October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. We become aware of this every year as pink becomes the color of choice. Pink ribbons, pink shoes on football players and pink labels on food containers are among the many places we find this iconic reminder of the fact that cancer, in general, and breast cancer in particular, is something that effects all of us. Regardless of race, faith or ethnic identity, regardless of our socio-economic status, cancer is an enemy that humbles us in our common humanity.
This eternal truth is at the heart of a remarkable story of two women, whose friendship was the unforeseen gift of breast cancer. Ibtisam Erekat, a Muslim Palestinian woman living in the West Bank, and Ruth Ebenstein, an American-born Israeli and religiously observant Jewish woman living in West Jerusalem, first met at an Israeli-Palestinian breast cancer survivor support group meeting. The special friendship they’ve developed shines as a beacon of hope in a region that festers with hatred, mistrust, violence and terror.
In hearing their story, it becomes readily clear that while cancer may have been the primary catalyst in the formation of their connection with each other, human chemistry served to gel it. In fact their lives were remarkably similar.
Each got married in her thirties, which is considered a relatively late age for marriage in both traditional Judaism and Islam. Each married divorced men who were several years older and who brought children with them into the marriage. Each had given birth to three children in speedy succession, and each had been diagnosed with breast cancer while nursing their babies, which is rather uncommon.
In finding so many commonalities in their stories, Ibtisam and Ruth quickly forged a deep and intimate connection. They became an integral part of each other’s healing process, and with time they knew that there was something profoundly positive in their relationship that transcended their situation as cancer survivors. Through their journey together they understood a human bond which had the potential to transform a region in conflict in some small but significant way.
They met through the Cope Forum, a support group that gathers Israeli and Palestinian women survivors every two months in West Jerusalem and sometimes in East Jerusalem. Between 30 to 50 women get together to support each other through their struggles, all of whom have more than cancer in common. They live with the chaos of the region. They live within ever expanding tensions between their peoples. They live with the reality of extremely different politics and hopes for the future, and yet, the humility and fear that cancer generates within human psyche is a bond that transcends it all.
Ruth has taken it upon herself to share her story with all who will listen. It is a story of hope and a story of survival. This is a story of something good coming out of something bad. Please consider joining us on October 15 or October 18 as we welcome Ruth Ebenstein to HCRJ for two very powerful programs.
Ruth is writing a memoir about her friendship with Ibtisam,: Ibtisam and I: An unexpected friendship across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide. She has written articles about their friendship for The Atlantic and Tablet. You can find additional materials on her website, laughthroughbreastcancer.com.
As the month of October continues to unfurl its ribbons of pink reminders, we all have an opportunity to remember our common humanity, and we all have the capacity to contribute in some small way toward eradicating this devastating disease.