Shawn Brokos and Rabbi Elisar Admon told Duquesne University School of Nursing students that a series of intersecting responsibilities and decisions demonstrate the value of partnership and cultural sensitivity.
Brokos and Admon’s comments, which were shared during a discussion at Rodef Shalom Congregation on Nov. 4, helped the future health care professionals learn how seemingly disparate parties can collaborate, even in the most trying environments.
Brokos — a former federal law enforcement agent overseeing crisis management for the FBI’s Pittsburgh field office — told the students that when the attack at the Tree of Life building occurred on Oct. 27, 2018, she traveled to the site, established a command post near the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues and worked with city police, state police and other federal authorities.
Even after the gunman was apprehended that morning, Brokos and the FBI continued partnering with the other law enforcement arms for “14 long days” while the crime scene was processed, she said.
Cooperating with other agents and officers wasn’t new to Brokos — she’d been at the FBI for more than two decades. Teaming up with an Orthodox rabbi, though, was something different.
Admon told the nursing students that hours after the shooting, he and Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, a fellow member of Pittsburgh’s Chevra Kadisha (one of two Jewish burial societies in the city), arrived at the scene, met with agents and delivered details regarding religious practices.
“According to the Jewish tradition, we have a special way we deal with death,” Admon said.
Ideally, bodies are to be buried within 24 hours; autopsies are discouraged; and, to the extent possible, all blood and other bodily material should be buried along with the deceased.
Admon and Wasserman related the religious tenets to Brokos and other members of the FBI and asked them to respectfully comply.
Brokos heeded the requests. She then allowed Admon and Wasserman to observe the site so that the rabbis could strategize next steps for the burial society. Brokos — who has served as director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh since January 2020 — told the students that despite her more than 20 years of work with the FBI, that day presented a series of firsts.
“That day was a large learning curve for us at law enforcement,” she said. “Usually, we have our rules of engagement and we're going to do it the way we do it, and that didn't happen here.”
The discussions held on Oct. 27, 2018, made it clear that both the rabbis and law enforcement agents had responsibilities to fulfill, and that — despite being unable to bury the bodies within 24 hours — a partnership between the groups was achievable during this “traumatic situation,” Brokos said.
“We were very mindful of Judaism, and what the impact that had on the community,” she said. “And the leaders of the Jewish community were very mindful that we have a job to do, too.”
Admon credited Brokos and other law enforcement agents with appreciating cultural sensitivities while remaining committed to their duties. He added that one of the biggest lessons of Oct. 27 was the need to practice self-care.
“It’s essential for first responders,” Admon said.
As medical professionals, there will be plenty of demanding situations, he said, and “you have to know when it’s too much. When you have an eight-hour shift or a 12-hour shift and you’re given a break, use it. Don’t push yourself until you can’t go anymore.” It’s “healthy” to pause, he continued. “We want you to be nurses for many, many, many more years and not to say after a few months, ‘I’m done. I can’t take it anymore.’”
Along with encouraging the students to care for themselves, Admon — who is also a chaplain for the Pittsburgh Police and Pennsylvania State Troopers, as well as the Army — informed the audience about various Jewish practices, including sabbath observance, dietary restrictions and circumcision (Admon is also a mohel).
Ralph Klotzbaugh, an assistant professor of nursing at Duquesne, praised Brokos and Admon’s presentation, saying it conveyed the “importance of cultural understandings and cultural humility.”
Noah Amrhein, a Duquesne University nursing student, told the Chronicle how impressed he was that the FBI and Jewish community worked together so closely in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.
Fellow student Emily Covlish called the presentation both “eye-opening” and productive as she begins her career: Nurses care for people of all backgrounds, she said, and it’s difficult to know every detail about someone’s culture, but being “more open-minded” is important.
Mai-Ly Nguyen Steers, an assistant professor of nursing at Duquesne, said Brokos and Admon are invited several times annually to speak with nursing students, and that one of the most impactful ideas conveyed is that Jews continued to be attacked.
During her Nov. 4 talk, Brokos referenced data from the FBI and said that despite representing fewer than 2% of the U.S. population, Jews are the victims of nearly 60% of religious bias crimes.
“Most students aren’t aware how attacked the Jewish community is,” Steers said. “If you’re not Jewish, it’s not necessarily on your radar.”
Mackenzie Quinn, a nursing student hailing from Maryland, said that before the talk she didn’t know about the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
Several students among the 40 who attended Brokos and Admon’s address also said that it was their first time they heard that 11 Jews were murdered at Shabbat services in Squirrel Hill four years ago.
Klotzbaugh suggested several reasons for the knowledge gap.
Either because it didn’t impact them directly at the time, or because of the “rapidity” of the news cycle and the prevalence of mass shootings, people are often unaware of so many traumatic events, he said.
By welcoming Brokos and Admon, students can not only expand their knowledge base but move beyond stereotypes and put faces to cultures, Klotzbaugh said: “When you work with a community and you develop these types of presentations, it gives you a sense of the community.”
Quinn, who spoke with the Chronicle after touring Rodef Shalom, said she grew up in a Lutheran church and didn’t know much about Judaism, or the Oct. 27 attack, before Brokos and Admon’s talk.
Seeing a sanctuary, hearing about a community and the details of what transpired in the aftermath of Oct. 27, 2018, is helpful, Quinn said.
“It’s beneficial for nurses to understand and be open to learning people's cultures and religions,” she said. “This is a good experience.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.