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Four Completed Lives

Four Completed Lives

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Painting: from a series by Brombacher on the biblical story of Hannah and Samuel
Painting: from a series by Brombacher on the biblical story of Hannah and Samuel

More than a year has passed since Philyss Seidenfeld lost four of her seven children in a Teaneck fire that still haunts the hearts of neighbors and grieves the souls of strangers.

In the months since the March 22, 2005 blaze, friends and strangers have joined together to share tears and ponder how to cope with the tragedy.

They need only look to Seidenfeld to lead the way.

After the smoke cleared, her soul remained intact. As she journeys through the darkness, never to understand the why of it all, she clings to her belief. "It was G‑d's will," she said. "Their souls had a job to do and they were finished."

After the smoke cleared, her soul remained intact She will not allow the grief to consume her. Instead she aims to transform her sorrow into something beautiful by making her children's legacy one of joy and spiritual growth.

On the first anniversary of her children's death, which fell out, appropriately enough on Shabbat Zachor,1 the day was marked by worldwide prayer, study and acts of kindness.

She wishes for people to continue to remember her children by reciting Psalms and performing acts of chessed.

She grins as she envisions the global outpouring of holiness. "G‑d will be smiling so big," she said.

Seidenfeld urges people to think of the joy of her children's lives rather than their untimely deaths. "They were the most happy children on the planet," she said. "They were living to the fullest and got out of life what they needed to get. I am comforted knowing I helped them accomplish their life's mission."

There was Ari, 15, who used to say that "life was too short to waste on anger." He spent his final day visiting his elementary school to tell the students to appreciate the time they had and use it well.

Noah, 6, was full of joy and smiles. He was the one in the class who was extra nice to those children who had trouble making friends. Adira, 5, was strong-willed and carefree. Natan, 4, had Down syndrome, and was full of happiness and mischief. He loved to play guitar and sing.

"Their lives are made more meaningful by the good done in their names" "It's a Jewish custom that you learn and do acts of kindness and charity in memory of the dead. It's a way to honor their memory," explained Rachel Lerner, a psychotherapist and Judaic studies teacher who will deliver a memorial lecture at Bnai Yeshurun. "She sees their lives as being meaningful by how much good they've done and how much good has been done in their names."

So far, the acts of kindness have been innumerable, said Seidenfeld. "This caused a global jolt and helped people to refocus and remind them of what we are here for and what we need to do," she said.

A Teaneck synagogue provided her with a new home a few blocks from her original house.

A crew of neighborhood volunteers worked around the clock furnishing it, so that Seidenfeld and her three surviving daughters could go to a cozy house of their own when they left the hospital.

There were the food and clothing drives and fund-raisers at the children's schools.

There were piles of letters from people she had never met. Many admitted that her tragedy had caused them to reconsider priorities. Some vowed to spend more time with family. Others promised to take upon themselves extra mitzvoth (good deeds) in memory of the children.

Her tragedy had caused many to reconsider priorities Then there were the prayers from people of all backgrounds — beyond New Jersey and even America. Seidenfeld, who ran a baby-sitter placement agency in the past, had well-wishers uttering prayers in St. Lucia, Kenya, Colombia and Jamaica. Then there were the prayers pouring in from Israel and Jewish communities throughout the world.

The love flowed from all over and the level of support never ceased, said Seidenfeld, still awed by the reaction. "It continues at the same pace today."

She is often asked how she pulls herself out of bed every morning. "If you had all the love and support I've had in the past year, you'd get up every day too."

Work To Do

She also has work to do: She needs to "grow the souls" of her three surviving daughters: Helena, 18, Zehava, 13, and Aviva, 8.

Each of them is adjusting to their loss in her own way. Helena is studying at a woman's seminary in Israel for her second year. "She wrote me a postcard recently saying she's happy with the way her life is evolving," ...There are reminders everywhere Seidenfeld said gratefully. The other two are attending elementary school at Yeshiva of North Jersey and "are moving forward as well as can be expected," Seidenfeld said.

Of course, there are also daily tears. "There are reminders everywhere. A song, a person, a place can trigger all sorts of emotions," she said.

The community has its own trigger. Her Rutland Avenue Tudor remains untouched, save for windows that have been boarded up. Seidenfeld said she hasn't decided what to do with it. For now at least, it is a constant reminder to neighbors and passers-by of what happened. "The order of life is that we keep moving forward," she said.

A nurse by profession, Seidenfeld works part time at a group home for developmentally disabled young men. She loves her job, she gushes. "Working with this population gives me my boy fix and my special needs fix," she said, referring to her loss of three boys, including a special needs child. She doesn't feel the pain of her loss as acutely during those hours.

A year ago, nobody expected her to make it this far. She suffered severe burns to her respiratory system and she had to be hooked up to a respirator for a week. Doctors weren't sure how well she would recover.

Friends have likened her to Job Thousands prayed for her recovery. She held on to life and clung to G‑d. What should have been at least a six-week recovery with extensive rehabilitation took only three weeks, she said, exclaiming, "I'm a spiritual, physical miracle."

When she finally rose from bed, some worried how she would face her grim new reality. They needn't have.

"I was spared for a reason," she said. "Now more than ever, my life has a purpose."

Her mission, she said, is to help refocus people to see the bigger picture of life.

She looks forward to doing motivational speaking about faith and the challenge of crisis. She feels obligated to spread the message of hope. "I shouldn't have survived and I did. There's a reason for that."

She urges people to find the blessings in their lives. "Every day we must open our eyes and search for the good and then bless it." She calls it an "exercise for the soul to find the good in things that we'd otherwise not notice or take for granted." Over time, she said, we won't have to search so hard to find the "good" in things we perceive as "bad."

A Model for Courage

Friends have likened Seidenfeld to Job, the righteous man who lost everything dear to him and still kept his faith in G‑d.

Seidenfeld, who was not raised Orthodox, said she was intrigued.

"If you don't have G‑d, what do you have?" Shortly after leaving the hospital, she started a women's study class that meets in her home to examine the book of Job and the questions it raises about suffering and belief.

Participants say the class is "intense and inspiring," Some call it their weekly "spiritual fix."

Among the common themes discussed are the ways in which crisis can be used as a means of getting closer to G‑d, said Lerner, who facilitates the class. "Because at the end of the day, if you don't have G‑d, what do you have?"

Friends and neighbors said they are awed by Seidenfeld's show of faith after her encounter with what she and others have dubbed "a personal Holocaust." They call her a model for walking through excruciating personal loss with grace and courage. And, most of all, hope.

"Suffering should not be seen as punishment," says Seidenfeld A local rabbi, who had the horrible task of informing Seidenfeld about her children's fate while she lay in her hospital bed, confided that she never swerved from her single-minded faith. "You can't get tested more than she got tested and she never changed her tune," he said. "In terms of plain, unadulterated faith, she's right up there."

"I find her take on it miraculous," said Ofra Wind, a close friend who attends the Job class. "She has belief that you just can't imagine."

Even before the fire, Seidenfeld was no stranger to hardship. She had a child with Down syndrome and then, three years ago, went through a difficult divorce.

"Suffering should not be seen as punishment, but as an invitation to initiate an intimate conversation with G‑d," she said.

"Their souls had a job to do and reached perfection... What more could a mother ask for?" She walks by her fireplace and gazes at the photographs on the mantel. They will forever be her most recent photos of Ari, Noah, Adira and Natan.

"They're with G‑d now. They're in a perpetual state of eternal bliss. They did what they needed to do and reached spiritual perfection. They're settled.

"What more could a mother ask for?"

Footnotes
1.
The Shabbat before Purim is known as Shabbat Zachor, "The Shabbat of 'Remember,'" after the special Torah reading read on this day
Originally published in The Record in Bergen County
Image by chassidic artist Shoshannah Brombacher. To view or purchase Ms. Brombacher’s art, click here.
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Meir Weiss May 7, 2006

family link add for more on the Seidenfeld children visit www.seidenfeldremembrances.com Reply

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