Forty years ago, Cecille Asekoff signed on as a part-time coordinator of chaplaincy for Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, the first place to utilize a chaplain funded by the federation which at the time was called United Jewish Federation of MetroWest.
“I took the job for those few hours a week at Beth Israel and have never looked back,” said Asekoff, who retired June 30 as director of the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of Greater MetroWest. “Now, I think four decades, since 1979, are enough.” The Joint Chaplaincy provides comprehensive, professional pastoral/spiritual care throughout the area (see sidebar).
Cecille and her husband, Stanley, natives of the Boston area, arrived in New Jersey in 1972 shortly after his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. The Asekoffs were drawn to the Conservative Jewish Center of West Orange, now B’nai Shalom, where Stanley served as that synagogue’s rabbi from 1979 to 2011.
Cecille’s part-time administrative gig evolved into significant contributions to the field of pastoral care at the local, national, and international levels, including assisting in the writing of national guidelines for pastoral care and helping to establish chaplain training programs in Israel.
“We are there to bring comfort and encouragement to many who are sick or frail,” said Asekoff describing a chaplain’s mission. “Just a visit can make a huge difference in someone’s outlook. We want patients and others to be connected to our Jewish community and to show we care about them.”
Asekoff’s work impacted the profession on a local and national level. At a November 2004 Council on Collaboration meeting in Portland, Maine, involving six national associations of chaplains and representing 10,000 members, Asekoff was part of a multi-faith professional chaplaincy committee which wrote national guidelines for pastoral care. A standardized program was the result of the work by a Council on Collaboration at that Portland meeting.
“This Council on Collaboration published four documents the chaplain associations still follow today,” said Asekoff. Thanks to Asekoff’s efforts, chaplains of all faiths in the U.S. are required to receive certification in pastoral care.
Nearly 13 years after the Portland meeting, the National Association of Catholic Chaplains honored her with its 2017 Outstanding Colleague Award “in recognition of her partnership in developing and promoting Jewish chaplaincy, as well the profession of chaplaincy for nearly three decades both in the United States and internationally.”
“They gave me a plaque, and I am proud of it,” said Asekoff. “All are still using what I offered today, stressing what we have in common and preserving what is unique to us.”
Rev. Thomas Craig, who directs a pluralistic chaplaincy program at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, has worked with Asekoff for 18 years.
“Cecille is just so competent, so caring and has always just embraced the chaplaincy,” he said. “The key in my mind is her passion for others. Her key word is collaboration.”
In addition to Saint Barnabas Medical Center, the Joint Chaplaincy tends to patients in Morristown Medical Center, Mountainside Hospital, Overlook Medical Center, and Trinitas Regional Medical Center. The Joint Chaplaincy Committee also tends to almost two dozen senior residences and to all the residents of the Jewish Community Housing Corporation.
Asekoff is recognized as a driving force behind the development of Jewish pastoral care, helping in 1989 to create the National Association of Jewish Chaplains and serving as its executive vice president for 27 years.
The National Association of Jewish Chaplains — which changed its name in 2014 to Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains — was located in the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany before moving its headquarters to Miami in 2016 after Asekoff stepped down from her position with the national organization.
Asekoff was honored in 2016 by Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains for her work in helping create and lead the organization.
Another local accomplishment for Asekoff is the formation of Creating a Caring Community Together (CCCT) initiative in 2013. This program consists of an annual one-day training for community volunteers and professionals. It also schedules a networking day with synagogues and organizations in order to share ideas, successes, and challenges.
Asekoff also established an accompanying global partner — Gisha L’Chaim (Life’s door): Creating a Caring Global Community Together — involving partnerships with chaplains both here and in Israel.
“I still plan on working with CCCT,” she told NJJN. “That will be my focus after I leave this job.”
Cecille and her husband, B’nai Shalom’s rabbi emeritus, will be married 50 years in September. They are the parents of two daughters and two grandchildren.
“All I can say is I was blessed to work with her,” said chaplain Pearl Lebovic of Maplewood.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on June 19 and updated July 24, 2019.
Related Articles: Humble beginnings of the Joint Chaplaincy Committee