Area programs teach the art of giving comfort
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Area programs teach the art of giving comfort

Shawls that 'comfort and console'

Marge Eiseman – teacher, singer, songwriter, and community activist – loves to teach. One of the things she teaches about is how to make a difference.

“All I want, on any given day, is to make a small difference in some way,” the Milwaukee resident writes on her Website, margethemaven.com. “It keeps my life in perspective.”

Eiseman will visit Paramus on March 17, leading a workshop for the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative on the art of giving comfort. The second in a series on bikkur cholim, comforting the sick, the program will include music, story-telling, and poetry. In addition, Eiseman will teach those present how to create a “comfort shawl,” intended, she said, to promote healing.

According to Eiseman, following the 2007 publication of an article in Reform Judaism on the death of her 12-year-old son, “I was having daily conversations on loss, mourning, and giving comfort. It was clear I could teach people.” To help do that, she created the workshop she will present in Paramus. She has made about 60 such presentations.

“The great barrier to giving comfort is a feeling of our own helplessness,” she told The Jewish Standard, adding that there are, in fact, easy ways “to do something.”

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Marge Eiseman displays a comfort shawl.

“In offering comfort, the language of consistency is important,” she said, noting, for example, that in paying a shiva visit to a family who suffered a loss like her own, she told the mourners “that I would be there for them in a month, three months, sixth months….”

Eiseman said it helped her during her own grieving process to realize that she was not alone in her grief. “Others were hurting as well. You need to see that.”

A longtime member of Cong. Sinai in Milwaukee and an active member of the congregation’s women’s rosh chodesh group, Eiseman said the group has continually evolved to meet the needs of its members. To help her after her own loss, the women’s group created a comfort shawl.

“The idea came from the non-Jewish friend of a member,” she said. “It’s a human urge to want to give someone a hug,” she said. “[That] very human urge when acknowledging a loss – whether it be death, illness, job, or hope – translates to beautiful hand-decorated shawls that comfort and console.” Her own shawl, she said, contains her son’s Hebrew name as well as a Star of David.

The impact of the shawl she received – representing not just the concern of the community but offering tangible warmth and softness – inspired Eiseman to perform the mitzvah for others.

“Gathering to make a beautiful comfort shawl at a time like that allows you to connect to your feelings, and make a difference in someone’s life,” she said.

In her workshops, Eiseman uses a “very simple technology,” bringing unadorned pashmina shawls to the meetings together with iron-on fabrics participants can shape and cut out to express feelings of “comfort, healing, and love.”

One shawl recipient told Eiseman that wearing it slowed her breathing. Later, when she gave it to someone else, simply the memory of having worn the shawl had a similar effect.

“It’s a powerful symbol,” said Eiseman, adding that at her upcoming workshop she will also present a song she wrote about things that gave her comfort during shiva. For example, she said, while most people brought cake and kugel, “some brought good coffee or a bottle of wine for later,” a gesture she truly appreciated. Now, she said, people have told her that since hearing her story, they have begun to bring fresh ground coffee to shiva homes.

For further information about the SLI program, call Gael Burman, (201) 820-3904.

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