Everyone Cries in the Same Language

With the 'wrong language' and the 'wrong religion,' a Rabbi helped grieving families at the site of the Egypt Air crash

On Sunday morning, October 31st, EgyptAir Flight 990 crashed into theAtlantic Ocean off the island of Nantucket. Almost immediately, crisisteams began to converge on Newport, Rhode Island where all recovery effortsand family support were based.

Mid-Monday morning, I got the call, inviting me to join the Red Crossspiritual care team. As a clinically trained chaplain working in ahospital, I have experience dealing with families and loss. But thisinvitation made me anxious; I had never before been involved with such anintense disaster. And I assumed that as a rabbi, my services would not berequired or appreciated for dealing with an Egyptian Airlines crash.I was quickly assured that the request was for chaplains from allfaith traditions.

Monday afternoon I drove to the Doubletree Hotel in Newport wherepassengers' relatives were going to be lodged. Shortly after I arrived, thefirst busload of families pulled in. As they disembarked, a sense of helplessness descended upon me. The grievingrelatives milled around, lost, wounded and confused. I also felt lost and confused, acutely aware that I was the wrong religion, the wrong culture, speaking the wrong language. Sometimes it was hard to tell who were family members and who were people there to help. I approached one woman who looked tired and upset; she turned out tobe a worker.

At the first family briefing on Tuesday morning, a representative from eachfaith tradition spoke to let them know that chaplainswere available and that religious services would be held. Wearing a kippa, I was easilyidentifiable as a Jew and perhaps as a rabbi as well.Afterwards, people approached me--looking for comfort, looking for me to saythe traditional Jewish mourning prayers.


Regularly scheduled worshipservices for the Muslims and Christians were established. Although therehad been a number of Jews on the flight, relatively few Jewish families cameto the hotel. While on scene, I provided counsel to Jewish workers and non-Jewish American families. I held a sobbingMuslim woman in my arms after she had viewed the debris. Not sharing alanguage, we didn't speak, but there was no need for words.I learned that cultural and religious differences at a timelike this are notbarriers; everyone cries in the same language. I watched a Muslim womanapproach a man wearing a kippa, asking if she could speak to him specificallybecause he is a rabbi. She wanted to know how Judaism understands death andthe afterlife. For her, the need to bring meaning to her loss required herto search the different faith traditions.The Muslim faith has deep convictions about the careand burial of the body. Many families had traveled from Egypt with the hopeof at least being able to bring a body home. On Saturday afternoon, thefamilies were transported from the hotel to Quonset Airforce Base inNarragansett to view the recovered debris from the crash--as a way ofallowing them to connect on a concrete level with the tragedy. A chaplainwas assigned to each bus, accompanying the families to view the debris andremaining on the bus afterward to help any family member for whom theviewing was overwhelming. In addition, a team of imams and myself, stayed at the site--available to comfort peopleas they disembarked the buses and slowly entered the makeshifttent to view the debris.

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Andrea Gouze
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