Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Nisan 5766 - April 4, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Home and Family

Women's Retreat Celebrates Life and Healing
by Yonina Hall

In a lovely kibbutz setting over two beautiful winter days, forty-five women of all ages gathered together to learn, to relax, and to share. Some were presently undergoing medical treatment, some were recovered, and some were just diagnosed. What they had in common was cancer.

Had they told their friends or neighbors back home why they were attending this "Recovery Retreat," they would have been met with uncomfortable stares. This illness has the power to stigmatize and stereotype, isolating its sufferers and depriving them of the very support they need to cope with a difficult nisoyon. At the retreat, however, they experienced warmth, acceptance and validation.

"It was a very holistic approach, to make these women feel they've got everything going for them," says Chaya Heller, founder and director of Beit Natan, the only health resource and cancer support center for religious women in Israel, which sponsored the retreat in partnership with Tishkofet. "It showed them that they are good, normal, valuable people who are undergoing a difficult period in their lives. It picked them up on all levels."

On the educational side, there were lectures by a doctor, an oncology nurse, a nutritionist, a psychologist, a rabbi and two survivors. Speakers candidly discussed the specifics of how cancer impacts one's life and family, how to interact with medical personnel, and what to expect during treatment and recovery.

One survivor spoke about the effect of the illness on her home and children. Her lecture sparked many questions, like: What do you do when you can't make Shabbos? Are you going to tell your children? Are you going to tell your neighbors?

"The women who shared their personal stories were most inspiring," says Yitty, who was diagnosed only recently. "It was emotional, too, to see everyone who had their own stories and personal challenges. When you go to something you know you'll be emotional about, you prepare yourself, you bring your tissues. I didn't think I'd be as affected as I was. It was really quite moving."

Emotional reactions are part and parcel of living with this illness, explains Mrs. Heller. "People are very vulnerable when they're under treatment and going through all the trials of family stresses and dealing with doctors and insurance benefits. Throughout the retreat, we had a social worker, a counselor for people with life-threatening illness, members of our helpline staff, members of our home hospice program, and volunteers doing personal counseling on a one-to-one basis."

Since everyone who came to the retreat was at a different stage, the question and answer sessions helped them learn from each other's experiences. During the psychologist's presentation, for example, a woman who has been recovered for a year reported that her six-year-old son just told her, "Right, Mommy, you were sick because of me?" The psychologist assured the surprised audience that this is normal identification for a six-year-old child.

The retreat also featured a series of professional workshops designed to increase self-awareness and interpersonal sharing. Counselors explored the topics of exercise and relaxation, laughter, spirituality and coaching in small, interactive groups.

The laughter workshop, for example, found twenty women gathered in a pretty outdoor succah with professional counselor Yehudit Kutler. "She got everyone laughing, but not with jokes," reports Mrs. Heller. "First she talked about the power of laughter, how it relieves stress in the mouth and jaw, burns up calories, and releases endorphins that relieve stress. Then she had us do an exercise: We were to greet someone, and then burst into laughter. Everyone walked around, shook hands with each other, and burst out laughing. It was so much fun, and released a lot of stress."

Recreational activities were optional, but women flocked to the classes in art, jewelry-making, reflexology and massage — and a jeep ride through the Judean Desert. Many had never been in a jeep before, and thoroughly enjoyed the exciting twists and turns and the stunning desert scenery. Evening programs included stories and songs by Ariella Savir and folk dancing led by Michal Habbori. Those who couldn't dance, sat and clapped to the lively Purim and wedding music.

"I felt safe there," relates Miriam, a nine-year survivor who is now back in treatment. "I felt there was an atmosphere of common understanding and experience, and even if we didn't explicitly talk about it, we were all on the same wavelength. I was with a group of women who, in spite of everything they'd gone through, were all working so nicely to celebrate life."

The entire kibbutz was kashered for the event by Rav Dovid Zaritsky, and chefs made every effort to present appealing and delicious fare. Breakfast, for example, featured pancakes and omelets made to order, fresh whole-wheat pitas, and lots of salads.

Another psychological boost was the "Look Good, Feel Better" workshop, sponsored by the Israel Cancer Association. Three young makeup artists from El Makiage, a Tel Aviv cosmetics firm, donated their afternoon to do free makeovers for anyone who wanted. "The transformation of some of these women was totally amazing," Yitty recalls. "For one woman, who didn't usually wear makeup, it changed her entire facade. She looked stunning, and felt so good about herself too. That makeup workshop was so special."

The retreat concluded on a poignant note with a brochohs party. The entire gathering, by now good friends, sat together and made brochohs on cake, fruit, vegetables and drink, replying omein to each others' blessings. For different foods, they were asked to have in mind different people to receive the merit for parnossoh, shidduchim, children, etc. When it came to long life and speedy recovery, everyone blessed each other.

"This illness has the power to foster much personal, emotional and spiritual growth," concludes Mrs. Heller. "At the end of the day, everyone, staff included, shared a lot of love and joy at this retreat."

Beit Natan plans to hold its next "Recovery Retreat" in northern Israel this summer. For more information or to dedicate a sponsorship, call 02-643-3447.


Ten years ago, a dear friend of Chaya Heller contracted a difficult form of women's cancer. As a kollel wife and mother, a new immigrant, and the family breadwinner, her illness turned her and her family's life upside down. Mrs. Heller and other close friends became involved in her care both at home and at hospital, and were with her when she passed away.

"During this period, I began to see the special needs of chareidi women who become sick," Mrs. Heller says. "While I was at the hospital, some of the nurses told me that many chareidi women presented themselves at later stages of the illness, because they didn't know that early detection could save lives."

Those ideas began to point her in a new direction after she spoke with a friend who was a hospital psycho-oncologist. Together, the two petitioned the Israel Cancer Association for funding to educate chareidi women about early detection. They got the grant, and went on to train dozens of chareidi women volunteers to conduct public lectures. They also collected dozens of haskamos from leading Rabbanim to support the effort. This was the beginning of Beit Natan, the only women's health resource and cancer support center for religious women in Israel.

Operating under the direct supervision of HaRav Yisroel Gans, Beit Natan has reached more than 9,000 women through its health education and patient support services. These include a telephone helpline, home hospice visitation program, English- and Hebrew-speaking support groups, and winter and summer "Recovery Retreats."

Last year, Beit Natan launched a nationwide early-detection campaign using the membership rolls of the Clalit Health Fund, Israel's largest. In its first year, trained volunteers telephoned more than 8,000 women over the age of 50 to discuss the importance of annual screening.

"The community has become more open," Mrs. Heller reports. "In the beginning, I couldn't even advertise the word cancer because people would tear down our posters. Now more and more women are coming to our support groups and retreats.

"Cancer is a nisoyon like any other trial that Hashem gives us. To place it in a box of fear and ignore it, is to ignore the fact that we are religious, believing Jews. Beit Natan acts as a guide to this journey, helping women stay strong while facing their own vulnerabilities and adjusting to a new reality."


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