The Jewish Community’s First Responder
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The Jewish Community’s First Responder

Zahava Farbman of Chai Lifeline counsels the bereaved, provides solace when tragedy strikes.

In Borough Park, Brooklyn, a young chasidic boy is kidnapped, his dismembered body discovered a few days later. In nearby Midwood, a fire strikes the home of a Sephardic family one Shabbat, killing seven children and badly burning a daughter and the family’s mother. In the waters of the Reynolds Channel, south of Far Rockaway, a yeshiva student from nearby Cedarhurst drowns in a boating accident.

When these headline tragedies strike the Jewish community here — and often, out of town and out of the country — one of Zahava Farbman’s iPhones rings.

Immediately, Farbman, associate director of crisis intervention, trauma and bereavement services of Chai Lifeline’s Project Chai, drives to the scene of the tragedy, to the homes where family members are still in shock, to the hospitals where relatives are looking for hope or absorbing a loss, to schools where a classmate’s chair is suddenly empty.

And, quietly, out of the headlines, Farbman starts the healing process, offering words of comfort or a shoulder to cry on.

She’s done this “hundreds” of times, she says.

Farbman’s resume identifies her as a “veteran traumatologist.” But over the last 14 years she has become the Jewish community’s mental health first responder.

“I’ve become a go-to person in the Jewish community for all kinds of crises,” Farbman says. “I never say no. I’m on the phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

She also serves as a volunteer in a similar capacity, at Hatzolah of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway. Her duties there have included talking the suicidal out of their wish to die.

Farbman’s solace-providing duties are considered part of the pikuach nefesh [life or death] situations that allows a Torah-observant Jew like her to answer the phone or travel on Shabbat.

“When I need her, she’s invaluable,” says Rabbi Elozer Kanner, a Hatzolah coordinator.

In the wake of tragedy, after the police and firefighters leave, sometimes while they’re still on the scene, Farbman is the first person on the job, counseling the bereaved in shiva homes, leading “pre-bereavement” discussions in hospitals with members of families who are facing an “inevitable” loss, addressing classes of day school students, talking to parlor meetings of mourning adults.

“It’s a specialized skill. It’s a world unto itself,” says Farbman, a Woodmere, L.I., resident who is 43 but looks much younger. Now studying for her Ph.D. at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work, she’s doing work that most people would rather avoid.

Farbman’s responsibilities represent an expansion in recent decades of the type of work with which most people associate Chai Lifeline — helping seriously ill children. Today Chai Lifeline has taken on a wider mental health portfolio, dealing with family members of all ages. Project CHAI calls itself “the only full-service bilingual crisis and intervention service dedicated to the Jewish community.”

“Now we deal with all kinds of illnesses,” Farbman says. “We respond to every kind of trauma.

She is in her small Midtown office this morning, talking about her career; most days, she’s in the field; sometimes she’s on a 6 a.m. flight, when she is needed in Chicago or Miami or Israel or somewhere else death has suddenly struck.

Because of confidentially, she offers few details of the often high-profile cases of death in the Jewish community where she has served (Leiby Kleitzky’s 2012 kidnapping, the Sassoon family’s 2015 fire, Aaron Tepfer’s 2013 drowning), other to say that she was called in.

Before opening the door to the latest scene of tragedy, Farbman will recite some Psalms for calm, strength and a reminder that she is not alone. “I feel like a messenger” of God, she says. Her prayer: “I should be a conduit.”

While Farbman’s work takes her to many parts of the Orthodox community, ranging from Modern Orthodox to charedi, she says her work takes her all over the Jewish community. “We” — she always talks in terms of being just one staff member of the Chai Lifeline team of mental health care professionals — “respond to every type of crisis in the Jewish community. I work with all types of Jews.”

Again, she offers no details about the assignments she’s handled.

The other members of her team are Rabbi Yaakov Klar, co-associate director of Project CHAI, who is based here; and Rabbi Dr. David Fox, director, who works out of Los Angeles.

They apportion the work equally, depending on who is available, whose background seems the best match for the particular situation — as a female, she is fully accepted into fervently Orthodox families and institutions, she says. “I deal with all types.”

A few weeks ago she acted as a facilitator at the Solomon Schechter School of Queens; a group of alumni had gathered to talk about a graduate of the Conservative school who had recently died of natural causes while serving with the U.S. Army out of town.

“She was effective” in helping the participants deal with their grief, says Rabbi Gerald Skolnik of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, the school’s spiritual advisor. “People were grateful.”

“Grief,” the rabbi says, “is not a denominational issue.”

People who know the focus of Farbman’s work sometimes get scared when they see her face at the door or her name on caller ID. “Everything’s OK,” she will quickly assure them; sometimes even a mental health professional makes social calls.

One of her toughest assignments was talking to the day school class of one of her daughters after a classmate had suddenly died. Farbman had to break the awful news. “It was horrible.”

A woman of faith, but not a rabbi, Farbman often has to answer deep theological questions at people’s most vulnerable moments — “Where was God?” “Why didn’t He answer my prayers?” “Why did” — my mother, my father, my husband, my wife, etc. — “have to die?”

“I get it in terms of unanswered prayer … I get this from all ages, from the far left and the far right” on the religious spectrum, she says.

The children’s questions are the trickiest to answer.

“I always answer,” she says.

“It’s important for the kids to know that God hears their prayers and uses their prayers,” Farbman says. “We just don’t know how” God answers the prayers. “They do not go to waste.

“God loves us and would never do anything to hurt us,” she assures the children. “Sometimes He does things we don’t understand.”

Do her answers offer comfort?

Parents and teachers tell her that they do, she says. They tell her that “I’ve definitely made a difference in children’s faith. It gives some of them the strength to continue praying.”

A native of Pittsburgh, Farbman has been involved in such outreach her whole life. Her father was a pulpit rabbi at an Orthodox synagogue; her mother was a day school principal. She saw her parents do “a lot of chesed for others.” Her mother and father founded an extensive bikur cholim program for visiting Jews, often hosting them in the family’s home.

“It was my first exposure” to such work. “It was right there in my house. It’s part of my DNA.”

“I’m a doer,” Farbman says. “God gave me this ability. I knew I always wanted to be involved in helping people.”

A graduate of Stern College for Women, Farbman has a master’s degree in social work from Wurzweiler. After graduating, she became assistant director of Chai Lifeline’s Camp Simcha for children with serious illnesses. “I was the ‘people person’” at the camp, dealing with campers and family members and camp staff, doing the type of work she does now. “I did a lot of this informally.”

As the camp session expanded, along with her workload, she accepted Chai Lifeline’s offer of her current position, which seemed to offer a more normal schedule.

“It was a natural transition,” she says.

Now her schedule is “fulltime plus.”

She wouldn’t think of quitting. “Besides my family, this is my passion,” she says. “This is my calling. This is my tafkid [purpose].”

But dealing with people who have suffered a loss is not easy. At the end of the day, she says, “I’m wiped out, drained, emotionally and physically.”

Does she fear burn out, or at the other extreme, becoming numb to other people’s pain?

No and no.

She has her forms of catharsis. “I walk. I spend time with my kids.” She has “seven, thank God.”

As far as becoming numb … “The day I become numb, that’s the day I quit my job,” she says. That hasn’t happened. “Every family I deal with is unique.” Each situation is different. “Everyone’s tragedy is the worst” to the people involved.

Thanks flow from the people whom Farbman has helped. Some, she says, invite her to family simchas like weddings and brises.

“You were with us in a terrible moment,” they will tell her. “We want you to be with us in a happy moment.”

steve@jewishweek.org

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