July 9, 2008
A quiet hero
For the past 10 years, Libby, a psychologist who worked with the blind during the day, had been volunteering as a counselor for young women with Down syndrome at the Shalva center in Jerusalem. According to my friend Andrea Simantov, who runs the center and gave me a tour when I was there recently, the Girls Graduate Program ("Shikma") was Libby's idea.
"It was Libby who pressed for this continuing education, which she hoped would, over time, bridge the gap between childhood and the weightier realities of womanhood," Andrea told me on the phone from Jerusalem, a few days after the tragedy.
Under Libby's tutelage, these young women, ages 21 to 36, were able to deal with all kinds of issues, even uncomfortable ones. Nothing was off limits: sexuality, fear, trust, money. Libby would take the girls on field trips to supermarkets to teach them how to shop and make informed choices; they role-played so they wouldn't have to dread medical appointments. With Libby, the girls learned how to dress for different occasions, how to talk with bank tellers, how to ask for directions, how to understand what they were told -- in short, how to interact with the world.
When Libby was not around, the young women of Shalva often had to be coaxed in order to reveal their insecurities or to talk about sensitive issues. But with Libby, it was the opposite.
"They would count the days until her next scheduled visit," Andrea said. "And when the day finally arrived, Libby would pour herself into the lives of these young women. And they would pour their hearts out to her, as best they could."
When I visited Shalva, the thing that struck me, in addition to the many happy faces, was the sense of color. The place was enchanting. It looked like they used a decorator from Cirque du Soleil. Every room had a theme, every wall a color or a mural. Even the tiny shul in the basement was dressed up to put a smile on your face.
From what Andrea tells me, Libby had a smile on her face every time she showed up at Shalva. As a single mother with an exhausting day job, she could easily have said "enough" after 10 years. But she didn't. Because the girls needed her so much, she looked forward to every visit.
She was especially looking forward to the year-end party the girls were planning for her on Wednesday night, July 2.
The party was originally scheduled for the previous Wednesday, in a local dairy restaurant that employs several Shalva graduates. But Libby, pressured by myriad obligations, asked that the party be delayed a week. The girls said OK, but they made a good-natured demand: They wanted to give Libby a special gift for her 10 years of service, so they asked her what kind of jewelry she loved. After some hesitation, she agreed to accept a simple silver-and-gold bracelet.
The girls bought the bracelet and wrapped it, but Libby never got to see it.
Several hours before the party was supposed to start, Libby was murdered by the driver of a bulldozer, in the city she so cherished.
Andrea Simantov has faced all kinds of challenges running a center for kids with Down syndrome. A lot of the kids come from broken homes; some kids were abandoned. She sees a big part of her job as simply being a "joy machine." No matter what mood she's in, as far as the kids go, she's always in a great mood.
"That's the most important thing they need to see," she says.
Well, since Libby died, it hasn't been easy to put on a happy face. Andrea has been scrambling to do damage control for the young women, arranging for psychologists and special therapy sessions.
It's ironic, she told me, that the person who could best help these young women right now is the one who is no longer here.
She's not even sure the girls understand that Libby is no longer here. She hasn't told all of them yet; this is new territory for her.
"We still have few answers to answer these girls and are working out the methodology," she says.
One thing she does know is that she will still take the girls to the year-end gathering at the dairy restaurant. She has to. The girls are expecting it. Many of them will be confused by Libby's absence. They might always be.
Andrea, who is from New York, a single mother of six and has the energy of several rowdy kids, is bracing herself for a difficult few months ahead. One question she'll need to resolve is what to do with the silver-and- gold bracelet. She's thinking that after the 30 days of mourning, maybe the girls can give it to Libby's daughter in a special ceremony at Shalva. She's not sure.
She tells me that I just barely missed seeing Libby when I visited Shalva -- apparently, she arrived a few minutes after I left.
The truth is, it doesn't really matter whether I met Libby Goren or not. It doesn't matter whether any of us ever met any of the victims.
There's something about moments of intense tragedy that shocks us into intimacy. The losses feel like personal losses. The tragedy may be 8,000 miles away, and we may be in Pico-Robertson or Paris or Montreal or Argentina, but we feel like the victims are right next to us -- that we know them.
In my case, I got to know a little more about Elizabeth "Libby" Goren-Friedman just by seeing the faces on those young girls at Shalva whom she treated like her own.
Those same young girls who are probably wondering right now why she hasn't shown up this week.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.