In an atmosphere that was upbeat and inspiring -- with breast-cancer survivors, caregivers and well-wishers on hand -- the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia recently launched its new breast-cancer initiative, Yad B'Yad ("Hand in Hand").
Each of the 40 women in attendance received a small shopping bag containing information about the program, in addition to a telling item -- a bandanna, edged in pink, inscribed amid a field of flowers with the words "life, hope and courage" in white, and stamped with a number of the pink ribbons that have come to symbolize the ongoing battle against breast cancer.
This simple piece of colorful cloth served as a flag of compassion and caring for women there, for women throughout the Philadelphia area, for the evening's activities and for the program that fits perfectly into JFCS's Serious Illness Support Network.
Explained Lonnie Lore Beer, MSW and coordinator of the new program: "Our first efforts are with women living with breast cancer because we received a grant from the Philadelphia Affiliate of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure. This grant allows us to provide all of the services in the JFCS repertoire to this population.
"We are launching the program first, and are working to build it so it becomes the foundation and lays the groundwork for the work we will do with people living with other serious illnesses," she said.
Lore Beer noted that there are higher rates of breast cancer among Ashkenazi Jewish women because of the presence of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that are found in one out of 40 women in this population.
"Unfortunately, breast cancer is an epidemic in the Jewish community," she said.
Yad B'Yad affords JFCS the opportunity to utilize its more than 150 years of caring experience in a new way, according to Jack Dembow, president and CEO of JFCS. The agency can bring its core services "to populations we have not traditionally served," he said. "For women and their families living with breast cancer, the reality of their illness and treatment raises many emotional and spiritual questions, as well as tangible needs for concrete supports."
Rabbi Elisa Goldberg, who will work with afflicted women on spiritual aspects, talked about her Yad B'Yad role.
"As a rabbi, I bring an understanding of the profound spiritual questions that arise for people as they undergo treatment and try to integrate their new reality. For many, they feel that the illness is a sign that God has abandoned them or is punishing them. Others may be angry at God for causing them to get ill," she said.
As the process of spiritual healing unfolds, continued Goldberg, people find the love and compassion they need from family and friends as they discover moments of peace, a renewed sense of purpose, gratitude and appreciation for life's gifts, and the feeling of belonging in the world around them.
Paula Goldstein, director of counseling and care management at JFCS, offered further comment on the spiritual dimensions of support, in connection with enabling women to access their Jewish identities.
"For instance, our [monthly] Rosh Chodesh group has focused on Jewish matriarchs," she said. "What are the strengths we can draw from these women? How did they approach life's challenges and what are the lessons to be learned in terms of our life struggles?"
Although the group doesn't deal with religious concepts or text, acknowledged Goldberg, it does delve deeply into Jewish heritage: "This helps women feel unified and part of a larger whole, at a time in their lives when they could feel alienated or disconnected, or distant from other Jews."
That strength-in-numbers approach was a highlight of the Yad B'Yad launch event when Theatre Ariel, under the direction of Deborah Baer Mozes, performed improvisational skits.
"We wanted to use humor and be interactive at the same time," she said. "Breast-cancer issues and the stories that emerge are really emotional ones, so one has to approach it with great sensitivity and integrity."
Baer Mozes added that she had spoken with six women -- those either living with breast cancer or survivors -- to develop ideas for the performers.
Among survivors playing a key role in Yad B'Yad is Gari Julius Weilbacher of Merion, a six-year breast-cancer survivor and chairwoman of the Yad B'Yad advisory board.
She will represent the group and JFCS at "Pink Shabbats," where women can meet to talk in area synagogues this spring.
For more information, call 267-256-2079.