Even six years after the fact, it’s shocking to meet someone who lost someone on 9/11. I was certainly surprised to learn that the light breathing through Judi Rotenberg’s paintings belies a period of unbearable darkness in her past — the period after she lost her husband aboard one of American Airlines’ ill-fated Los Angeles-bound flights.
“I’d rather talk about what’s positive,” Rotenberg said when I asked her about the tragedy.
“I feel I’m a very lucky woman. I have three wonderful children who are loving, smart, kind people. I am remarried, and between my husband and me we’re going to have nine grandchildren under the age of 4. At the moment everyone is healthy. Even though a lot of terrible things have happened in my life, I feel that God has been good to me,” she said.
We met because Rotenberg, a painter and gallery owner in Boston, donated the use of one of her watercolors to the annual Mother’s Day Flower Project run by Jewish Women International, the nonprofit where I work in Washington. Each year we send bouquets to some 150 battered women’s shelters across the United States and Israel on Mother’s Day, and mail tribute cards to our donors’ mothers, sisters and friends.
Last fall when I began to design the cards for 2007, project manager Alexis Bock suggested we ask one of her favorite artists to lend a hand.
Alexis reached out to Rotenberg, who felt a natural connection to JWI. I suppose it was a combination of the heartbreak in her past and the optimism in her nature. She agreed to let us print “Composition in Cadmium” on the cover of this year’s Flower Project cards.
“I think it’s a very worthy cause; abuse is such a horrible thing,” Rotenberg later told me. “I imagine it’s very personal, so I could in no way speak to it. What happened to me is not the same as what abused women are going through. But I wish the survivors so much love and empathy.”
Rotenberg understands what it means to ! be a sur vivor; that starting over — after a loss, after abuse — is both a great challenge and a profound inspiration.
“I had a show called ‘New Beginnings,’ ” she said of her successful gallery exhibition in 2005. “I started to paint about things that were happening to me then — like my children and flowers coming up. Just painting again at all was a new beginning because I’d stopped for a while after 9/11.”
The vibrant palette and theme of growth in “Composition in Cadmium” complemented perfectly an effort to help withered spirits start afresh.
Not surprisingly, where life is seen blooming — on a gallery wall, in a shelter common room — hope follows. JWI receives letters of gratitude by the dozen from shelter directors each year.
“Even though you may never know the women we serve here,” one wrote last year, “you still give them assurance that tomorrow will be a better day. Rest assured they are grateful that someone is thinking about them.”
But for every survivor subsisting in a shelter who is uplifted by a Flower Project bouquet, too many other women are still in harm’s way — either with their abusers or en route to escape. A holiday for them feels not much different than any other day. JWI works to give them a lifetime of Mother’s Days that are special days instead of another 24 hours to endure.
Toward that end, Flower Project proceeds feed other JWI programs that offer women and their children a leg up on a promising future — like life skills training for survivors, fully stocked shelter libraries for their children, and preventative education to teach at-risk girls about healthy relationships and self-esteem.
Most of us cannot fathom the strength a woman needs to start her life completely over. People look at JWI’s philanthropy and programs and they see valor. But the real badge of honor belongs to the women who endure horrific circumstances and still manage to survive, then escape, then rebuild and ultimately thrive.
Judi Rotenberg also understands the hard-fought battle of reclaiming one’s life.
“Terrible things happen but I believe in God, and putting a smile on your face when you can, and trying to find the positive things and work toward them,” she told me. “The lesson I can offer to any survivor who’s struggling — through abuse or something else — is to put one foot in front of another and just be out there, so that something good can happen to you.”
For information on the judi rotenberg gallery, visit www.judirotenberg.com.
To participate in the Mother’s Day Flower Project, visit www.jwi.org.
(Danielle Cantor is design and communications manager at Jewish Women International.)