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The community of Israeli widows

We are supposed to "get over it in a few months and move on,” says support group founder.

Joelle Eckstein, International Fellowship of Christian and Jews founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein (center) and FIDF co-chair Haim Saban attend the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces Western Region Gala in Beverly Hills, Nov. 3, 2016. Photo by Michael Kovac/WireImage.
Joelle Eckstein, International Fellowship of Christian and Jews founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein (center) and FIDF co-chair Haim Saban attend the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces Western Region Gala in Beverly Hills, Nov. 3, 2016. Photo by Michael Kovac/WireImage.

Two hundred people gathered at the at the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv on Sunday to raise awareness for the community of Israeli widows.

In 2011, a U.N. resolution established June 23 as International Widows Day to draw attention to the experiences of widows and their loss. Since the Oct. 7 Hamas onslaught, many Israeli women have suddenly become widows, having to cope with their worlds being turned upside down.

However, the problems of widowhood in Israel did not begin on Oct. 7.

Five years ago, Joelle Eckstein came home and was surprised to find the door locked from the inside. Her husband, Yechiel, did not answer as she repeatedly rang the doorbell. When she looked through the window, she saw him sprawled inert on the kitchen floor.

A neighbor heard her screams, rushed over, and helped her to get in through a window. For a long time, she told JNS, she could not walk on the spot where her husband died.

Families of soldiers and victims of terrorist attacks are often treated for post-traumatic demoralization syndrome (PTDS) for years. “But,” Eckstein says, “not widows;” they are supposed to “get over it in a few months and move on.”

Until her husband drowned, one woman related at the Tel Aviv event, she thought she understood how it felt to be a widow. Only then did she understand the pain—everything changes, from morning coffee to going to sleep.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews was founded in 1983 by Joelle’s husband, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. One of its projects was a hotline where Joelle worked as a volunteer. It closed a month after Yechiel’s death in Jerusalem.

Together with the previous director of the hotline, Hadas Tsarfati, Joelle began a new organization called the Eckstein Project. For six months it struggled, helping people one at a time, with no office, staff or salary.

Eckstein recounts her first outing after the shivah mourning period. Her credit card was rejected at the supermarket because their joint account closed after her husband’s death. She couldn’t buy food. She could not find a support group for herself. There were groups for women in their 70s and 80s and for young army widows. But she could not find one for 50- to 60-year-olds with no children at home.

Eckstein started a support group with two women she found on Facebook. Soon there were six women, who met every other week at her home. It grew into monthly activities, with one group for French women and another for Spanish speakers. An English podcast was started, leading to Spanish broadcasts for widows in Spanish-speaking countries.

The IDF Widows and Orphans Organization is a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the spouses and children of Israel’s fallen heroes. The NGO announced for International Widows Day that 260 widows and 529 orphans have joined the circle of bereavement since Oct. 7.

Eckstein says she tries to emulate Yechiel in providing for the needs of those who are not being taken care of by others. Now especially, she says, there are widows in pain who are not receiving the attention they need.

The general public was invited this year on International Widows Day to raise awareness and to mark the Eckstein Project, taking a new name—Aleph Alumunut. The goal is for a new widow to know immediately to contact Aleph to find people who understand her situation and for her to know she is not alone.

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