Hope and Healing from a Mental Health First Responder


The calls come in to Zahava Farbman’s home at any time, day or night, usually from a stranger.

“Mrs. Farbman,” they typically say, “I need help.” Someone in the caller’s family is dying of the coronavirus. Or has died.

And Farbman’s work as a mental health first responder starts again.

With the official title of associate director of crisis intervention, trauma and bereavement services of Chai Lifeline’s Project Chai, the Woodmere, L.I. resident has become a familiar face here and in Jewish communities around the country. For nearly two decades she has driven to the scene of tragedies, to 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.

In each place, she has started the healing process, offering words of comfort or a shoulder to cry on.

Today, almost all her work is Covid-19 related.

And she, abiding by social distancing regulations, does all her work from home.

During the last three months she’s taken to the computer and the phone, offering solace to the relatives, classmates, friends and neighbors of those afflicted with the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. “Everything is Zoom and phone,” Farbman says. Though Chai Lifeline is under Orthodox auspices, she and her three-member team of full-time professionals and hundreds of trained volunteers offer solace to the entire Jewish community on a nondenominational basis.

“I’ve become a go-to person in the Jewish community for all kinds of crises,” says Farbman, a veteran traumatologist who also serves as a volunteer in a similar capacity, at Hatzolah of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway.

After EMTs and physicians and nurses do their job, Farbman and her colleagues step in; the former group deals with patient’s physical health; Farbman tends to the emotional well-being of men and women. “What do I do now?” they ask her. “How do I break the news to my children?” “Why did this happen?”

Though not a rabbi, Farbman is often called upon to act in a quasi-rabbinic, chaplain’s role, bolstering people’s faith and resolve.

Her responsibilities represent an expansion of the work done by Chai Lifeline, founded in 1987 to help seriously ill children. Today the nonprofit has taken on a wider mental health portfolio, dealing with family members of all ages.

During the pandemic, “We’ve been hearing from countless parents who are struggling to maintain a semblance of normalcy in their homes as they confront job losses, their own illnesses and increased anxiety — all while caring for a child with serious illness,” says Rabbi Simcha Scholar, the organization’s founder and CEO. “In recent weeks, we’ve seen a surge in demand for our services and we are committed to helping everyone in need.”

Those services include meals delivered to hospitals and homes, emergency financial assistance, transportation to medical appointments, personal protective equipment for immune-compromised families, insurance advocacy, care packages for quarantined children, counseling, support groups and personalized case management. Chai Lifeline’s volunteers connect with children virtually over the phone or Zoom, and help families with shopping for essential items like groceries or pharmaceutical items. 

To keep children at home occupied and entertained, Chai Lifeline has launched an online entertainment channel, www.chailifeline.org/channels, which features stories, music videos, exclusive concerts, magic shows and other content.

When the extent of the coronavirus crisis began to become apparent, Farbman anticipated that her job would change and her working hours would greatly expand. Her first call during the pandemic came from family whose father had died of the disease.

Sometimes she speaks to a single individual, sometimes to virtual gatherings of a few hundred people.

Each session begins and ends with a silent prayer, Farbman says.

“She is a great listener. She makes the person feel as if he is the only person in the world. People feel heard, validated,” says Rabbi Netanel Gralla, an educator from Cedarhurst, L.I., who has received crisis intervention training from Farbman. “She is extremely empathetic.”

A native of Pittsburgh and graduate of Stern College for Women, she has been involved in such outreach her whole life (her father was a pulpit rabbi; her mother, a day school principal). Farbman is studying for her Ph.D. at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work.

But, she says, “Nothing prepares you for this” — the scope of death and suffering she had witnessed in recent months. The worst part, she says, is doing all her work long distance. “I want to be able to hold their hands. I want to be able to see the kids’ faces.”

As a woman, Farbman says, she is fully accepted into fervently Orthodox families and institutions, who have suffered a disproportionate amount of Covid-19 diagnoses. She declines to comment on the high-visibility incidents of charedi Jews flouting social-distancing regulations, or on the mood of the charedi community.

Her volunteer work with Hatzolah frequently requires her to handle calls on Shabbat, to talk the suicidal out of their wish to die. “A lot of people are anxious” these days, she says. Covid-19 pressure “sends them over the edge.”

She has a dedicated cell phone for such calls. “If the phone rings on Shabbos, that’s pikuach nefesh,” or a matter of life and death, which suspends normal Shabbat prohibitions, Farbman says.

“I have little opportunity to reflect and process,” she says of her 24/6 — sometimes 24/7 — schedule. The rate of coronavirus death and diagnosis in the area is decreasing. “It’s easing up now,” she says. “Thank God the amount has slowed down.”

“Now we’re dealing with the aftermath, the PTSD,” she says.

Farbman cites the opinion of Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, a 16th-century scholar and philosopher in Italy, who explained the difference between the Hebrew terms “maka” — a plague whose consequences and repercussions are immediately evident — and “magefa,” a plague whose physical damage “is over but the fear remains,” Farbman says.

The issues range from people who have “experienced a lot of death” to students dealing with the lack of closure at the end of the academic year, and had no chance to say goodbye to their classmates face-to-face.

“Things are just getting started,” she says. “My work is just beginning.”