Project Chai: Addressing Mental-Health Emergencies in the Community

chai lifeline
Rabbi Mordechai Gobioff

The tragic incidents in both Jersey City and Monsey have left many in our community shaken, raising so many questions. Thankfully, we have Rabbanim to guide us on a hashkafic level, and a myriad of chessed organizations that are first responders to any crisis, carrying out their tasks with care, compassion and concern.

Not only the physical aspects of any tragedy must be tended to, but it is equally important to address the emotional trauma that can come with such incidents. To that end, Chai Lifeline has created Project Chai, to offer crisis intervention services to help parents and communities navigate traumatic events, R”l, through mental-health support.

In the past year alone, Project Chai has led more than 1,300 interventions in schools, shuls, camps, and Jewish communities across the globe. In addition, scores of extraordinary men and women who share Chai Lifeline’s passion for helping acheinu Beis Yisrael have signed up to help with crisis intervention in their own communities — in Lakewood, Boro Park, Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Monsey, Five Towns, Toronto, Montreal, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Detroit, Baltimore, Chicago, Miami, Melbourne and Antwerp — with more communities on the way.

Hamodia spoke to Rabbi Mordechai Gobioff, MSW, national director of Client Services at Chai Lifeline, to find out more about these programs.

Most people in our community associate Chai Lifeline with the work they do for sick children, and their families. What is Project Chai?

Project Chai is the crisis intervention arm of Chai Lifeline. It was created to help those who were within the Chai Lifeline system to continue receiving support after the loss of a child.

What was the impetus to start Project Chai?

As the national director of services here at Chai Lifeline, I witness on a daily basis Chai Lifeline’s team of professional staff and volunteers facing various forms of the same question: What do we tell our children? Parents asking what to tell their children about a cancer diagnosis of a sibling. Educators asking what to tell their students about the sudden death of a beloved teacher or classmate. Camp staff asking what to tell their campers following a drowning. What do we tell our children about a natural disaster? The list goes on. We realized there was a need for us to address the mental-health aspect of these incidents and created Project Chai to fill that void.

Has Project Chai evolved over time?

Absolutely. We’re all unfortunately familiar with the attack on Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, followed by the shooting at the Chabad of Poway. The Jersey City Kosher supermarket attack is still fresh in our memories and now there was the stabbing in Monsey.

In addition to these specific incidents, targeted acts of violence against the Jewish community have tragically become all too prevalent across the United States. In New York City alone, anti-Semitic hate crimes have surged by 50 percent in just the past year, according to data from the NYPD.

As parents, it is becoming increasingly difficult to shield our children and families from the devastating effects of such horrific events which, if not addressed properly, can have negative lifelong consequences.

In fact, following the shooting in the kosher supermarket, I journeyed to Jersey City, where I met with Rebbeim, principals, and parents in a makeshift command center located in a shul.

The scene repeated itself this week in Monsey where I spoke with mispallelim in the shul of the attack. Everyone is visibly shaken and asking the same question: What do we tell our children?

How does Project Chai service these communities?

We have trained teams of volunteers whom we send down to a family, a school or, if need be, to a community. These teams are there to offer immediate support following crises, be it to the affected families or to the Rebbeim, teachers and community leaders who must now guide and nurture children effectively and appropriately through this difficult process.

Studies have shown that children may be particularly at risk when trauma occurs and the right, and early, response from their caretaker is critical.

Do you have a message for our community?

If the recent Jersey City attack can teach us anything, it is that it is time for our community to fully embrace the need for early childhood intervention following traumatic events — be it a mass shooting, or the sudden death or serious diagnosis of a classmate or loved one.

While we can’t necessarily prevent trauma, there is much we can do to mitigate its impact. We all know to call Hatzolah for medical assistance in case of a physical emergency.

Let’s make sure we know whom to call for assistance to prevent the next mental-health emergency.

Project Chai encourages anyone with questions or concerns about how to address an incident with their children/students to contact its 24-Hour Crisis Helpline: 855-3-crisis, or email crisis@chailifeline.org. English- and Yiddish-speaking counselors are on standby.

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The following practical suggestions were made by Rabbi Dr Dovid Fox, director of Project Chai. To hear Rabbi Dr. Fox’s full lecture, please call (605) 313-4101 Access code: 730435 Reference number: 5.

Parents, remember that the image which you model for your children is key. Your children look at you for encouragement, for the security that you offer them, and they gauge your words and reactions fairly accurately. Your young ones need to see that you are calm with them, not irritable, showing them patience and reassurance; allow them to express their fear, their worry, their sadness, their physical reactions. Listen to them. Sit with them. This is always your most important tool when your children turn to you. Do a lot of listening. Encourage them to vocalize their personal reactions. Do not try to talk them out of thinking their thoughts or feeling their emotions. Rather, give them perspective by validating that the news is indeed scary, and feeling scared is how we react when we learn of fearful events. If you validate their disclosures, they will open up further, and they will feel trust in your openness, and will then be more receptive as you do offer them reassurance.

Offer factual information to a child if that is what they seek, but keep their age, maturity and current emotional state in mind. You do not have to tell every child every detail. You do not have to make up happy endings to placate them. Do not brush concerns away, but rather give them reassurance that you are remaining alert and careful.

Chanukah is actually a good vehicle to discuss the hate-crime aspect of these tragedies with children, although in measured terms that will not excite additional fright. First help restabilize and reregulate your family. Then, address some of the realities of our living in galus, how we have an identity to maintain, and in age-mindful terms which a child can utilize, focus on the importance of tefillah, of mindfulness of our avodah, of drawing on our bitachon at all times.

You can expect some reaction, and much of the time, it will be stress rather than actual physical illness. Usually, stress reactions pass within a few days, but you do want to respect that if the body expresses the fear and sadness, it is not a put-on but it is a real reaction which needs understanding, compassion and gentle encouragement.

This is also a time for cohesiveness in the family. Whether at mealtime, casual time or by somehow creating time for parents and children to ground themselves by exercising the sense that they are safe in their home, that the family is a close-knit caring unit, and that some sense of normal structure is in place; you do want to send that non-verbal behavioral message that you are secure and communicating. For that matter, as soon as is feasible, you will want to restore for selves and family your regular routines, your productive schedules and that sense that personal and family life has a structure.