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Jewish Trauma Consortium

By: Manuel Wertman  

This past September 11, New Yorkers marked the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. It's an anniversary that most of us acknowledge by remembering where we were when we heard the terrible news, by remembering the frightening scenes of the Twin Towers ablaze and by remembering all the victims of that tragic day. Many mourn the loss of a relative or a friend. 

All New Yorkers, indeed all Americans, came together in the hours and days after the attack, to offer assistance and support to rescue workers, survivors and families of victims. Those of us who work in the social services fields made our contribution by providing psychological support and counseling to rescue workers, victims and friends and family of victims as well as to those who were traumatized by being witness to the attack. Many mental health professionals converged on designated staging areas to offer their assistance. Eventually the federal government, working with New York State, designated a number of New York City agencies, including Ohel, as Project Liberty providers. These agencies were asked to provide mental health screenings and trauma counseling to the many New Yorkers who experienced more intense and painful reactions to the attacks. A significant portion of the population found themselves experiencing a variety of symptoms including anxiety, sleeplessness, depression, obsessive thoughts and frightening memories of the attacks, all of which impaired their ability to conduct their day to day lives. 

Since there was no experience with the horrific nature of this attack it is understandable that the initial response to survivors, rescue workers, family members was unorganized and chaotic notwithstanding the large numbers of people in all walks of life who were looking to help. In the first hours and days after the attack, deploying counselors in the most effective manner was a challenge. As time passed city, state and federal officials became more and more effective in providing assistance wherever and to whomever it was needed. In the end, New York city came through and the majority of people who needed assistance, whether material or psychological, received that assistance. 

Since 9/11 a Department of Homeland Security had been formed and many agencies have begun to organize themselves in what is known as "disaster preparedness". The common thinking is that it is just a matter of time before terrorists make another attempt to commit mayhem. And in addition to the well understood need to prepare for the possibility of another terrorist event, the catastrophe caused by Hurricane Katrina and the much publicized inept response to that natural disaster has taught us the vital importance of proactive planning and having the ability to respond to any kind of disaster in a much better organized way.

CULTURAL SENSITIVITY 
What is well understood to those who provide psychological services after a major disaster, is that the response needs to be offered in a culturally sensitive manner. Persons who have been psychologically wounded, who are in shock, who are susceptible to developing PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) are best engaged by someone that they recognize as understanding their unique, personal, cultural and religious background, someone they can trust. A widely shared story after the 9/11 attack was of a psychological first aid station that was set up in a church meeting room to serve the neighbors of the surrounding community. The organizers observed that identifiably Jewish residents were not availing themselves of help but didn't realize that many religious Jewish residents were simply not comfortable entering a church building to obtain services. Now, New York City disaster preparedness agencies are stressing the need for culturally relevant services to be developed to address the needs of each of the specific ethnic, cultural and religious groups that comprise this city. 

The Jewish Trauma Consortium
Both before Project Liberty and continuing after Project Liberty, Ohel has been a leader in providing trauma services to individuals throughout the metropolitan area. In addition to New York City, Ohel has provided direct trauma services or consultations regarding trauma situations in New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania, Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles. The requests for assistance in trauma situations have been for events such as sudden accidental deaths, violent criminal attacks and shootings, rape and other forms of sexual abuse. In each of these cases Ohel deploys trained, credentialed therapists with specific specialization in trauma work to assist victims, families and communities with compassionate, confidential care. 

In early 2005, staff at Ohel Children's Home and Family Services began discussing an expansion of its existing trauma services. Many people feel that in light of continuing terrorist attacks around the world such as the London subway bombing, the Madrid train bombing and the Indonesian night club bombing, it is just a matter of time before there will be another attack on New York, G-d forbid. In addition, New York City is vulnerable to serious hurricanes like the one that struck New Orleans or other natural disasters like earthquakes. In light of the potential for these types of threats, Ohel invited the leadership of its sister agencies, including Pesach Tikvah, JBFCS and other social service organizations that serve the Jewish community to join in the development of a Consortium of Jewish trauma providers. The purpose is to organize and plan how to work together in a coordinated way should there be another major, mass casualty incident in New York City. The goal of the Consortium is to enable well trained and qualified professionals to be first responders, providing a specifically Jewish trauma response throughout Jewish communities in metropolitan New York City. A common training and development of emergency response procedures will facilitate a timely response wherever it is needed. 

Over the course of the following year, under the leadership of Manny Wertman, Chief Operating Officer at Ohel, Simcha Feuerman, Director of Community Mental Health Services and Arlene Etengoff, Director of Training, the Consortium met to discuss how to implement its goals and the complicated issues of planning for unknown and unpredictable disasters. The group met with a representative of the Office Of Disaster Preparedness and Response of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Health to discuss collaboration with a wider system of disaster responders so that the Consortium would be integrated into a larger city-wide effort, should the need arise. 

In November 2006 Ohel Children's Home and Family Services organized a training for therapists designated by the Consortium members. David Pelcovitz, PhD, renowned trauma expert, provided training on risk factors for developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, developmental differences in coping with trauma, guidelines for interventions and related matters. This training will continue periodically so that therapists keep their skills sharp and develop a sense of group cohesion. Senior staff of the agencies will develop ways to communicate with each other and with their trauma specialists so the therapists can be deployed in an effective and helpful way. 

The Jewish Trauma Consortium represents the united efforts of a number of agencies that serve the Jewish community of greater New York City. It demonstrates the commitment of these agencies to pool their talents and resources and to coordinate the delivery of mental health trauma services to fellow Jewish and, if needed, to other New Yorkers should the need arise. We all pray that there never be another 9/11, that the prediction of a major hurricane turns out to be just a rain storm and that a future earthquake hits in an unpopulated area. But prudence compels us to prepare for any eventuality. 

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