in our school had a daughter in the high school who was in one of the classrooms and was just anxiously waiting for a phone call to know if her daughter was okay. There were kids who ran here from the school knowing this is a safe shelter and a place they can come to.”
Bronstein explained that the Chai Center’s security cameras helped tracked down the shooter who walked to a McDonald’s restaurant across the street from the synagogue after committing the crime.
Bronstein said the Chai Center has a member family that lost a child in the tragedy, Alex Schachter, and every year it does a memorial service on the anniversary of his death.
“It’s very impactful for not only the parents to have the opportunity to memorialize their son, but also for the community to show love and support for the family,” Bronstein said.
The Chai Center completed an outdoor patio in 2020 that is dedicated in memory of the 17 victims and is used for activities for Jewish teens, adults and families. It also helped to inaugurate a healing facility for people affected by the tragedy called Eagles’ Haven Wellness Center in Coral Springs.