Weaving trauma, inspiring hope

Weaving trauma, inspiring hope

70-year Jewish communal professional talks about survival and meaning

Ted Comet showS his late wife’s tapestries to students from Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Manhattan.
Ted Comet showS his late wife’s tapestries to students from Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Manhattan.

One of Ted Comet’s secrets to healthy, active longevity is that he never thinks of himself as a finished product but always as a work in progress. Another is that he good-humoredly looks at his age, 96, backward — and 69 isn’t all that old.

Mr. Comet, who lives in Manhattan, was born in May 1924, which means that he is old enough to have spent seven decades as a Jewish communal professional. And he is old enough to have been married to a Holocaust survivor, Shoshana Comet.

Since her death 11 years ago, Mr. Comet has been presenting inspiring “tours,” as he calls them, of the five tapestries his wife wove as a healing self-therapy when she was 40.

“I’ve done 75 of these tours so far,” he said.

The next will be at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s virtual Holocaust commemoration on April 8.

“What makes the tapestries unique is that they consist of five six-foot-high works, and each one in turn helped my wife unshackle herself from her Holocaust trauma,” he said.

“When I asked her why she chose weaving over painting, she said paint derives from chemicals and is inert, whereas wool derives from a living animal and is in constant motion as is life itself.”

The late Shoshana Comet at her loom.

After she finished the fifth tapestry, Ms. Comet closed the loom forever. Then she went back to school and became a psychotherapist. Her mission became encouraging people to stop stigmatizing Holocaust survivors as victims and start seeing them instead as moral and spiritual victors.

In keeping with that sensibility, Mr. Comet’s presentations emphasize his late wife’s thesis about how trauma can be handled in a way that inspires rather than evokes pity.

“The advice we’re usually given after trauma is to put it behind you and move on,” he said. “But my wife felt there is something profounder that can be done, and that is to use the trauma and transmute it into creative energy and action.”

He tells his audiences, especially young people, that “everyone has trauma, but none of your trauma will be as traumatic as my wife’s trauma. And if she could master her trauma, you are capable of mastering your trauma.”

A 16-year-old girl who heard his presentation wrote, “Seeing how your wife transmuted her Holocaust trauma, first becoming an artist and then becoming a psychotherapist, is such a powerful role model and is helping me deal with my own personal traumas.”

Mr. Comet did not suffer through that dark period of history as his wife did; he was fortunate enough to have been born and raised in Cleveland.

In 1946, at 22, after graduating from Yeshiva University, he went to France as a volunteer with a program funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — the JDC — to help rehabilitate Jewish war orphans.

Three of Shoshana Comet’s tapestries (Perry Bindelglass)

On his first day on the job in a children’s home in Versailles, he met the teenaged Elie Wiesel, whose parents and younger sister had perished at the hands of the Nazis. Mr. Comet and Mr. Wiesel remained friends for 70 years until Mr. Wiesel’s death in 2016.

“I realized I could make an impact on people’s lives and decided then that my career was to be of service to the Jewish people,” Mr. Comet said. “And I did that for 70 years.”

From 1956 to 1968, he was the national director of the American Zionist Youth Foundation, the central sponsor of Israel programs for young American Jews. He founded the annual Salute to Israel Parade on Fifth Avenue and produced Israeli folk dance festivals at Carnegie Hall and the World’s Fair.

From 1968 till 1990, he was the assistant director of the Council of Jewish Federations. During that time, he also was the volunteer coordinator at the Conference on Soviet Jewry and organized the first large-scale public demonstration of solidarity. In 1972, he led the first mission of federation leaders to the Soviet Union.

In 1990, he became associate executive vice president of JDC — he still holds that title in an honorary capacity — and led many missions to Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, North Africa, India, and Latin America.

In 1997, Mr. Comet also took on the executive vice presidency of the World Council of Jewish Communal Service, which operated from 1967 to 2015 as a vehicle for addressing Jewish concerns and fostering professional connections among people working on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide.

His years of globe-spanning service gave him a keen perspective on the topic of Jewish survival through the ages.

Ted Comet (Perry Bindelglass)

“Historically, how did the Jewish people manage to survive?” Mr. Comet asked rhetorically. “I have two theories.

“Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik once said that our culture urges us to be prospective — to look ahead, to anticipate and be prepared for the future. It also encourages us to be introspective, to understand what pushes us. And there’s a third aspect, to be retrospective — to look to our past and try to define the insights from the past that can serve as guideposts for dealing with the challenges of today and tomorrow.”

His second theory is that because the Jewish people could never win militarily before the state of Israel was created, they instead “created an arena where they would be inviolate and that arena was the world of the mind and the intellect, the world of culture.”

In his opinion, the 2,000-year tradition of talmudic debate boils down to one goal: “What does it mean to live a meaningful life? If you remove all the outer layers that make us distinctive from one another and get to the inner core that’s shared by every person, that inner core is a yearning for significance, for purpose, for meaning. For me, being connected to the 3,000-year journey of the Jewish people provides that significance, purpose, and meaning.”

Mr. Comet, who has two children, six grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren, said he recently learned that his first great-great-grandchild is on the way.

“The Jewish idea of immortality is not focused on the afterlife but about what we teach our children and grandchildren in the here and now,” he said. “Our descendants are the ones who make us immortal.

“The challenge for us is to strengthen the Jewish component of our homes and the transmission of Jewish commitment to our families and our communities. Ultimately, to me, our common goal should be the creative continuity of the Jewish people.”

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