Seeking Comfort

By Paula Lee Hellman


After the horrific events of September 11, 2001, when a few used their free will to chose evil and wreaked havoc on our nation, killing more than six thousand people and tearing the hearts of millions more, people all over the world turned to their religious institutions for comfort and community.

In my home congregation, Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, Rabbi Deborah Zecher quickly compiled a liturgy that included words of comfort from Jewish tradition and ended with our singing “God Bless America.” More than a hundred people, many of them children, came to Hevreh to find solace in ancient words and consolation in community. A man who has not been to our synagogue before told our rabbi that had he not spent an extra day in his summer home, he would have died with his staff on the 100th floor of the World Trade Center.

And since September 11, people called to come for High Holy Day services, saying, “We can’t go back to the City.” Our response is to say, “Come to us.” We know how important comfort in community can be.

My daughter, who is choosing to raise her child as a Christian, does not yet have a home church. She cried in my arms on that appalling day and asked for a Jewish prayer book, wanting to say Kaddish, the ancient Jewish prayer extolling God that is often recited when honoring the dead. We read a psalm and did say Kaddish because the words were comforting, coming from a ritual place that has touched her heart and not yet been replaced by her new religion.

Words of healing, words of comfort, can come from many traditions. At times of pain (and also during moments of joy), we often seek familiar rituals–words and actions that take us out of our sorrow and enhance our happiness. My friend, married to a Jew, sought out a Russian Orthodox church so that she could experience the comfort of words spoken in an accent that reminded her of her grandfather, and so she could feel the healing power of familiar liturgy.

In the midst of the tragedy, my stepson’s Christian grandfather died. Adam is the son of my Jewish second husband. His mother is not Jewish. Although he attended Jewish religious school, had a Bar Mitzvah (assumed the privileges and responsibilities of an adult Jew), and participated in whatever Jewish rituals our family together celebrated, Adam is not now connected to any formal religious tradition. Yet, he phoned early in the morning, also seeking the words of the Kaddish–which includes a plea that “the One who causes peace to reign in the high heavens, [will] let peace descend on us, on all Israel and all the world.”

One challenge of living in an interfaith family, or being part of a community that includes Jews who were raised in either other Jewish traditions or other faith traditions, is to figure out how to give our own children meaningful tools to guide their lives. For this reason, I found it reassuring that my daughter and step-son each turned to the Jewish Kaddish prayer at this difficult time.

I was raised in a Jewish home by a mother who said she was agnostic, that she didn’t know if God existed and was not concerned with the issue. Her path was to live her life doing good–whether or not the universe was set in motion by a sentient God. Still, when I was very young, before turning out my bedroom light she always recited Victor Hugo’s child-prayer: “Good night, good night, far flies the light, but still God’s love, shall flame above, making all bright. Good night, good night.” Perhaps it was those words, spoken by one who didn’t “believe,” that kept the flame of God alive in my heart. Perhaps the repetition, the ritual, nurtured me and helped me to establish rituals in my own home.

Since the events of September 11th, I’ve been numb. I’ve listened to stories from the disaster building: A man who saw a plane hit and glass float by the window of his office on the 51st floor, left the building only after his wife called after seeing it on TV. He and his co-workers are all safe. I’ve heard stories from children who saw the plane hit the second tower, and I have learned that the daughter of an acquaintance will give birth to an already orphaned child.

I am aghast. The High Holy Day liturgy, the community of my congregation, and the words of rabbis and friends have helped me, especially the Rosh Hashanah service from Gates of Repentance. But I admit that it’s been a hard time. The conversation this year has been much about the terror: How could this happen? What should we do? Who are our heroes? Where is God? Usually, I feel great joy at the completion of another cycle. Today, only sadness.

But what is soothing is to be with community. And an overwhelming number of people stayed for the entire day of Yom Kippur. Often people come for the morning service and return for Yiskor–the service to commemorate the dead. This year, our sanctuary was full all afternoon. I was clearly not the only one who needed community.

I was particularly moved by the prayer for our nation, its leaders and citizens. My faith is still strong, and also full of pain. I want to rail against God, and feel that it is within my right and tradition to do so. But I don’t have the energy.

Instead, I write my thoughts, plan for a Sukkot program for parents and children–moving on, pretending the world is as it was for me only a few weeks ago.

We do live in a world where a few who do evil can make lives bitter for the many good. And that is a mystery. Since we cannot stop all evil, and mustn’t refrain from doing good, we need the comfort of ritual, tradition, and community to help, protect, and guide us. Our interfaith challenge is to find those words, rituals, and traditions and give our children communities that they can go to in their future for solace.


About Paula Lee Hellman

Paula Lee Hellman is education director at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire. She and her Jewish husband have a blended family, which includes children and stepchildren, grandchildren and a step-grandchild from their previous interfaith marriages.