The days and weeks after 9/11 were a time of chaos, as first responders and teams of dedicated volunteers picked through rubble – looking for survivors and beginning the years-long process of rebuilding. But away from ground zero, in New York City and across the country, those days were also a time of deep sorrow, fear and confusion. A time when people needed to mourn, process and emotionally rebuild.
All over New York City, and across the country too, support groups sprung up in churches, community centers, and people’s homes – all in an effort to provide solace and comfort for mourners, survivors, volunteers, and everyone who was impacted by 9/11. There were groups within the Jewish community too, like the one that Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, a New Yorker and the Rabbinic Director of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services (JBFCS) helped create in New York City. Rabbi Weintraub played a critical role in creating opportunities and resources for healing in those first weeks, and facilitated a support group for Jewish people who lost family members in the attack that lasted for an astounding 9 1/2 years.
In this season of reflection, Rabbi Weintraub took some time out to reflect about those first days and weeks after 9/11, the support group’s incredible impact on its members, and a particularly healing trip they took to Israel. We’ve also shared some great opportunities to get involved – with JBFCS and elsewhere – going forward.
What were the days just after 9/11 like for you and the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services?
Once we could get back to our desks, nobody knew how many Jews – or how many people – had died. In the earliest moments, we heard and feared that the number was up to 30,000. We started to keep a list of names of Jewish people we’d heard about passing away, and started reaching out to family members. We developed a database early on of the 240 Jews who died. To do this we reached out to rabbis about people in their congregations. Of course not everyone is affiliated, but we did what we could. We wanted to let them know we were here, and we ended up being the de facto Jewish bereavement and trauma center in New York.
We also started developing resources a month or so after 9/11. There were questions flying in from all over – Jewish educators, rabbis, individuals, and we were getting requests for consultations and trainings. It was so close to the high holidays, and some rabbis were asking – “how do I teach the story of the binding of Isaac this year?” and “For yizkor, how do we add it into the ongoing bereavement?”
Did you do any on the ground work as well?
One synagogue in Lower Manhattan was concerned that everyone in their congregation was going to leave lower Manhattan. The damage was so extensive to people’s homes and the streets – they thought nobody would come home. For Sukkot that year, we did a program about “shelter in the storm,” and organized a sukkah decorating party for that synagogue. In the end, only about 10 people took part – but it was good for that community to be able to say, “we’re here.”
How and when did you decide to launch the support group?
It was intolerable to think of a communal trauma like this, and not try to do something for the Jewish community. We also offered Jewish spiritual counseling one on one. The group didn’t formally start until February or March of 2002. At the first meeting 12 people showed up, and a group of 8-9 regulars formed after that. Within two years, the group solidified as 6 mothers, so it became a group for parents who lost their adult children. We decided to meet formally through the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and now the group continues without official leaders, meeting in each others’ apartments.
How did the group change over the span of 9 1/2 years?
There’s no fixing the problem of losing an adult child, but various things surfaced over the years that the mother’s needed. Early on we had special meetings with the leaders of the Victim’s Compensation Fund, where they guided people about how to think about approaching it. The idea of documenting relationships was incredibly painful and challenging – how, for example, do you put a dollar figure on a husband’s ability to tutor a high school daughter in math?
As time went on, we often talked about politics, and for three years we worked on what became a very large interfaith service on 9/11 with a Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, Catholic and Christian who all lost relatives. Hundreds of people took part in that. As issues came up – like the bombing in Madrid and London – the group reached out to survivors through the internet.
One year on 9/11 the group organized a day of service with an organization called Selfhelp that was founded to help survivors of the Holocaust. The mothers in our group volunteered at a coffee shop on a Sunday morning, setting up and shmoozing with the retirees, many of who were survivors in their 80s or 90s.
Why did you decide to discontinue the formal group after 10 years?
I don’t know of any other group that met for 9 1/2 years – we didn’t just talk about the people we missed personally, we talked about the world. We could’ve continued, but the real question was whether or not the group wanted or need professional facilitators. At first they did, but now it’s very much about mutual support and navigating ongoing issues.
How did leading that group impacted you personally?
I’d like to answer that question with a story. We led a trip to Israel for the group with the purpose of drawing on all the dimensions of Israel that offer healing – nature, spiritual resources, human resources… We spent most of our time with Israeli Jews and Arabs who had lost close ones to violence and terror.
We also worked with a well known art therapist named Tamar Hazut who is very well known for her work helping people survive traumatic loss. She led a workshop called “Black Also Has Many Shades,” where she spread art materials all around the periphery of the room. She had black ribbons, black pipe cleaners, black tape – things like that. After a brief introduction, people are encouraged to make whatever they want and talk about it.
We sat in a circle and I was the fifth person to speak. I had made a tunic out of the black ribbons representing all the people who had torn their clothing in grieving their loved ones. As I talked about it, I remembered that our tradition says the resurrection of the dead will begin in Jerusalem. But there we were in Jerusalem and it wasn’t happening. I started to sob – I had never sobbed like that in the group before. I realized that, although the grieving was obviously very different for me, there was this very big sense of loss. There with that group of people in Israel, it felt okay to grieve, it felt kosher to grieve and I was able to let myself go.
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