Vitality by R.M. a participant in Beit Natan’s Retreat for Recovery 2011

I have recently participated in an event which I was asked to summarize in a word. The word I came up with for the Beit Natan retreat for women with cancer was “vitality”. The “retreat” was for women from all over Israel. There were a hundred of us, mainly religiously observant, who have cancer. There was a very full programme that nevertheless allowed time for resting.

There were both “plenary” lectures or events and parallel sessions for workshops. These left an indelible impression on me, because of the variety and strength of the experiences shared. Rather than trying to reconstruct the entire event, I’m going to focus on highlights. The keynote speaker was Dr. Dina Eisen, a family doctor who both entertained and informed her audience. Laughter, as the Readers’ Digest used to declare, is indeed the best medicine. Dr. Eisen’s performance is the closest I have come to stand up comedy, and through judicious use of jokes and explanations of her witty and informative Powerpoint slides she conveyed her outlook on medicine, which she describes as “Optimistic Health Promotion”. Dr. Eisen and her partner at “Synapsot” believe that by implementing the principles of “synapsot” one becomes healthier, happier and free to pursue one’s personal development while establishing peaceful and friendly relationships - thereby creating a better world for us all. And that is the main aim of “Synapsot”: developing optimistic inner thought processes that promote health in its wider sense.

The first evening was a sing-along, conducted by a young woman on keyboard with another young woman on percussion. The songs were mainly ones about love and the Land, and the illustrated words were screened so nobody need feel bad about not knowing the lyrics. And then there was dancing.

The dancing!

At observant Jewish religious celebrations, men and women dance separately.

Here it was women only, and they really, really let themselves go. Appearances were entirely deceptive. Age had nothing to do with it. It was the personification of joie de vivre – the sheer joy of being alive. Which, given the health status, past or present, of all of these women, was utterly remarkable.

And this is why I chose the word “vitality” to sum up my impression of the entire event. This was during an exercise that we were asked to undertake on the last morning. Then we had to say the word out loud and walk, eyes closed, up a “path” between two rows of facing chairs occupied by participants. Not everybody followed the instructions. The moderator clearly expected something spiritual, disciplined, hushed, formal. In the event, there was a whole range of styles, and sometimes a fourth-grade atmosphere prevailed.

One woman, who had just arrived from the swimming pool and not heard the “rules”, skipped and twirled her way up the “aisle”. As I, like others before me, inevitably wandered to the left and right as I made my way towards the moderator waiting to hug me and present me with a flower at the end of the “line”, there was a tremendous feeling of floating on a sea of helping hands stretched out to keep me going. Hands that knew from their own journey what it is to experience the cancer adventure – one that none of us chose freely, but that changes our perception of life and attitudes to those undertaking this journey of life.

From the bottom of my heart, a great big "thank you" and "yashar koach" to all of you at Beit Natan who contributed to the amazing retreat.