The art of healing

While Jerusalem hospitals provide some of the best medical care for cancer in Israel, they do little for emotional challenges presented by cancer.

maagan shopping crafts (photo credit: Courtesy photo)
maagan shopping crafts
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Last Friday's Great Crafts Fair, a fundraising event to benefit Ma'agan, the Jerusalem Support Center for People Living with Cancer, raised some NIS 11,000 for the non-profit organization whose slogan is: "No one should have to cope with cancer alone." Held in Ma'agan's new home, a quaint cottage next to the Israel Goldstein Youth Village, the fair featured arts and crafts by various Jerusalem artists as well as some 60 pieces created by Ma'agan members in its creative arts therapy workshops. The works ranged from the conventional - silk scarves, jewelry, ceramics, watercolors, mezuzot, flower pots and fake fruit - to the downright different - a series of papier-mach Shoshanas (red hot, mama figurines seated with their cellulite oozing over their chairs), a porcupine toothpick holder and capacitor necklaces made from a combination of beads and computer parts. For Ma'agan, the fundraiser represents its first big event in its new home, which it moved into in January 2006. This move has enabled Ma'agan not only to offer all its activities under one roof, but also to nearly double in size - growing from 16 daily workshops and support groups to 30. One out of every three Israelis will get cancer in his or her lifetime, according to statistics provided by Ma'agan. In Jerusalem, 2,000 new cases of cancer are diagnosed every year. And while Jerusalem hospitals provide some of the best medical care for cancer in Israel, they do little with respect to helping patients cope with the stress, anxiety and emotional challenges presented by this diagnosis. Founded in 1999 by former New Yorker Shelly Abrahami after a close friend diagnosed with cancer was unable to find adequate emotional and psychological support, Ma'agan offers a variety of free programs to cancer patients and their families in Hebrew and English. These include support groups, guided imagery, women's exercise, bereavement support and a variety of creative arts therapy workshops in music, drama, writing and arts and crafts. There is also emergency counseling available for people in crisis. This year, the organization opened a spiritual support group that helps participants examine experiences using interpretations of Biblical texts, Midrash, poetry, literature and prayers to inspire reflection and healing. It also added a "popcorn club" that runs weekly screenings of comedies under the theory that "laughter is the best medicine." And it now has a comfortable, warm home where frazzled or lonely cancer patients can relax and be with those who understand. "Today, people live with cancer for years," notes Abrahami. "But many still feel they have a death sentence hanging over them. It is still hard for them to plan for the future. We help them to deal with this and go on living with better quality of life. Our spiritual support group has aroused a lot of interest. It is very meaningful for our members to find spiritual sources of strength to cope and they have lots of spiritual questions. The workshops are also an opportunity for members to focus outside themselves, on making something beautiful." Diagnosed with breast cancer, Jean Hazut came to Ma'agan to take part in belly dancing and crafts workshops. "What is nice is that you don't feel threatened," Hazut relates. "Everyone is in the same boat. You can sit quietly and just feel the strength. It is a comfortable place to be. If I feel bad one day, I don't need to make excuses. People understand. And I get huge support. I never did any artwork before, but now I believe that everyone has an artist hiding inside. Once I started, things just started coming out of me." Ma'agan's executive director, Liat Nevo, the creator of the Shoshanas, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003 at the age of 33. She originally came to Ma'agan for emotional support and afterwards volunteered stuffing envelopes and manning phones. When the position of executive director opened up, she was offered it. Her artwork, she says, reflects her celebration of who she is and life. Most of the professional artists, as well as those shopping at the fair, had friends or relatives with cancer. "My mother died of cancer nearly 20 years ago," says Yael Raviv of Mevaseret Zion, who was selling handmade handbags. "If there had been a place like this for her then, it would have helped her tremendously. So that's why I am taking part. I want to help support Ma'agan." Ma'agan is hoping to put the money raised toward expanding its workshops and support groups to meet growing demand. In addition, the organization has received a request to assist cancer patients in the Karmiel area and will start a support group there in June 2007.