The Mendelaw family of Hillsdale went to shul Monday night to say Kaddish. Their son Aaron, then at Virginia Tech in the wake of the day’s tragic events, did the same, together with fellow members of the school’s Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi. All felt the need to mourn, in the aftermath of the shootings that devastated the campus and resulted in the deaths of 33 students, including the killer.
"We felt we needed to be there," in shul, said Aaron’s mother, Cindy Mendelaw, noting that she has received "great support and endless calls" from fellow congregants at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus.
According to Aaron’s mother, the freshman, who came home on Tuesday together with one of his classmates, "is still in shock; it hasn’t hit him yet." She added that had Aaron chosen not to come home, she would have driven immediately to Blacksburg, where the campus is located.
"We’re relieved and sad," she said. "Rabbi [Arthur] Weiner was lovely. He called us to lend support and express the community’s shared relief."
Virginia Tech freshman Aaron Mendelaw arrived back at campus on Monday too late for his class at Norris Hall.
Aaron, a freshman, was not at school during the massacre. Home for the weekend to attend a party for his sister Shaina, he had missed the last flight back to Virginia. Had he made the Sunday flight, he would have been at class in Norris Hall at the time of the shooting. Instead, he got back in time to share his fellow students’ shock and grief and returned to Hillsdale on Tuesday.
"It was a blessing; it saved his life," said Mendelaw, who noted that Aaron knew one of the victims. He also knows the student who escaped by jumping out of a window during the shooting, she said.
Mendelaw added that the escape took place during the class taught by Liviu Librescu, the Romanian-born Holocaust survivor and professor in the Engineering Science and Mechanics Department who was killed during the massacre, reportedly trying to block the gunman from entering the room. (See related story.)
"It’s so sad," said Mendelaw. "He survived the Holocaust and then this happened."
Mendelaw said the Jewish professionals on campus "are there for the students," pointing out that Hillel set up counseling programs for the Jewish students immediately after the event. She also noted that Aaron and fraternity brothers from AEPi expressed their grief on Monday night by attending a service at the Blacksburg Jewish Community Center.
Mendelaw said she heard that the shooter, ‘3-year-old student Cho Seung-Hui, was seeking a girl with whom he had "a tumultuous relationship." Media reports have described the man as a loner who alarmed professors and students with the violent content of his writing.
Three students from New Jersey were among those killed on Monday. Victims included Matthew J. La Porte of Dumont, Michael Pohle of Flemington, and Julia Pryde of Middletown.
Aaron’s mother suggested that while the school could have locked down the building following the earlier shooting that day at West Ambler Johnston, a high-rise coed dormitory, "since the shooter was a student, if he had the guns in his backpack and showed his ID, they would have let him in anyway."
She said she believes this was an isolated incident, and perhaps one that could not have been prevented. However, she added, "it’s outrageous that a person can purchase a gun in Wal-Mart just by showing a driver’s license." (The shooter reportedly bought his gun legally, at the Roanoke Firearms gunshop.)
Mendelaw added that she was "appalled to see dozens of cases of guns available to anyone" while visiting a Wal-Mart in Christiansburg, Va., with Aaron.
Still, she said, she has no second thoughts about sending Aaron back to school. "It’s a fabulous school," she said. "As long as he’s comfortable there, I’m comfortable."
"We just need to get through this," she said, adding that Aaron is still "distraught and hurting for his fellow students."
"This could happen anyplace at any time," she said. "You just have to love your children and show them your love. Be there for them."