A rabbi’s life is never predictable. Events can turn what seems to be a normal day into something that live in your memory for a long time.
Yesterday evening I heard a fascinating lecture at the Manchester Museum, spent time afterwards with my rabbinic colleagues, and after some shopping went home.
Having just got into bed, the phone rang at 12.30am.
It was Peter Gomm, the main chaplain at the Central Manchester University Hospitals.
He said: “Amir, the police have declared a major incident. There has been a large explosion with many casualties. Get down to the hospital if you can, we need you. Bring your ID badge and mobile.”
Only then did I see the reports coming up on my phone about what had happened at Manchester Arena, I told my half-awake wife, Tova: “I will see you when I see you”.
I took my tehillim and prayer book and drove quickly to the Manchester Royal Infirmary. On the way Iistened to radio reports and realised the enormity of what we were dealing with.
In my 18 years of being a hospital chaplain we have trained for major incidents, but never actually dealt with one until now. I did not know what to expect - just go in and report to the multi-faith chaplaincy.
I went in to see Peter, our line manager, Siddiq the Imam and Laurence the Christian Chaplain. They were sitting round the computer watching the news reports while Peter was ringing around.
We were then told to go into adults out-patients where the families of the victims were being brought in. As we arrived, another of our colleagues, Sarah, was sitting with the victims and updating us. We were spoken to by the police and doctors as to what we should do, and we stood by the families offering them support and help.
There wasn’t much you could say to the people who just found out that their son or daughter had been killed. Just give them a hand, tissues, a drink of tea or water and hear them speak.
The atmosphere in the room was tense but also full of shock and numbness. There weren’t any angry shouts, just silent sobs and stunned expressions.
We had families who drove over from Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Grimsby, Liverpool, from all over the country to find their kids. Some of the parents were relieved when they just found out their kids are safe and alive. We saw the tears of relief from those being reunited with their children. We heard accounts of people at the scene stemming blood from the neck of victims who had been hit by shrapnel from the bomb.
After an hour I met up with two other colleagues, Dawn and Jane, and we went to the children’s out-patients ward. On the way another chaplain, David, arrived. We were eight in total dealing with the incident.
As we went into the children’s accident and emergency department, we saw shell-shocked children just waiting outside. They weren’t injured - just waiting for their friends being treated.
We went into the treatment area - the place was organised chaos - everyone knew what they were doing while we stood on the side. The professionalism was phenomenal.
You could see the pain on the faces of the medical staff, but they were putting it to one side in order to treat efficiently the victims.
We saw kids being wheeled in, interviewed by the police, being treated by the staff. They were shivering, absolutely shocked. But they had a quiet determination about them, not wanting to be beaten by the terrorist’s actions. They were immensely brave.
Throughout the night we moved from from the children’s department to the adults'. On one of our journeys I was walking with Siddiq, the imam. We were approaching the children’s department and a couple walked past us. The eyes of the father looking towards the imam said a thousand words. The man didn't say anything but there was a look of anger on his face, of recrimination, as if to say to Siddiq, 'it’s your fault'.
As I sat down with my fellow chaplains, I told them about my different experiences, how I walked with Tova down Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem during the height of the suicide bombings and for a split second there was a shout of terrorist, bomb, and suddenly everyone ran, and then a few moments later everything was fine and from fear of death, life went on carrying normally.
I told my colleagues how in Israel there is such immense security around schools, synagogues and Jewish institutions, and unfortunately the reality in the UK is that unless extremism isn’t sorted, it will be like this here. They were shocked.
As I reflect on the morning after I pray that the image that we project in the hospital of coexistence is played outside in the wider public. However after the shock wears off and the anger rises we have to be careful, we have to do what we can to show that religion is a model of peace and understanding, we have to show that extremism has no place in our society and has to be driven out.
We have to educate the message of peace and not hatred. And let the love of God shine in our lives to help those around us.
The professionalism of the NHS and our police is unquestionably immense, and every person dealing with the victims are heroes. I pray that we shouldn’t have to deal with such tragedies and that those kids and other kids can play peacefully and not need to be brave over such events.
May God heal those wounded and give solace to the bereaved families, Amen.