During a 2013 trip to Israel, a lightbulb went off in Pastor Christopher T. Harris, Sr.'s head when he visited NATAL, an Israeli NGO that seeks to advance the resiliency of Israeli society by addressing trauma.
When Harris, the spiritual leader of Bright Star Church in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, learned about the trauma Israelis experience from war and terror, he drew parallels between the communities on the South and West Sides of Chicago and Israeli cities near Gaza.
"One of the things that plagues Chicago is not only violence, but lack of access to mental health resources and facilities," Harris said. But five years ago, "nobody was talking about trauma. If they talked about it, it was so minor it had absolutely no traction or attention."
In NATAL, he saw a model for mental health treatment to address community trauma.
Upon his return to Chicago, the pastor reached out to NATAL, hoping to facilitate a partnership between Bright Star Church, Bright Star Community Outreach (BSCO), and NATAL, with the goal of identifying, training, and certifying faith leaders to provide trauma counseling based on the NATAL model.
NATAL professionals have traveled to Chicago twice, including early this summer, to assess the situation and explore possibly synergies between NATAL and the Bronzeville community.
The professionals saw many similarities between Israel and Chicago, according to Dr. Sigal Haimov, NATAL's director of professional programs and model development.
"People react and cope with trauma the same way, and resilience is built the same way," Haimov said. "When we came here, we realized there are many similarities between Israeli-Jewish culture and African-American culture, in terms of history and the multi-generational trauma we carry."
BSCO and NATAL worked together to create The Urban Resiliency Network (TURN) Center, a branch of BSCO's work addressing systemic issues in Bronzeville.
In late 2016, the TURN Center held its first five-week training for clergy in Chicago. A second cohort of religious, mental health, and community leaders completed the training in July, with a focus on the impact of trauma and how to heal from it.
"Part of what we teach them as individuals is that seeking help isn't weakness-it's a strength, and it's a domino effect," Haimov said. "Once you work with this group, they deliver the message throughout the community."
The training allowed the leaders to address their own personal traumas, some for the first time.
Through NATAL's training, Pastor Albert Simmons, of First Paradise Baptist Church, discovered the importance of self-care. "In my vocation, everyone expects you to give them an answer," he said. "I was there for everybody, not realizing I was neglecting myself. I realized that in order for me to help someone else, I had to first be whole myself."
The 22 leaders who went through NATAL's training have reached more than 12,000 people with messages of mental health awareness. In addition to public advocacy and education, the TURN Center operates a toll-free helpline. To date, 40 Chicagoans have received counseling, referrals to clinicians, and assistance with other needs, such as finding a job or housing.
JUF has been a proud supporter of NATAL's trauma intervention and resiliency programs for years, which is a source of pride for Skip Schrayer, who is both a longtime JUF board member and a BSCO board member.
"It's so easy for me to live in Highland Park, read the paper on Monday, and say, 'tsk' about how many people were shot over the weekend-but it made me uncomfortable-and I felt we all needed to be part of a solution," Schrayer said. "When I met Pastor Harris, I was inspired and excited that I can work in partnership with Israel, the Chicago Jewish community, and the Chicago African-American community to help fix this."
While many of NATAL's resources in Israel have translated to Chicago, some differences remain.
"A lot of the trauma they have been addressing in Israel is different than here," Harris said. "We don't have missiles, we have bullets. It's the same result-a missile can destroy a family, a home, a body, but we don't have 15 seconds of a warning. It's a drive-by shooting. You can be standing there and not even be the target. We don't have a place to run."
Despite Chicago's unique challenges, the partnership has strengthened the ties between Chicago's Jewish and black communities. "If you want to impress me, don't show me another picture of Dr. King and Rabbi [Abraham Joshua] Heschel," Harris said. "Let's keep the old frame and put in new pictures of us doing work together. This work allows us to do that."
For more information on Bright Star Community Outreach, visit