Chilean native and therapeutic counselor Calanit Paz brings the Torah to survivors of all stripes
It was emotional for Calanit Paz to interview Holocaust victims in their homes as part of her internship work for Jewish Community Services (JCS) in Florida. As a young woman who identifies with her Judaism very deeply and has studied in Israel, it was almost too emotional. As she puts it, in Paz’s line of work, you need to have a “poker face” and be very professional as you talk to clients about their story. However, hearing first-hand from individuals who survived the camps became too overwhelming, and Paz found it difficult to maintain a stoic disposition.
“This is the last generation of survivors,” she says. “And it’s my responsibility as a Jew to meet them, talk to them and transfer their message to my children so they can pass it on for generations to come. However, I recognize it was hard for me to hold my tears listening to what they’ve lived.”
In general, the Chilean Marriage and Family Therapist and Psychology graduate from Touro South (Touro’s Florida campus)—who also studied for a year in Israel—possesses tremendous compassion and sensitivity. It’s what drives her work at JCS, where she provides counseling to a range of those in need, from the LGBT community and those who struggle with addiction, to people who’ve persevered through enormous trauma. It’s an empathy Paz developed early on in life, and was fostered growing up in a part of the world where there wasn’t necessarily a progressive attitude toward post modern therapeutic treatment.
“I chose this specific agency because they had such variety,” she says. “I wanted to have exposure to diverse populations. I have been blessed with the ability to travel and live in different societies, so I believe I can relate to different people. I’ve also had many experiences that have made me more sensitive to others, especially minorities. I like people, and I am glad I was given the opportunity to help.”
Her initial attraction to therapy, for many years prior, was in the area of marriage and family counseling, which she still practices at JCS. “I saw that the Torah possess wisdom that can keep marriages alive,” she explains. “I wanted to use that wisdom and hopefully spread it to the world.” That’s where her time in Israel fit into the picture, giving her a place to further immerse in the Torah and consider ways to apply its lessons outside of everyday faith. “Israel was my base,” she remembers. “It gave me a solid religious and spiritual grounding. This is one of the reasons why I chose Touro, so I could continue with my Jewish learning.”
The irony, as she observes, is that religious groups can also resist guidance outside of what’s already in their scripture, something Paz hopes to help dispel. “Not only religious Jews, but religious people in general have a stigma toward therapists. If needed, they usually go to their guru, priest, rabbi or whoever their spiritual leader might be. Nonetheless, I have seen that people whom are very attached to their religious faith have a harder time accepting that their family or marriage is not as perfect as expected by their religious standards, thus many issues become hidden, or taboo. I wanted to be there to show it’s OK to seek help and that there is no reason to hide.”
Paz has seen the most immediate and noticeable change in attitude among the court-mandated cases who arrive at her office, particularly since they’re often the most skeptical. “For example, some of the people that come here for DUI counseling are in absolute denial as for the need to change. They are hesitant to therapy, especially because they are forced to come. And when they sit and start talking, they begin to realize there’s a lot on their plate. Every person has something they can improve, but if a person doesn’t want to help themselves, you can’t do much, all you can do is try to bring out that spark in the person that allows them to realize they do want to change and have a better life.”
And what that time and dedication to her work has given back to Paz is an even richer sense of compassion and implicit understanding toward her fellow human being. “It makes you judgment free” she offers. “Everyone has their own story, and you realize you’re not in anyone’s shoes... That’s been my lesson.”