Oil Gushes, Trust Evaporates

For four years, Rabbi Myrna Matsa has been working in Louisiana and Mississippi. Matsa was sent down by the New York Board of Rabbis to counsel rabbis and other clergy who were on overload meeting the needs of populations devastated by Katrina. And then the BP well exploded. She tells Lilith editor in chief Susan Weidman Schneider what it’s like now.

Lilith: In the wake of this second disaster, what’s the worst thing you’re seeing?

Rabbi Myrna Matsa: The oil spill was capped, but I don’t know when the ripple effect will be capped. People will just not know whom to trust. After the losses of Katrina, promises came from government, from volunteers who made promises not kept. So with the BP oil spill, people along the coast already had distrust. I’ve seen in other situations — for example, in battered women — what the inability to trust does to people trying to rebuild.

Given this profound lack of trust, what can you do?

My big focus is on mental health. When Katrina hit, much of the coast evacuated — that was the safe thing to do — and those who left were absorbed into other communities. What people don’t realize is that this meant the middle class too, including social workers and psychologists. There’s a dearth now of mental health professionals. Housing, food, clothing — the basics are taken care of. But hardworking fishermen, the tourist industry, they are all suffering. The mental health issues are going to be significant. I’m like a matchmaker at times. I can see needs and try to bring resources to that area.

You’ve said Israelis are a big help.

Israelis have come in, and they are phenomenal! The Israeli Trauma Coalition, funded by New York UJA-Federation, deploys teams of Israel’s experts on coping with the psychological impact of long-term violence all over the world. Jewish money came in to help in a very important way. Groups from Jerusalem and Kiryat Shmona have come to the Gulf Coast, and they’ve trained more than 450 people here in all sorts of professions and areas — all over Mississippi and Louisiana. They’ve reached about 600 kids in high school too.

My biggest concern is for the children. Children see their parents responding to what’s going on. Children are not equipped to make healthy decisions for themselves. If we can help these children learn important skills for how to negotiate their emotions we will be helping them for the future, help them build resiliency. If not, 15 years down the road we will see repercussions. Kids will just be acting out their physicality. After Katrina, there were increased suicide attempts — and completed suicides — in kids. When the parents go to BP for claims, there aren’t even toy areas or a place to play, or any positive presence. People are starting to talk about how to help the children when the parents are doing what they have to do to rebuild their lives.