Raising awareness for the widows of Israel

It’s time to be aware of widows and galvanize the unique support that they need.

 Jackie Kennedy accompanies Leah Rabin during a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1976. (photo credit: SAAR YAACOV/GPO)
Jackie Kennedy accompanies Leah Rabin during a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1976.
(photo credit: SAAR YAACOV/GPO)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

On the night of November 4, 1995, Israelis and most of the world gasped when they heard that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated as he walked down the steps of the Tel Aviv City Hall to the open door of his car. Shimon Peres became acting prime minister, and in an instant, Leah Rabin went from the wife of the prime minister to being a widow.

In recent years, the March International Women’s Day has grown, with forums on advancements for women in science, business and politics. However, widows remain unseen, unsupported, and unmeasured in our societies, although there are more than 258 million widows worldwide. The UN resolution in 2011 established June 23 as International Widows Day to draw attention to the lost voices and experiences of these widows.

People born in the United States before 1955 have less trouble remembering one tragic day over 60 years ago than in the past two corona-clouded years. On November 22, 1963, US president John F. Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a presidential motorcade in Dallas. Sitting next to him in the open limousine was his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. In a split second, her husband was dead and her life as she knew it abruptly ended.

On a 1961 trip to France, President Kennedy said at a luncheon: “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.” Jackie was the popular young face fawned over in the fashion media, even idolized as the “Queen of Camelot.” Now she was a widow.

Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office to become the 36th president, with the newly widowed former first lady standing by wearing a suit stained with her husband’s blood. Then Jackie proceeded to organize plans for her husband’s funeral, to be attended by 90 world leaders. The sight of her “quiet dignity (and the sight of her two young children standing beside her during the ceremony) brought an outpouring of admiration from Americans and from all over the world,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

 Joelle Eckstein and her late husband, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. (credit: ECKSTEIN FUND) Joelle Eckstein and her late husband, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. (credit: ECKSTEIN FUND)

The 1990 World Book Encyclopedia includes an article on the Japanese Beetle, but not the former first lady: she is subsumed under her husband’s entry.

In other biographies, as in Britannica online, the bio on Jackie Kennedy is missing an important piece of the story. One day she was the first lady, wife of the president of the United States, living in the White House that she had recently renovated and redecorated to acclaim and media attention. The next week she had to pack her belongings and vacate the White House so the Johnson family could move in. In addition, she had only recently experienced the death of her newborn son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy. The most visible widow in the world was now mourning the loss of two of the closest to her – and overnight became a homeless widow with two young children. For two months she was the recipient of the undersecretary of state’s hospitality in a house on N Street, noted Barbara Leaming in Vanity Fair in 2014.

According to the UN website, drawing on experience from past pandemics of HIV/AIDS and Ebola, widows are often denied inheritance rights, have their property seized after the death of a partner, and can face extreme stigma and discrimination. Worldwide, women are much less likely than men to have access to old-age pensions, so the death of a spouse can lead to destitution for older women, and younger widows are often not eligible to collect pensions.

In the context of lockdowns and economic closures, widows may not have access to bank accounts. Lone-mother families and single older women are already particularly vulnerable to poverty, and the recent pandemic added to the suffering. As widows move through their own experiences of grief, loss, or trauma after the death of a spouse, they may also face economic insecurity, discrimination, stigmatization, and harmful traditional practices on the basis of their marital status.

Certainly, the death of a spouse or partner, male or female, suddenly or after a protracted illness can result in a tragic situation. Yehuda Glick was one Israeli public figure who lost his wife, Yaffa. She was a widow with two children from her previous marriage when he married her. Exactly a year after his wife’s death, Glick announced his engagement to Hadas Disin, also a widow. They met through her non-profit organization, Amitzim, which supports widows and widowers.

Watching the situation in Ukraine unfold, it is hard to estimate how many women will become widows.

With the Ukrainian refugee crisis, the name Yechiel Eckstein returned to the news. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, died three years ago of a heart attack at age 67. Upon his death, his daughter was left to run an organization that is reported to raise over $130 million a year, mostly from evangelical Christians. IFCJ joined with the Jewish Agency and others in donating tons of goods to the Ukrainian refugees and toward resettlement in Israel of those with Jewish connections.

Three years ago, Joelle Eckstein came home and found the door locked from the inside. Her husband, Yechiel, did not answer her repeated ringing of the doorbell. They had a wedding to attend in the evening, and it was time to get ready. Finally, she looked in the window and saw her husband sprawled on the kitchen floor unconscious.

A neighbor heard her screams, came over and helped her to get into their home through a window. Yechiel was physically a large man, and Joelle had to carefully cross over his body to leave the kitchen to open the front door and call for help. For a long time after, she said she could not walk in the kitchen in that spot. It took a long time to get over the trauma of that fateful day.

In Israel, we know all too well the sudden and tragic loss of life. The tragic loss of life in Meron last Lag B’Omer and the recent terror attacks in Beersheba, Hadera, Bnei Brak and Elad saw too many more families destroyed. Families of soldiers and victims of terrorist attacks are often treated for post-traumatic demoralization syndrome (PTDS) for years. But Joelle says, “not widows;” they are supposed to “get over it in a few months and move on.”

“Are you dating yet?” widows are asked. “He was not a blood relation; it’s not a big deal” and other similar comments feel like a punch in the gut to grieving widows.

It’s OK not to be OK. One woman related that she thought she understood how it felt to be a widow until her husband drowned. Only then did she realize and understand the pain – everything changes, from morning coffee to going to sleep.

Joelle had been running important projects for the IFCJ Hotline as a volunteer. One month after Yechiel’s death the Hotline was closed, the project ended, and 25 people lost their jobs. Joelle relates that after the loss of her husband, the closing of the Hotline took away the meaning in her life, the cause that enabled her to get out of bed each day. Her purpose, especially the French and Spanish hotline calls where she assisted people, was pulled out from under her.

Looking for meaning, however, she was not able “to sit at the beach and eat bonbons.” Looking back, she is not bitter and negative – it was terrible medicine needed at the time, and she says she is grateful. Being kicked out forced her to look into herself, and she found an inner strength. She has grown, though the first year and a half were difficult and are still blurry.

Along with the director of the hotline, who was also fired, Joelle pulled together their joint expertise and started a new organization. For six months the new NGO started small, with projects helping people one at a time, with no office or staff, and no salary. Saying she was not feeling so creative in those days, Joelle called the new hotline, The Eckstein Project.

Philanthropic consultant Arnie Draiman has released a list of his favorite “Mitzvah heroes” for 25 years and added the Eckstein Project. Draiman’s reasoning was that “every person or family who calls their hotline is thoroughly vetted, so you can be sure that your precious tzedakah money is being used to its utmost. Most of the calls to the hotline are responded to with information about where to turn for help, and only if no other organization can help, then the Eckstein fund will do so. Joelle and her staff are caring professionals, using a wealth of information at their fingertips.” Anyone in need in Israel can call *9779.

Dovid Lessin, PsyD, with a doctorate in clinical psychology and a certified psychotherapist in private practice in Jerusalem and Modi’in, wrote an essay titled: Purim: Facing Darkness Through Acceptance “because I learned that finding meaning in the face of darkness is the key to personal resilience. We, humans, are meaning-makers. In order to thrive in this world, we need to attach ourselves to the broader significance of what’s going on. We may need to dig deep in order to find it, but without meaning, we cannot endure the trials and tribulations of being human.”

Joelle recounts her first outing after the shiva mourning period and having her credit card rejected at the supermarket, because their joint account was closed after her husband’s death, and she was not able to buy food.

Joelle could not find a support group for herself. Groups were around for women in their 70s and 80s, young army widows, and older women with children. But for 50–60-year olds, with no kids at home, there was no support group.

Turning the situation around, she started a new support group with two women she found on Facebook. She invited women to her home who wanted to be active, to do things. Soon there were six women, who met every other week at her home. Now, in the last year and a half, it has grown to monthly activities, with one group for French women, and another for Spanish speakers. Three months ago, a podcast was started in English, which lead to Spanish broadcasts on Sunday night to South America and all Spanish-speaking countries.

On her road back to living a positive, fulfilled life again, Joelle began journaling. She has culled her experiences into a new book called The Rabbi’s Widow to help others and it is now available on Amazon. Lessons learned the hard way, such as what to not say when paying a condolence visit, are included. Do not say “he is in a better place” or “you will meet someone else,” those comments are not comforting or helpful. Help. Do not ask – just do. Bring a soup or meal or a cup of tea in winter. That is Joelle’s sage advice.

With the recent terror attacks in Israel, more women have suddenly become widows, having to cope with their worlds turned upside down. Having to cope, as 16 children of the three men killed in the recent Elad attack are now without fathers. 

It’s time to be aware of widows and galvanize the unique support that they need. From Jackie Kennedy, one day the First Lady and homeless the next, it is time to see widows, the invisible women that previously were not thought about on International Women’s Day.   ■