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After Disaster

May 9, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

Cheryl Jacobson, a diminutive Pentagon warrior, has much to teach us about coping with catastrophe.

Post 9/11, Cheryl Jacobson would watch how every time a plane flew over the Pentagon, her entire staff would hit the floor and dive under the nearest desk. In seeking to help them recover from their trauma, Cheryl discovered some potent secrets from which the post-tsunami world can also benefit.

Cheryl's staff of 21 Pentagon workers emerged from their trauma with their lives not only healed, but actually enhanced. In fact, the U.S. Air Force awarded Cheryl its Exemplary Civil Service Medal, citing how she rebuilt morale at the Pentagon after the 9/11 attack. How did Cheryl, a 53-year-old religious Jewish woman, work this miracle? And as the world continues to reel from the tsunami catastrophe, what parallel lessons can we apply today?

Cheryl was hard at work in her post as Acting Chief of the Aircraft and Missile Support Division in the Pentagon on the morning of September 11, 2001. Suddenly, a high-ranking Air Force officer, whom we'll call Col. Williams, burst into Cheryl's office. He had just seen the televised news bulletin of a plane hitting one of the twin towers. A short while later he burst in again, this time in a state of total panic. Another plane had hit the other tower. It was clearly a terrorist attack.

Cheryl, at 4'9", faced off with the 6-foot-tall Col. Williams, and told him to stop sowing panic among her staff. She continued conducting a meeting until she heard the dull murmur of jet engines approaching. Cheryl stood up and announced, "This meeting is adjourned." Moments later, the terrorist-hijacked jet struck the Pentagon in an orgy of fire and death.

Although their part of the building had not been hit, Cheryl's staff, amidst screams and cries, immediately fled. Cheryl, calm and collected, retrieved her purse and briefcase and made her way out of the building. She was alive! She felt that God had miraculously saved her life and she was overwhelmed with gratitude.

Not until later would Cheryl recognize the extent of the miracle. In the first stage of an ambitious renovation project, the government had rebuilt one of the five points of the building, giving it a steel infrastructure. It was this point that the jet hit. The steel infrastructure held the plane in place and prevented it from continuing on its trajectory -- through the courtyard and directly into the area where Cheryl and thousands of others were working.

Because the renovations had only recently been completed and the employees had not yet moved back into their offices, the total Pentagon death toll (not including the 60 passengers on the plane) was approximately 120 people, a fraction of what it would have been had the jet hit any other section of the building.


Cheryl spent September 12, 13, and 14 on the phone, talking to her employees. "Being a religious Jew," she recalls, "enabled me to have the empathy to reach out to others. Judaism is a religion of relationship. It taught me how to focus on relationship -- my relationship to God and my relationship to other people."

A momentous catastrophe had occurred, and Cheryl realized that the proper response was to relate to each other on a new, more human level.

Through decades of working at the Pentagon, Cheryl knew that deep caring and sharing was not the operational mode in their work environment. But a momentous catastrophe had occurred, and Cheryl realized that the proper response was to relate to each other on a new, more human level. Her genuine heartfelt concern for her employees opened them up to share with her the past traumas which the current catastrophe had only revived.

One woman confided how she had suffered repeated miscarriages until she and her husband had given up trying to have children. Another spoke of her divorce and her desire to go back to her ex-husband. Col. Williams told Cheryl about the death of his wife two years before and an almost fatal auto accident his son had just suffered.

Cheryl's immediate response was to bring in a psychotherapist specializing in trauma, who invited her employees to make private appointments for counseling. Long-standing Pentagon policy, however, stipulates that employees with a record of psychotherapy could lose their security clearance and thus their jobs. "Not one of my employees followed up with psychotherapy. I realized that it was up to me to help them."

Cheryl's counseling of her staff was two-pronged: She encouraged them to turn to a Higher Power and to invest more of their time and energy in their family relationships.

"I discovered that catastrophe makes people feel their human vulnerability," Cheryl recounts, "and this newfound humility inclines them to turn to God."

At the Pentagon, this metamorphosis was dramatic: Here were people working at the nerve center of the most powerful military in the world, representing the world's most powerful nation. It is a position that lends itself to vainglory, even smugness. Cheryl's employees gratefully accepted her suggestion to turn to a Higher Power.

Cheryl's other proposal was revolutionary. She counseled her staff to work less and devote more of their time to relationships and recreation. For example, Cheryl counseled the woman who had frequently miscarried to work fewer hours and spend more time relaxing with her husband. And she recommended to Col. Williams, who worked from 5 or 6 AM till 8 PM every day, to cut down his workday and to start dating, volunteering, and working out at a gym. Every day, promptly at 5 PM, Cheryl would go from desk to desk and send each of her staff members home.

Such an approach struck at the crux of a lifestyle that had become the norm in hi-tech, high finance, and leading corporations. Cheryl remembers how, during her first year at the Pentagon, when her three-year-old daughter was in day care, she received a call to pick the child up early one day. Although Cheryl was willing to take vacation time for the missed hours, her boss frowned at her and remarked, "It sounds like a personal problem to me. Why don't you just get back to work?"

"Like virtually all Pentagon employees," Cheryl explains, "I worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week. I didn't have the courage to stand up to such outrageous demands on my time and my life until I started to observe Shabbat." When she informed her boss that she would no longer be working on Saturdays or late Friday afternoons, he was furious. Only her religious conviction enabled Cheryl to withstand his anger.

Once she had broken the stranglehold of a seven-day work week, Cheryl started to question the distorted priority of work over family relationships. In the wake of 9/11, the truth that had dawned on her became a gift she could bestow on her co-workers. In their trauma resulting from the catastrophe, they were receptive to her advice.

The results were amazing. The woman who had given up on having children gave birth to a healthy baby two years after 9/11. The divorced woman is happily remarried to her ex-husband. And Col. Williams now has a personal life -- including dating --outside the office.


How does all this relate to the tsunami? "In the wake of any tragedy," Cheryl declares, "people begin to think about their life situation. I've seen how examining your life and the possibility of death without warning can spur people to redirect their energies to what is really important."

The sudden, lethal devastation of the tsunami has the power to wake us up to reordering our priorities.

Just as Cheryl's staff came to the realization that relationships -- especially with a spouse or children -- were more important than anything they accomplished in the office, so too the sudden, lethal devastation of the tsunami has the power to wake us up to reordering our priorities. Among the tragic accounts of tsunami victims, the most tragic stories are the ones we will never hear, of the unfulfilled dreams and plans people pushed off for the future -- only to have their lives cut short without warning and their dreams drowned in oblivion.

This issue is particularly poignant in terms of marriage. The contemporary reluctance to marry -- whether cast as "commitment phobia," the futile search for perfection, or the fear of being hurt -- has produced myriads of young Jewish adults for whom the prospect of marriage recedes as alarmingly as the shoreline before a tsunami hits. Such hesitation is fueled by the vague sense that one has unlimited time to commit to marriage. The tsunami teaches us that no one has unlimited time.

Cheryl saw that for all their trauma, her employees actually succeeded in improving their lives as a result of 9/11. Thus she is not surprised by what others may regard as an astounding response in's survey, "How Has the Tsunami Affected You?" When asked, "Has the tsunami caused you to increase your resolve to grow and do good in the world?" a full 80% of the 1800 respondents answered "Yes." Such an overwhelming response reveals that many people's lives have been deflected toward the good by the impact of the disaster.

Catastrophe can also wash away layers of superficiality and enable human beings to relate on a new, deeper level. Cheryl experienced this post 9/11, when people she had worked with for years like cogs in a machine suddenly revealed their deepest humanity. The admiration for who could churn out the cleverest jibes at the water cooler gave way to admiration for who could be the most compassionate and kindest. The tsunami too has the capacity to wash off layers of stage make-up and reveal our deepest, truest selves.


Another surprising response in the tsunami survey deals with people's relationship with God. Asked, "Has the tsunami strengthened or weakened your belief in God?" 50% claimed that the disaster has strengthened their belief in God, only 2% claimed that it has weakened their belief, and 48% claimed no change.

Given that 61% of respondents believe that the ultimate cause of the tsunami was God (as opposed to 32% crediting nature), this raises a puzzling question: How can people who believe that God caused the catastrophe that killed over 150,000 people now have a stronger belief in God?

Cynics will say that in the face of any catastrophe weak human beings cling to belief in an all-powerful God like a tsunami survivor clinging to a palm tree in the Indian Ocean. Perhaps something much more profound is taking place here.

Many people's relationship with God suffers not from a crisis of faith as much as a crisis of attention. While belief in God forms the background scenery of our lives, most often our attention is absorbed by the characters and action in the foreground. With one massive thrust, the tsunami propelled God to the forefront.

The sheer power of "an act of God" mighty enough to devastate countries spread over thousands of miles awakened us to a stark reality: that God's power is on a scale that dwarfs human beings. In our age it has become popular to emphasize God's loving closeness to us. We tend to see the Divine as a doting parental figure, imminent and intimate. According to Judaism, while this characterization of God is true, it is only part of the picture. God is also transcendent, vast, infinitely far beyond us. "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are My ways your ways" (Isaiah 48:17).

The tsunami revealed God's awesome power as it exposed the frailty and vulnerability of human beings. This is a service rendered to our confused world, which so often sees the human as huge and central, and God as minor and ancillary. The result is a planet-wide humbling. In our hubris-ridden world, the tsunami washed away a good measure of human conceit and made room for God.

When asked, ten days after the tsunami, "Where do we go from here?" Cheryl replied: "Upwards and onwards… and closer to God and each other." Coming right from the Pentagon, that's a good battle plan for a traumatized world.

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