This past Yom Kippur, tragedy struck the University of Arizona campus when beloved professor Thomas Meixner was senselessly murdered by a former graduate student.
The shooting occurred very near the UArizona Hillel building, while 25 students, six staff, and a guest rabbi were participating in Hillel’s afternoon Yom Kippur programming. Alerted by police activity outside of the building – and with conflicting messages emerging from contacts across campus – Hillel Executive Director Jessica Emerson McCormick made the split-second decision to lock down the Hillel building more than 20 minutes before the first alert was issued via the University’s emergency system.
Hillel staff sprang into action, with the assistance of Hillel’s hired security guard, locking down the building and ensuring that the students were secure and as comfortable as possible given the circumstances. When the University gave the order to clear campus, Hillel staff communicated the message as broadly as possible, and secured safe transportation home for students who were currently on site, taking the time to verify they had safely reached their destinations. Unfortunately, Hillel could not host mincha, ne’eilah, or break-fast.
It was determined that the incident on campus was not related in any way to Hillel or Yom Kippur.
Emerson McCormick promptly updated the community on the situation and highlighted the poise and professionalism of her Hillel team, writing in her email: “I want you to know that I am very proud of our extraordinary staff who acted with integrity, calm, and care all day. As our law enforcement partners have told me, you never know how many lives may be saved by quick and decisive action, and our staff truly met the moment…We were in close touch with the amazing Tucson Jewish community security liaisons, who were able to get us good information and supportive advice, and we are indebted to them both for their response today, and for the trainings they have personally given to our staff.”
When asked for comment, Paul Patterson, one of the Jewish Community security directors who oversees training and security upgrades for Jewish organizations in Southern Arizona reiterated the importance of preparing for potential crisis situations. “We are trying hard to prepare people and give them the tools to respond to situations like this. [When dangerous scenarios arise], you don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to your level of preparation.” Patterson went on to encourage any organization who has not done so already to contact one of the community security directors to schedule crisis training.
Emerson McCormick concurs: “The recent trainings and updates to our security manual provided by Paul and his colleague Chelsea Gutierrez were invaluable and lifesaving. Because of Paul and Chelsea, Hillel staff knew exactly what to do, felt confident to make big decisions quickly, and felt prepared if, God forbid, the shooter showed up at our front door. This is an incredibly precious Jewish communal resource of JPSA (Jewish Philanthropies of Southern Arizona), and I’m so proud of Tucson’s Jewish community for providing it.”