Imagine: 9/11

world trade center 88 (photo credit: )
world trade center 88
(photo credit: )
A flat, smooth pebble lies on my desk. It was given to me at the beginning of the week. The word "nehama" has been delicately painted, deft black strokes forming the Hebrew letters. It reminds me of the Chinese calligrapher who, about 20 years ago, transformed my name into a pictograph with swift movements of his brush. A memory unexpectedly, spontaneously evoked. And now this pebble conjures for me the more poignant experiences of this past week. Nehama means comfort. "Actually it means more than that in Hebrew," explained Tamar Hazut, who is head of the Art Therapy Department at Haifa University, and specializes in working with bereaved victims of terror. Later in the evening I look up my dictionary - "nehama" - "consolation." But I know it touches something deeper. As this week unfolded I came closer to understanding words like 'comfort' and 'healing'. Tamar gave everyone in the circle a pebble - and I was grateful that there was one for me, even though I didn't really belong there. Sitting in a room in the Mishkenot Sha'anim Center in Yemin Moshe I had been invited to join a group of Americans from New York who were visiting Israel, most of them for the first time. For them this would be a week of memories and remembering. This group of 11 adults, members of six different families, is forever bonded by their shared remembrance of one terrible day in 2001. September 11. On that day a member of their family - a son, a daughter, a husband, a father - went to work and never returned. Today, the group members know each other well. They regularly attend the Jewish Healing Center in New York, where, under the sensitive and patient guidance of Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, they have tried to learn how to live in their perpetual pain. And when given a donation for a vacation by the US Red Cross and the American welfare charity, the Jewish Board Family and Children's Service, they knew exactly where they wanted to come... Israel. Each member of the group also contributed $800 of their own money towards the trip. I met them on their first day in Israel. Tamar Hazut had organized an art therapy session for the morning, and in the afternoon the group met with Israeli women who had close relatives murdered by terrorists. It was no casual encounter. The two groups had been asked to choose music that in some way connected them to the loved one they had lost. "They will use the metaphor of music to express their feelings," Tamar explained. "If you come you will have to join in - sit in our circle and sing with us." The American group was at first reluctant for me to be with them. They had learned to mistrust the way the press had manipulated and misquoted them. I tried to approach quietly, respectfully. The photographs I took were from behind, as they requested. In this article they remain heard and felt but anonymous. I went in the failing light of Monday afternoon to Mishkenot. Candles of remembrance flickered in a corner of the room. We sang together and we cried together. Why did I go? Not to retell here their personal stories of sadness but to understand why they came to Israel, what they found here, whether it helped in some way. We sang many songs including "Amazing Grace," Bob Dylan's "Forever Young," John Lennon's "Imagine." We listened to stories of pain and loss - eloquently and courageously shared. The Israeli women brought poems they had written, songs they had composed, and a beautiful, unforgettable, poignant dance by one religious woman, whose beseeching arms glided heavenwards asking the unanswerable. There were books that had been written to preserve the memory of those who were so painfully missed. One of those books, published last week in English, now sits on my bookshelf. My Brother Was... written by Dr Elaine Hoter, is designed to help children who have experienced the death of a sibling. It is simply and movingly illustrated by clay models and depicts the feelings of a small child when his brother is suddenly taken from this world. The book was written by Elaine to help her own small son after his brother Gavriel, aged 17, was murdered by terrorists in 2002 while on kitchen duty at his yeshiva in Otniel. The book comes with a CD of "the song that stops you being scared," explained Elaine. Psalm 23 is harmoniously sung by the Hoter family; a cello plays - representing Gavriel's "missing" voice. ( You can order a copy of the book and CD at I heard later how the American group was so impressed by the way this, the most negative of experiences, was being channeled by Israelis into something positive and productive: writing books, poems, helping each other through support groups. The rest of the week's program included visits to the Jewish-Arab village Neveh Shalom, Wahat-al-Salam; Yad Vashem; the Old City; a visit to Ein Gedi; a meeting with Sherri Mandell of the Koby Mandell Foundation; a trip to the Museum on the Seam; and a Shabbat visit to the Kol Haneshama congregation. I caught up with the group on Friday morning, at the end of their visit to the Museum on the Seam. They were "overwhelmed" by the week. They were especially affected by the way they could openly express their feelings in Israel and contrasted it with their experiences in America: "I don't tell people in New York that I go to the Healing Center... they don't want to know." "People think I should have moved on." "Other people don't even ask how I am... they are worried I might tell them how I really feel." "In America people are embarrassed by my grief." One member of the group is now thinking of coming on aliya to rebuild her life here. Her grown-up daughters are already beginning to establish new lives in Israel. Rabbi Weintraub was especially moved by how the group's day in the Old City was a "truly spiritual experience" for many of them, even those who had not previously felt religiously connected to their Jewish heritage. He was also impressed how, throughout the week, as the group met with a whole range of different people, they had been able to "connect right away with everyone they met." Connection, he explained to me, was the essence of healing. And then I thought about the meaning of "healing." Not curing and restoring to perfect health but making something easier to bear. It is through our connection with others that we give and find "nehama." The unbearable is slowly transformed so that the living can reclaim life.