Rabbi Gila Katz is a longtime Hermosa Beach volunteer and the police department’s chaplain. She helped organize the city’s 911 memorial at Pier
Rabbi Gila Katz is a longtime Hermosa Beach volunteer and the police department's chaplain. She helped organize the city's 911 memorial at Pier Avenue and Valley Drive. The bench is inlaid with almost 3000 buttons to represent the victims of the 911 attack. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)

In the days just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Gila Katz was standing among the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center when a police officer standing guard collapsed in her arms.

Overcome with emotion, tears streamed down his face.

"The community was in shock, people were dealing with major traumas," said Katz, a 23-year Hermosa Beach resident who spent 20 days in New York volunteering as a chaplain for the Red Cross, screening volunteers and consoling families of victims and first responders. "You want to make sure that when you leave, it's better than when you found it."

Katz helped start the Hermosa Beach Police Department's chaplain program, and she is one of three volunteer chaplains who assist police with death notifications, trauma incidents and domestic disputes by speaking with and consoling victims and their families.

Katz also helped start the Police Department's crisis response team, which consists of four volunteers.

"We have a large aggregate of people here if we have a large emergency," she said.

And as a chaplain for the Red Cross, Katz, 69, has traveled to major trauma centers in the wake of national disasters: New York City after 9/11, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and Hatiesburg, Miss., in 2011 to help tornado and flood victims.

With more than two years of intensive training, Katz is a board-certified chaplain and a member of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains and Association of Professional Chaplains.

"You just do what you have to do," Katz said. "There are so many people who are doing much more."

She embraces the grief stricken, regardless of faith.

"You try to bring victims a sense of comfort and wholeness," said Katz, a rabbi. "You let them know that the world cares. And as much pain as you're in, it matters. You're not alone."

Katz developed the idea and led the drive to build the Hermosa Beach 9/11 Memorial, a donated wooden bench covered in 3,000 buttons, each one collected by Hermosa children and representing a victim of the terrorist attacks.

Rabbi Gila Katz is a longtime Hermosa Beach volunteer and the police department’s chaplain. She helped organize the city’s 911 memorial at Pier
Rabbi Gila Katz is a longtime Hermosa Beach volunteer and the police department's chaplain. She helped organize the city's 911 memorial at Pier Avenue and Valley Drive. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)
The memorial on Pier Avenue was dedicated in September 2010.

"I had this vision," Katz said. "I want to honor the people we lost. You can't imagine the way the community felt about this. They all came together."

Mayor Jeff Duclos, a volunteer for the Police Department who has known Katz for about five years, spoke at the memorial dedication.

"She felt this was very important for the community to have a commitment to acknowledge and honor the victims," Duclos said. "She was committed to the idea. She developed the vision of what it would be and how it might work.

"It started with the buttons and it went from there," Duclos added. "That's what it took, a persistence of vision.

"

Katz, a regular presence at City Council meetings, is a fixture in Hermosa Beach. She visits police officers in the hospital and spends time with their families. She delivers food to first responders working on holidays.

On a recent afternoon, she chatted with a visitor in front of the 9/11 memorial, taking brief breaks to field a stream of calls on her cellphone and wave to those driving by in emergency vehicles.

"We have fun together," she said.

Katz also serves on the board of Marymount College's long-range planning advisory committee and the Hermosa Beach's Emergency Preparedness Commission and PCH/Aviation Committee.

On Fridays, she visits and talks with patients at Torrance Memorial Medical Center. This holiday season she is leading an effort to donate Hanukkah baskets filled with warm blankets to patients in hospitals, nursing homes, extended care and hospice facilities.

"They go all over," she said. "Wherever there are people by themselves."

Katz was raised in Israel near the Lebanese border and came to the United States when she was 11. Growing up in a region of conflict, she became committed to compassion and helping others, she said.

"I feel so fortunate to be in this country," she said. "I've been blessed in so many ways. This is my way of giving back."