As someone who lived in Israel for a year and visited many times, I am passionate about the land. I am also concerned with the safety of all people there. I can tell you that each visit of mine was a quiet and calm one with no incident, despite what we may see on the news. Reports by the BBC and on CNN often amplify the unrest and contentiousness between Palestinians and Israelis, but do not spotlight the positive daily interactions that restore hope. I desperately crave peace and coexistence in the “promised land,” wanting Muslims and Jews to somehow miraculously come to an impasse.
In my own personal life, a close friend is a religious, American Muslim of Pakistani descent and I’m from an observant Jewish American family with Eastern European roots. The two of us have joked about wanting to start a podcast called “Peace in the Middle East” to discuss how similar our cultures are, while dissecting differences and points of debate. Our end goal would be to convey to those who see “the other side” as the enemy: Why can’t we all just get along?! Look at how much we actually have in common. (It goes without saying that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is way more complicated than this and there is so much to examine.)
Sarri Singer is another friend of mine who is focused on bringing together people of different religions (Christians, Jews, Muslims…) and people of all backgrounds. For her, it is for a specific mission that aligns with her personal passion: helping victims of terrorism. Sarri started an organization after surviving a horrifying bombing attack on an Israeli bus. To this day, when a glass drops, she’s reflexively brought back to what she describes as a “silence of death all around.”
On June 11, 2003, the daughter of New Jersey state senator Robert Singer was on Bus 14 in Jerusalem when an 18-year-old suicide bomber boarded. Minutes later, 17 people were killed and more than 100 people were injured, including Sarri, who could not fully open her eyes to see the casualties around her. She screamed and a man from blocks away, not a paramedic or an EMT, but a civilian, brought her to safety.
“In Israel, people instinctively know to help everybody,” she says, adding: “He didn’t pause, but just ran over and jumped right into action.” After being rescued from the carnage, Sarri was hospitalized for two weeks and says, “I’m happy with my injuries because I’m lucky, I am still here when others did not come home that day” referring to the minor loss of hearing in one ear and shrapnel in parts of her body that aren’t removable.
Sarri had never imagined she would find herself in a hospital bed, the survivor of a bombing. Until September 11th, she had worked as Director of Recruitment for National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) a few blocks from the World Trade Center in New York City. After walking the streets and seeing the destruction from that day, observing tourists snapping photos and feeling a desperate need to do something, Sarri resigned from her position and moved to Israel to help terror victims.
There she coordinated bone marrow drives for Gift of Life, volunteered with organizations such as KEDMA, Kids4Kids, The Koby Mandell Foundation and the One Family Fund. Then, on her way to meet a friend that fateful day in June, she boarded Bus 14 and her life changed forever, making her mission a more personal one.
She would later return to Israel after convalescing at her parents’ home in New Jersey, determined not to show fear or let the terrorists win. Israel was where her heart belonged. She loved the land and its people and would not be chased away by fear.
“I went back in September 2003 after the attack because I wanted to be there,” she explains, “I didn’t want that 18-year-old who boarded the bus to hurt and murder innocent people to make me scared. Terrorism is about paralyzing us with fear. I didn’t want to be the victim that the terrorist wanted.”
Sarri went on to work as an administrator in a school until medical issues brought her back to the U.S. In June 2012 she founded an international organization Strength to Strength (originally called One Heart) which is based out of NYC and assists terror victims worldwide by bringing them together to heal and move forward.
Strength to Strength specifically focuses on the long term psychological care and peer to peer support for victims and their families. The organization continues to share insight into the ongoing struggle for those affected by these types of tragedies globally.
“We work to bring survivors together,” Sarri explains, “Dealing with the residual trauma and helping people heal over time.” Sarri notes how in the Israel people don’t think twice about assisting right away, giving of themselves, their money and their hearts.
Rami Levy is exemplary of this concept. He is the owner of one of the largest eponymous supermarket chains in Israel and came over daily to stock cupboards and refrigerators of a family that lost relatives suddenly and tragically in an attack. When one family member expressed their appreciation to him, he replied, “You will get used to my face. I have committed myself to that every week. I will deliver food and stock your home until the youngest orphan turns 18 years old.”
People like Rami Levy are Sarri’s inspiration. She says that just like the many incredible people who gave of themselves despite not knowing her – including her hospital visitors (“The Arab-Israeli politics that we hear about in the news do not exist in the hospital,” she explains, “It was such a pleasure to welcome anyone who came to visit me”) – we must keep “recognizing that we are all responsible for each other, and that those directly impacted by terrorism, injury, or the loss of a loved one deserve no less than our very best.”
Each spring, Strength to Strength brings a group of terror survivors to New York City as part of its mission of healing for their Young Ambassadors Program.” The participants of the annual trip are between the ages of 15-20 and lost either a parent or immediate family member in a terrorist attack, or were injured themselves. The teens hail from around the globe including (but not limited to): Algeria, Argentina, Colombia, England, France, Israel, Kenya, Northern Ireland, Spain, Uganda and the United States.
Sarri explains that in addition to meeting with community and political leaders, the teens embark on a tour, visiting the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the Tribute Center, SONY Technology Labs, a museum, FAO Schwartz, NY Sky Ride and the Empire State Building. The trip aims to bring together those affected by terrorism in solidarity, to be able to support and comfort one another and build a global peer support group where the participants are in touch long after the program finishes.
“Restaurants, companies and individual donors contribute their resources to make these trips not only possible, but absolutely incredible,” Sarri says. “The goal is to ensure a week filled with exciting and fun activities combined with meetings with leaders. We want to empower these teens to take their personal experiences of trauma and share them with each other to bring about healing.”
For more information about how you can support those affected by terrorism, visit Strength to Strength http://stosglobal.org/.
**(An earlier version of this article appeared on my Huffington Post blog. The above has been updated and revised with new information.)**