This past summer, I served as a volunteer social worker for OneFamily, an organization that aids Israeli victims of terror attacks and their families.
While many people know about the physical trauma suffered by victims of terror, the sad truth is that victims and their families also struggle with financial pressure, depression, bereavement, physical disabilities, and a laundry list of other medical, psychological, and social problems.
The group tackles all of these issues, and works with the families to turn their lives around.
Working with the organization seemed like the perfect way to spend my summer. As a psychology major, the incredible hands-on experience would surely help me move into private practice. And it was a great way to give back and make a difference in the lives of these families.
Though I was primed and ready to begin my work, nothing could have prepared me for the ways in which my life and perspective would be changed forever.
In truth, the surprises began early – right from the moment I walked through the front door of OneFamily’s central office in Jerusalem. I was greeted with warm smiles and an outpouring of love by everyone in the office. But I was given special attention by Mindee Levinger, one of the many powerhouses behind the organization’s programming for terror victims and their families. Mindee walked me through the organization’s current projects, and provided me with background information on the families I would be working with.
As I spoke with Mindee, it was clear that she was in the habit of putting everyone else’s needs before her own, that she would do virtually anything to put a smile on someone’s face, especially the members of the bereaved families she assisted day after day. It was inspiring to see selflessness personified, a marked change from the selfishness that often pervades our society.
Over the course of the summer, I had the privilege of working with three incredible families, each with their own heartbreaking stories. Witnessing their daily struggles was an intense (almost overwhelming) experience, but each smile, laugh, and hug I received was a priceless reward.
My first day “on the job” was nerve-wracking. It was my very first home visit, and I didn’t know what to expect. I made my way through a very poor neighborhood and approached the client’s home. As I entered the cramped and chaotic two-bedroom apartment, I was greeted by adorable twin boys. It was immediately clear that I was needed there in a way I had never been needed before.
As time went on, their mother, the chronically ill woman of the house and the sole provider, told me that my visits were a breath of fresh air. She thanked me for bringing energy and life back into their home, for helping them get back on track. It hit me then (and multiple times throughout the internship experience) that these families – men, women, and children grappling with the traumas and anxieties wrought by terror attacks – were not living, but rather just surviving. And it was my job to help them remember how to live a fulfilling life.
Practically, that meant different things for different people. Many parents needed a shoulder to cry on and someone who would listen and respond to their question and concerns. The kids wanted someone to play with, someone who would help them remember and forget all at once. And every member of every household wanted someone to help them bring order and love back into their lives.
It was an emotionally and physically exhausting process, but one that I saw bearing fruits day after day.
At times, I worried that the families I was helping would regress, that the instability in their homes would return once I left. But then I would see one of the kids apologize without being told, share something with a sibling, or express feelings of genuine love (hugs, kisses, or an utterance of “I love you”), and I knew that the mark I was making was a lasting one.
Looking back on the whole amazing experience, I think the most important lesson I learned was that “kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh” is more than just a saying. The reality is that all Jews are connected, “all Jews are responsible for (and depend on) one another.” This is true regardless of vastly different backgrounds and upbringings, divergent points of view or disparate forms of worship.
No matter how we might label each other, we are one nation and one people – if one Jew suffers, we all share his pain.
We must never forget that, as Jews, it is our responsibility to love and care for one another. The only way we will survive as a people is if we always act like “one family.”
Rachel Amsellem is a student at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. She lives in Great Neck, NY.