William Hamilton

Post-Traumatic Growth

Post-traumatic growth? It is possible. Yes, it’s true that catastrophic loss swallows you whole. But like most things in life, it’s true, but incomplete

Yotam Pilozer knows. If anyone does, he does. Since 2011 he’s led Israel’s Humanitarian Relief Agency, IsraAID, into becoming the world’s most respected disaster relief organization. They are first-in and last-out of every disaster that accepts their aid. Being last-out, staying in regions an average of 7 years, has enabled them to testify to the lasting-realness of PTG, Post-Traumatic Growth. 

An example. When his team arrived in Japan after a deadly Tsunami, they found children with shelter, clothing, and food. So what immediate need did they have? The capacity to express themselves. They couldn’t talk about the trauma they’d survived. So Yotam’s team offered them crayons and invited them to draw. Each of four large pieces of paper had a word: 1) Tsunami, 2) Home, 3) Hope, and 4) Happy. On the paper that said Tsunami, they took dark colors and blotted out the word. On Home, they drew their homes, which many of them watched wash away from the higher ground where their family had fled. For Hope, they drew their old neighborhood, and for Happy they drew their favorite foods. This new capacity to express themselves led to their taking responsibilities, like packing lunches, and other help they volunteered. All this put them on the road to recovery.

Clearly, PTG doesn’t happen on its own. It takes patience and much grief-processing, and it always depends on the inner-life of each specific individual. But, as Yotam says, disasters can contain opportunities. 

Three elements in this week’s primary portion of Torah touch upon expression, assembly, and responsibly. The stakeholders in the building of the Tabernacle are expressive artists. They assemble community (va-yakhel), as the opening word of the portion signals. And their responsible volunteerism is effusive, “the people brought more than enough” (Ex 36:5).  

How do we know PTG lasts? We can never be sure it does. But listen to what an Afghani observant Muslim, whose family Yotam saved a decade ago from the clutches of the Taliban, wrote to Yotam the day after October 7th. “The strength and resilience of the Jewish community show the power of human spirit in the face of savagery and callousness,” and then concludes his fuller message, “My heartfelt sympathy and solidarity to you.”

May we do our share to enable a life-saving experience to become a life-changing one.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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