It was an eye opening experience for 17 volunteers and their spouses, who shared a simultaneously restorative and informative Shabbos with a group of bereaved parents at Project C.H.A.I.’s annual retreat for couples who have lost a child, the only one of its kind in the world.
An acronym for “Chizuk, Help And Inspiration,” Project C.H.A.I. was founded by Chai Lifeline in 2003 to help bereaved parents cope with their grief, in time evolving into a separate division that also offers trauma and crisis services under the direction of Rabbi Dr. David Fox, director of interventions and community education, and Zahava Farbman, associate director. Now an international program that assists families, schools, camps, synagogues and community institutions in times of need, Project C.H.A.I. has male and female first responders on the ground in multiple Jewish locales including Boro Park, Williamsburg, Lakewood, Monsey, Kiryas Joel, Monroe, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Montreal and Antwerp, with several more prospective communities currently in the planning stages.
25 Project C.H.A.I. couples participated in the bereavement retreat at Camp Simcha, taking part in concurrent counseling sessions for parents and training groups for the first responders. Volunteers heard from Rabbi Baruch Gradon, rosh kollel of Los Angeles’ Merkaz Hatorah Kollel, on Friday night about dealing with the suffering of others, while a Shabbos morning workshop given by Rabbi Gradon and Rabbi Simcha Scholar, executive vice president of Chai Lifeline, focused on being a skilled helper. An afternoon workshop discussed potential halachic issues that first responders may encounter and featured a live question and answer session, with all of the retreat’s participants enjoying an interactive panel discussion held later in the day.
Parents and volunteers spent time together throughout the powerful weekend, enjoying a Shabbos filled with inspiration where every detail was thoughtfully executed from start to finish. While comparing notes with other Project C.H.A.I. first responders was extremely productive, speaking to bereaved parents was “eye opening to the nth degree,” observed Montreal volunteer Dov Grossnass.
“Talking to people who had gone through the process opened my eyes in ways I hadn’t expected and helped me realize how much more serious the work we do is,” said Grossnass. “I walked away with a greater understanding of what goes through the minds of people in crisis. The experience of talking to parents after the event, and to see how much they still need, makes me realize how much more reverence we have to have for what they will be going through over the years.”
First responders found the program so valuable that they requested additional training after the Motzei Shabbos melava malka ended, staying up until 2 AM in order to be able to provide an even higher level of service to those in need.
“They are very dedicated individuals,” said Rabbi Mordechai Gobioff, director of national services for Chai Lifeline. “They are our soldiers on the ground. We couldn’t do this without them.”
Rabbi Scholar had high words of praise for the volunteers, who are often called upon to deal with intensely difficult situations.
“These team members give us the ability to affect every member of the community in every place in the world,” said Rabbi Scholar. “They are the lifeline of the whole Project C.H.A.I.”