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Southern California Chaplains and Rabbis Prepare for Disaster and Healing

Wildfires. Floods. Terrorist attacks. More than forty rabbis, chaplains, social workers and emergency response officials convened last Tuesday to discuss the nature of these and other disasters—and how to help their communities heal in the aftermath. Rabbi Zahara Davidowitz-Farkas, who helped lead chaplaincy services in New York City following the September 11 attacks, taught the annual half-day seminar for chaplains and clergy held at the Jewish Federation Goldsmith Center in Los Angeles.

“Disaster victims come to us first,” said Davidowitz-Farkas, now based in Tucson, Ariz., and a member of the clinical faculty at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “We get the raw story—we get their initial fears.” Fifty-nine percent of disaster victims seek support from clergy, she said, compared to 45 percent who seek support from a physician and 40 percent from a mental health professional.

The seminar drew congregational rabbis, city officials and Jewish chaplains who work in hospitals, prisons, senior housing facilities and beyond. The event was co-sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California/Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, National Association of Jewish Chaplains, Kalsman Institute on Judaism & Health at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

“The audience’s diversity and high level of skill were remarkable,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis. “This seminar was a great opportunity for colleagues to share techniques and resources.”

Participants discussed strategies for preparation and response to a variety of disasters, including personal and congregational tragedies. “The main thing is just showing up, being there and providing a source of non-anxious presence,” said Rabbi Jason Weiner of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Davidowitz-Farkas covered topics ranging from physical and emotional responses to stress, to effective listening skills for “spiritual care” providers. She noted that the listening and counseling techniques are also key for rabbis and chaplains responding to congregational or community trauma.

Another main theme of the day was self-care for the caregivers themselves. Davidowitz-Farkas cautioned the chaplains, rabbis and other colleagues to guard against burnout and “compassion fatigue.” “Those in the community doing caregiving are also considered victims of a disaster,” she said. “Self-care is [crucial].”

For more information and resources, visit boardofrabbis.org

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