It was toward evening in Rockville, Maryland as the second day of the conference progressed. Dinner was winding down and we anticipated a session from a woman who had sailed the Pacific for 2 years with her husband and two kids after he got laid off, followed by a “best practices” presentation by various city representatives. The evening would close with a soulful musical session of Jewish spiritual tunes.
There was a collective gasp that arose from the front of the room. I casually looked up, expecting the usual relieved laugh and “everyone’s okay” from the crowd.
It did not come.
Instead were swift shouts of “call 911!” “Is there a doctor??” “Is she OK?”
She was not OK.
A woman had leaned on a railing that overlooked a stairwell. The railing broke away from the floor and supporting wall, sending the woman down, down, down… panic, distress, and grief filled the air of that room.
Here’s what I know. I cannot help from a medical standpoint. And people in crisis will not improve with rubberneckers. So I did what I know how to do in a crisis: I prayed. I fished through my handbag for my prayerbook, flipped quickly to the back where the Book of Psalms is printed, and started saying whatever my eyes fell on. I don’t know what happened next, but someone gave me a microphone, directed the women away from the scene of the tragedy, and before I knew it, I was leading the group in saying Psalms, word by painstaking Hebrew word, phrase by painstaking phrase.
This group. Many had never prayed before. Many had no idea what we were saying, or why. I never lead groups in prayer without introducing, explaining, translating. But there we were, as the emergency crew arrived, as she was carried out, mercifully conscious, to the waiting ambulance, as people were instructed to move cars, to move away, we kept going, phrase by phrase, empowered by what we could do. Empowered by the strength in numbers. Empowered by our bond, our solidarity, from that moment of panic to that moment of doing. Empowered by doing just that, saying those words that were not understood but whose cadence reminded us of our common bond: Hebrew, though we may not understand it; spirituality, though our definitions of its expression may vary; care and concern for our fellow sister, though many of us had never even met her.
That moment was magical, transformational. Beauty in the midst of tragedy.
I know I shall never forget it.
Please spare a prayer, in whatever language you know, for Naomi bat Rosalia.