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

BY: Andrea Gouze

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

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

Monday afternoon I drove to the Doubletree Hotel in Newport where passengers' relatives were going to be lodged. Shortly after I arrived, the first busload of families pulled in. As they disembarked, a sense of helplessness descended upon me. The grieving relatives 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 to be a worker.

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

Regularly scheduled worship services for the Muslims and Christians were established. Although there had been a number of Jews on the flight, relatively few Jewish families came to the hotel. While on scene, I provided counsel to Jewish workers and non-Jewish American families. I held a sobbing Muslim woman in my arms after she had viewed the debris. Not sharing a language, we didn't speak, but there was no need for words. I learned that cultural and religious differences at a time like this are not barriers; everyone cries in the same language. I watched a Muslim woman approach a man wearing a kippa, asking if she could speak to him specifically because he is a rabbi. She wanted to know how Judaism understands death and the afterlife. For her, the need to bring meaning to her loss required her to search the different faith traditions. The Muslim faith has deep convictions about the care and burial of the body. Many families had traveled from Egypt with the hope of at least being able to bring a body home. On Saturday afternoon, the families were transported from the hotel to Quonset Airforce Base in Narragansett to view the recovered debris from the crash--as a way of allowing them to connect on a concrete level with the tragedy. A chaplain was assigned to each bus, accompanying the families to view the debris and remaining on the bus afterward to help any family member for whom the viewing was overwhelming. In addition, a team of imams and myself, stayed at the site--available to comfort people as they disembarked the buses and slowly entered the makeshift tent to view the debris.

During that long, sad afternoon, those two Muslim clerics and I experienced an unexpected gift of sacred connection. As we waited for each busload, we shared grief and found a conviction that we are all created by God--in this life together in spite of political or religious differences. Grief and loss are powerful equalizers.

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