When Lakewood native Sarri Singer quit her job in New York City in December 2001 after the 9/11 attacks, she moved to Israel with the intention of helping victims of terrorism. Less than two years later, she would not only become a victim herself — surviving a suicide bomber attack on a Jerusalem bus — but an advocate for others around the world.
Singer, cofounder of One Heart Global, an organization focused on assisting with long-term psychological care for victims of terrorism, recounted her story at the first Sukka Brunch at Congregation Ahavat Olam in Howell on Sept. 26.
About 125 people attended the event sponsored by the sisterhood of the temple, which was established in 2007 by the merger of congregations Ahavat Achim in Howell and Ahavat Shalom in Lakewood.
In her talk, Singer stressed the importance of social responsibility from both government and private organizations to help victims integrate back into society. “Everyone has struggles,” said Singer, but a victim of terrorism has struggles beyond anyone’s imagination. “Often the mindset of an outsider is ‘I was not directly affected, so this is not my problem.’ But, unfortunately this is not the case.”
Singer cited statistics from Israel showing “a minimum of eight people are affected when someone is murdered.” She went on to list numbers from attacks in Oklahoma City, London, Madrid, and Mumbai and, of course, on 9/11. “Almost 3,000 people were killed. If you think about the Israeli statistic, that’s a huge group. And it doesn’t even include the bystanders and first responders,” she said.
Singer, the daughter of State Sen. Robert Singer and Judie Singer, said she felt it was important to tell her story, even though the details are frightening. “I am sharing this not to scare you, but to empower you,” she said. “The more you know, the more you will be able to understand what survivors go through.”
Kindness of strangers
Singer’s first experience with terror was on 9/11. Her office at the National Conference of Synagogue Youth was two blocks from the World Trade Center, but that morning, her alarm clock didn’t go off and she was running late. She turned on the TV to catch the news and saw the burning towers. She didn’t go back to work for two weeks because the area was inaccessible.
In December 2001, she decided to move to Israel. “I fell in love with the country after leading trips there, and I thought I could help young terror victims.” For over a year and a half, Singer worked on projects and reveled in her life in Jerusalem.
On June 11, 2003, although she rarely took buses, she boarded the Number 14 to meet a friend for dinner.
Then — “I felt a shock wave hit my face. I couldn’t open my left eye and could barely open my right one. And all I could hear was silence. Then I started to scream,” she said. A bystander pulled her out of the bus and took her to safety. Another person stayed with her until the ambulance came. A total of 16 people were killed and over 100 were injured. Singer sustained a broken clavicle, ruptured eardrums, and inoperable shrapnel in her jaw.
Throughout her ordeal, Singer said, she marveled at the strangers who looked after her. “Family members of other victims looked in on me. Even though they didn’t know me, they knew I was a person in need.” She returned to the United States to recuperate and joined survivors on a mission that she had helped to plan. In September 2003 she went back to Israel, and returned to the United States for good in June 2004.
Even though she works full-time as assistant director of career services at Touro College in New York City, Singer devotes many hours to One Heart Global, which she founded with Jacob Klimchy, whose father was killed by a suicide bomber in 2002. The group provides Survivors Circle therapeutic meetings and recreational activities.
Judie Singer, a member of Ahavat Olam, told NJJN she is very proud of her daughter’s work and noted that she is nominated for the 2010 Jewish Community Heroes Award. “Sarri has always been a leader,” she said.
Over seven years later, Singer continues to wrestle with the fallout from her experience. “When I went back to Israel soon after I was injured, I was determined to return to all the places I had frequented, including the site of the attack,” she told NJJN. “But even though subsequent visits get easier, I still have not gotten on a bus.”