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Chaplaincy effort links Jewish, Haitian clergy
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Chaplaincy effort links Jewish, Haitian clergy

Spiritual care experts to share perspectives on disaster response

Cecille Asekoff, left, director of the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of MetroWest and executive director of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains, and Kira Breytburd, Asekoff’s coordinator of special projects, inspect the Internet for new develo
Cecille Asekoff, left, director of the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of MetroWest and executive director of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains, and Kira Breytburd, Asekoff’s coordinator of special projects, inspect the Internet for new develo

Chaplains from three New Jersey Jewish federations are teaming up to provide spiritual assistance to survivors of Haiti’s devastating earthquake.

The chaplains will come from United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey, the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, and UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

“Chaplains trained in the spiritual care aspects of disaster relief will be training Haitian and other Creole-speaking clergy to provide that care,” said Cecille Asekoff, director of the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of MetroWest and executive director of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains.

“In addition, the agencies run by the Jewish federations in these three areas will set up prayer circles and other ways of responding to the spiritual needs of the Haitians who work in those agencies.”

The training will be conducted under the auspices of the NAJC, which received an $11,000 grant from the Jewish Coalition for Haiti Relief.

Because Haitian-born priests and ministers in the area have lost friends and relatives themselves, she said, she considers them “both care providers and victims.”

“We want local Haitian congregational clergy to learn disaster spiritual care techniques so that they are able to help their own congregants and will be able to cope themselves,” Asekoff said.

The earthquake has also had a profound effect among Haitian workers at various Jewish social service agencies, such as the Daughters of Israel nursing home in West Orange.

“It is important that there be an official response from the Jewish community,” said Asekoff, whose office is on the Aidekman campus in Whippany. “We feel it is important to make a public acknowledgement of the hundreds of Haitian people with whom we work and live.”

Asekoff said she would like the programs to coincide with the start of the Passover and Easter seasons, “a time with a lot of spiritual and religious overtones,” she said. “It is a particularly sensitive time of the year.”

The Haiti disaster and the earthquake that hit Chile a month later have inspired Asekoff to urge the creation of a full-time disaster relief chaplain position in New Jersey’s Jewish community, and beyond.

“I would like to see a collaborative project on a multi-faith level, spearheaded by us, of a disaster chaplain…. We hope a disaster doesn’t happen any time soon,” she said, “but that chaplain would gather together clusters of local clergy to teach them how to respond within their congregations. They would be a resource to rabbis in disaster spiritual care techniques.

“A congregational rabbi is really like a general practitioner in medicine,” she explained. “He or she would have access to a specialist in disaster spiritual care to help him or her navigate.”

Previously, Asekoff’s organization dispatched chaplains to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and to the campus of Virginia Tech, where a gunman killed 32 people and injured 25 others in 2007.

Kira Breytburd, who works with Asekoff as coordinator of special projects at the chaplaincy service, said her mission “is very exciting. It can make a difference in the lives of people who have suffered so much. They are still suffering, and if we can do anything to relieve their pain, it would be great.”

Asekoff is asking that people who wish to volunteer, especially those who speak Creole, contact her at 973-929-3168.

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