Local | Mind, Body & Spirit | Volunteer Salute

CHAI Circle brings power, connection to local women living with cancer

Irene Gefter, Jewish Family & Children's Services executive office Aaministrator; Helene Rothstein, CHAI Circle volunteer; Alice Steinfeld, CHAI Circle volunteer; Susan Kasle, JFCS vice president of community services.(Courtesy Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Southern Arizona)

One Sunday each month, two dedicated psychotherapists come together to provide a salutary space for female cancer patients and survivors in the Tucson Jewish community.

Alice Steinfeld and Helene Rothstein are therapists and friends who facilitate the cancer support group, CHAI Circle.

CHAI (Cancer, Healing and Inspiration) Circle has met for the past 17 years. The group, which operates under the auspices of Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Southern Arizona, provides education, mentoring, socialization, spirituality, and support within a Jewish context. Sessions often are leavened with humor.

Rothstein has worked as a therapist for 40 years, specializing in children’s counseling, and is now semi-retired. 

Steinfeld has been working as a therapist for over 25 years counseling adults, children and couples on loss, grief, and life transitions.

Along with CHAI Circle, the two women work together at Canyon Ranch Wellness Resort in the life management department.

Steinfeld was the first to become involved with CHAI Circle after her close friend, Bryna Zehngut, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Zehngut, who died in 2008, sought to have a free discussion space available to Jewish women with cancer and asked Steinfeld to facilitate some of the meetings.

Over time Steinfeld became more present as a discussion leader for the group.

“It became clearer from the members of the group, that they were expressing feelings that were really deep and consistency was important to them,” she says.

The position of leading confidential group sessions made her feel it necessary to have another facilitator who could also be a consistent presence.

When the spot for a second facilitator opened, Steinfeld asked Rothstein to lead the groups with her.

“It’s been a great journey for Alice and me, in terms of our friendship and profession,” says Rothstein.

The group brought them closer together as friends, so it doesn’t come as a surprise when they say that group members cultivate similar relationships. Some of the members have been attending since the beginning.

“I think there is a sanctity about our group sessions,” Steinfeld says. “They really preserve this as a special time.”

Steinfeld and Rothstein both acknowledge that the relationships these women build go beyond friendships. They become sacred relationships built on equal parts testimony and listening.

“I think people attend the group for their own purposes, as well as a gift to others,” Rothstein says.

The women are remarkably generous to each other, says Steinfeld. There’s a willingness to be there for one another and listen, even if they may not be close friends.

Each month’s meeting has a new theme, chosen by the group’s board. Guest speakers often support the themes, which have included everything from art to nutrition to yoga. Rothstein explains that they will usually read from the Torah and group members are given the opportunity to connect healing with spirituality.

Rothstein says, “It’s a fabulous opportunity for them to start thinking on a different level about something that they hadn’t thought about before.”

The group members are encouraged to ask personal questions throughout the session to reaffirm how the information correlates to their own lives.

Steinfeld says that she has learned and grown along with the women from her years of facilitating CHAI Circle.

“When I experience personal stressors or situations that have been medically scary for me or a loved one, I can draw upon the strength exhibited in this group,” she says.

The two women speak highly about a power that manifests during the group’s discussions.

“There is a celebration of life, even though it may not be the life they want,” says Rothstein.

Discussions range from diagnoses to family and travel.

“They are great at being their own best references; they know about what’s going on in the community with resources and treatments,” Steinfeld. “They are incredible resources to each other.”

Steinfeld and Rothstein are overwhelmingly proud of CHAI Circle’s function within the community.

“Helene and I both love doing this and it’s from the bottom of our hearts,” Steinfeld says. “Nobody does life alone and we want to provide the ability for people to have each other.”