On a mid-week day, a group of Haitian staff members gathered in a room at the Daughters of Israel in West Orange. There was no offer of material assistance; they came for help dealing with the emotional anxiety plaguing them months after the earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 of their countrymen.
The gathering was part of a program put together by chaplaincy programs of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey, the Jewish Federation of Central NJ, and UJA Federation of Northern NJ.
Two healing circles and stress-reducing sessions were offered at Jefferson Park Ministries in Elizabeth, and sessions were scheduled for, among other venues, the Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest in East Orange — where there are more than 100 Haitian students — and at the Jewish Home of Rockleigh in Bergen County.
The program is funded through an $11,000 grant of the Jewish Coalition for Haiti Relief and the National Association of Jewish Chaplains with the cooperation of the local federations and agencies.
The funds will also cover training — conducted under the auspices of the NAJC — for Haitian and other Creole-speaking clergy to help them provide post-disaster support to victims, and those — like local Haitian residents — deeply affected by the catastrophe.
Cecile Asekoff, executive director of NAJC and director of the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of MetroWest, said that they didn’t even try for the grant in the first few weeks after the giant earthquake in January. “There were other needs that were so much more pressing, for material and physical assistance,” she said. “But as time has passed, the emotional and spiritual needs have become more evident.”
Two national areas with a high concentration of Haitians were selected, said Asekoff; New Jersey has the third-largest concentration of Haitians in the country, and many of these individuals work within facilities that are connected with the Jewish community. Asekoff and her coordinator of special projects, Kira Breytburd, is organizing the outreach together with the Rev. Julie Taylor, executive director of the nonprofit, nonsectarian Disaster Chaplaincy Services, and the Rev. Noster Montas, a Creole-speaking Haitian clergyman.
At one of the Elizabeth gatherings, Taylor and Montas talked with people about their feelings, led them in song, guided them through some deep breathing meditation, and clasped hands to say a blessing with each participant. Asekoff described the approach as offering “godliness with or without mentioning God.”
With 10 deep breaths you can ease your tension, Taylor told the participants. A number of them had tears in their eyes, but there were smiles as they dispersed.
The idea, she said, is not to suggest pathology — offering sympathy for assumed distress — but rather to enable those involved to recognize what it takes to deal with the pain they are all going through, and to highlight their resilience.
“People get comfort from the sense of community,” Asekoff said. “It helps to be together with others who are going through the same struggle as you are. And I think it helps them to know that people in other communities care about them.”
The Jewish community, through her organization, has worked in the past with other communities that have gone through disasters. That has included sending chaplains to New Orleans in 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, and to the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007, after a gunman shot dead 32 people and injured another 25.
Askekoff has said she wants the NAJC to launch a collaborative project, carried out at a multi-faith level, to train more chaplains to provide spiritual support for communities that have gone through such traumas.