When Cecille Asekoff, director of the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of Metro West and coordinator of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains, walked into the Ford Foundation’s tony offices on Manhattan’s East Side earlier this spring, she said, she felt “somewhat overwhelmed to be there.”
Asekoff was one of 22 invited guests at a “consultation” presented by one of the foundation’s grant recipients, Larry Kent Graham.
Graham, an ordained minister in the Church of Christ, wanted his guests to offer feedback about his two years of research on multiple generations of families touched by war.
Along with Asekoff, the people he invited included survivors of conflicts in Bosnia, Vietnam, and Germany, two high-ranking chaplains from the United States military establishment, and other representatives of chaplaincy organizations.
A professor of pastoral theology and care at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Graham focuses on providing spiritual care for the injured and the needy.
“I was the one Jewish voice there, and I felt an awesome responsibility,” Asekoff, whose office is on the Aidekman campus in Whippany, told NJ Jewish News after the March 22 meeting.
She said that she felt the issue of the Holocaust was “the unspoken elephant in the room.”
Part of the morning,” she said, was spent “pointing out features of care for families after war and sustaining ambiguous loss” — which she defined as “a loss without something tangible, like a body or a grave.”
“When they were taking about ambiguous loss, I felt I had to talk about the Six Million — all of whom were ‘ambiguous losses’ — or I would be letting down my people,” she said.
According to Asekoff, the German participants were pleased she brought up the subject.
“They are people in their 50s and 60s. They were interested in talking and in sitting next to me at dinner,” she said. “It may be their unfinished business, as it is ours.”
Discussion of the Holocaust blended into consideration of the more recent genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina — a three-year “ethnic cleansing” campaign by the Serbian government to exterminate 40,000 Muslims.
“The Jewish experience of the Holocaust made Jewish people and Jewish organizations very sensitive to Jews and their families at risk in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Graham told NJJN in a cell phone interview.
But the professor said his research did not include Israelis and Palestinians, two other peoples who have had long exposure to warfare.
“It did not become possible when the study was in its inaugural phase, and then I didn’t have the time or resources to do it,” he explained. “My hope was in the United States I could interview people from a Palestinian background and a Jewish background. They have perspectives over several generations. But that hasn’t eventuated the way I had wanted.”
Graham said he avoided talking with American families who have felt the effects of the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “I would be getting their perspectives on what was happening now and not family traditions over a long period of time,” he said. “I found it is difficult to get trans-historical perspectives when people are so impacted by currently unresolved and threatening situations. That was one reason I did not go to Israel and Palestine.”
As he proceeds with a research project that has no end in sight, Graham said, he hopes to continue using Asekoff as a resource.
“I would want her to look at the questions I am asking as I go more deeply into my research. I want her guidance and her feedback and, in terms of interpreting the data, have her share with me how I present and how it may be received.”
To Asekoff, part of the experience meant “sitting next to and across from people who I would never ever have come in contact with.”
“What I learned was there are a lot of people who want to create a caring community on a multinational level. There are similarities between groups and we can work together to create a world that makes a qualitative difference in people’s lives.”