Barricaded in her office in the Virginia Tech multicultural center with some 50 students also seeking shelter from a gunman on the loose Monday, Talya Mazor didn't know what she could do to help the distraught students. Then she realized that she had some snacks stashed away. "I got them food. Maybe that's my Jewish instinct," said Mazor, 23, one of two professional Hillel staff at the Blacksburg, Virginia university.
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The campus has some 1,200 Jewish students, none of whom were known to have been among the 32 people murdered in Cho Seung Hui's shooting spree. But Mazor said that "everyone knows someone" who was hurt in the massacre. One of the three Israeli professors on campus, Liviu Librescu, was also among those killed.
Hillel organized a memorial service Monday at a local synagogue in which the mourner's kadish was recited for the dead, and will hold one again Tuesday evening. The university convocation held Tuesday afternoon and attended by US President George W. Bush also contained a Jewish component, as one of the school's three Israeli students read a passage from Ecclesiastes in Hebrew.
Mazor said the synagogue service was an important opportunity for students who hadn't seen each other since the chaos of the shooting to reconnect face to face.
At first, Mazor and the other students in lockdown had little information about what had happened other than that someone had been killed in West Ambler Johnston dorm early in the morning before Mazor had arrived to campus. Over the four or so hours they were there, rumors trickled in through sporadic cell phone calls, text messages and emails from students on the outside - as well as news from the TV she has in her office.
Sometime after noon, that TV displayed a press conference announcing that at least 20 students were dead.
"There was an audible gasp in the room. Nobody believed it because it went from one [victim] to 20. Nobody understood it, and why we weren't told anything.
"They kept repeating it on the TV, because even the news anchor didn't believe it," Mazor recalled. "We were in a state of shock." Soon after that they were told that the campus had been secured and they could leave. But many students, according to Mazor, remained wary since they had been told they were safe that morning when leaving West Ambler Johnston dorm that was the scene of the first shooting.
Mazor said the students had even had to show their IDs and sign their names in front of uniformed security guards in order to leave.
"They were furious that they were allowed to go to campus," she said.
In the afternoon, though, as it became apparent that the rampage was over, many students chose to leave campus rather than spend another night in the dorms.
Mazor, who lives in an apartment off the university premises, is letting some students stay with her.