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Chaplains’ group responds to Hurricane Sandy
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Chaplains’ group responds to Hurricane Sandy

Providing spiritual comfort in the wake of a natural disaster

The Whippany-based National Association of Jewish Chaplains has joined with the American Red Cross and chaplaincy organizations of other faiths to send specially trained disaster chaplains to provide spiritual counseling to residents of affected communities in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

In addition to emergency training for chaplains, the association is providing battery-powered candles and disposable grape juice containers called “Shabbat in a box,” along with ready-made kosher food packages and prayer cards in English, Russian, and Hebrew.

Thus far, six chaplains have been dispatched to hard-hit Jewish communities in Hoboken and in shore towns in New Jersey and New York.

But now that people are returning to their homes and their children are going back to school, “their needs are more long-term,” said Cecille Asekoff, executive vice president of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains and director of the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of Greater MetroWest. “The chaplains were not just giving aid to people sitting in shelters.”

With the passing days, many storm survivors’ spiritual needs are growing, she said. To meet the demand, the NAJC is calling on its members trained in disaster counseling nationwide to volunteer in stricken communities in New York and New Jersey.

“There is a spiritual element that must be addressed along with other very important needs, such as food, shelter, and clothing,” said Asekoff.

“It is about that spiritual part of a person which questions the validity of life and the presence of a god. Where was God during this disaster? Where was the community?”

Rabbi Shira Stern, a trained disaster chaplain and director of education at Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro, understands the role of a chaplain during and after natural disasters like Sandy.

“A chaplain’s role on a normal day-to-day basis is to be there for people who are in crisis, or who are hurt, or who are bereaved, or who are ill and dealing with long-term disabilities,” she said. “When it comes to disaster care, everything that takes place is chaplaincy on steroids.”

When chaplains visit survivors of disasters, “you walk into a room with maybe 500 cots. It is doing chaplaincy on the fly,” Stern said.

One group that is receiving special assistance from the NAJC is children.

“They are survivors who have been displaced from school, and it is not business as usual when they go back to school 10 days later,” said Asekoff. “We have a project that involves journals for older children to write about their feelings and bring them to a group to share with one another.”

There are children who have been especially traumatized by the storm. Stern told of a woman in one of the devastated communities on Staten Island “whose 11- and 13-year-old children saw bodies floating by.” The family, she said, “are now living in a shelter and getting treatment through the Red Cross.”

By joining with the Red Cross, the NAJC is reaching beyond the Jewish community.

“We work with everybody,” said Stern. “We are Jewish chaplains responding to disaster, not Jewish chaplains responding to Jewish disaster.”

Although the Red Cross and the NAJC are seeking more chaplains to receive training in disaster work, Stern said she believes not all chaplains are temperamentally suited to counsel survivors of a disaster.

“Disaster chaplaincy is always a hardship,” she said. “By and large, when we go to help people in disasters we are sleeping in shelters with them. We are not getting home and we are not getting the creature comforts we are used to.

“There are people who are naturally equipped to handle trauma, and they are much welcomed to help out,” Stern added. “But I am a strong believer in credentials and professional training because there is a great deal to know and there are comforting things and not comforting things people might say. People need to be vetted.”

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