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.
During that long, sad afternoon, those two Muslim clerics and I experiencedan unexpected gift of sacred connection. As we waitedfor each busload, we shared grief and found a conviction that we are all created by God--in this life together in spite of political orreligious differences. Grief and loss are powerful equalizers.
An interfaith memorial service was held on Sunday at Bretton State Park, overlooking the ocean. Relatives were given roses as they walked to thewater's edge. The other clergy and workers stood alongside me, forming an honor guard of support. I heard the wail of one mother as she walked, "My baby,oh my baby." I watched an older man, his face etched in pain, walk withquiet dignity down the path to the water, his eyes glazed over, not aware of hissurroundings. As I watched, I knew that they were struggling with theage-old question: Why believe in a God that can't prevent such a tragedy?
I knew from my training that, in the immediacy of their loss, they were nottruly looking for a theological response. Instead they were voicing theirpain, their loneliness and utter grief through the only words thatcould even begin to reflect the depth of their anguish.
But in the face of so much human pain I searched for some sort oftheological reflection that would ascribe meaning to the experience, not somuch for the families--they would find their own answers in the days andmonths to come-- but for myself. For me, the meaning grows out of the humanconnection, the holiness of relationship. It is through those interactions that we experience God. God providedthe foundation and energy for me to be there for those who needed it. TheDivine Presence was felt during those times of healing connection--in thecomfort brought by saying a prayer together, by touching, by hugging.