By Rabbi Will Berkovitz, CEO
Recently, I was talking about grieving and how it isn’t fixed and linear. There isn’t one way to grieve; it looks different for everyone.
Grieving is like a twisted garden hose winding and snaking upon itself. We think things are moving forward, and yet we find ourselves seemingly where we started. In some ways, we are all grieving for so much that is broken and lost in our world, our country, and our community. It can challenge even the most optimistic among us.
Personally, I am grieving for the loss of freedom as the pandemic continues into its third year of swelling and fading. I am grieving for our planet as wildfires and mega storms rage across our country. And I am grieving for our nation and the Jewish community and the loss of our collective narrative—an unwillingness to let it evolve. It seems like there is no longer a collective “we.” And now I am also grieving for having to address the antisemitic graffiti that targeted JFS recently—I would much rather be serving people in need than talking to the FBI. But what I grieve most is for all the kids who are being raised amid this wreckage of our own creation.
There is a profound sense of fragility for so many things I once felt were stable. We can no longer use words like “benign” when “malignant” is more accurate. I have been having stress dreams lately, usually waking around 3:30 a.m. when the ghosts come out. The other day, while staring at the ceiling and listening to the dog snore, I realized this type of grieving may be different from the loss of a family member or a friend—but it is grieving. And it is needed both for us as individuals as well as a collective society. We need to recognize it, talk about it, and learn what it means on a communal level.
We can’t move forward if we don’t go through the process. As I learned as a kid when my mother died, the grieving will find us. We can’t just move on. We can’t pretend everything is fine. We need to reflect on what has happened, what is happening, and just be with it. As Elie Wiesel wrote, “There is no way around…the only path is through.” And that path means going into the wilderness of our sadness, pain, and confusion—not burying it. And then, over time, we need to stand up and start again. And again, and again and again. One day at a time. One step at a time. One simple act a time.
A few years ago, at the end of the month of mourning for my father, several people gave me their hand, helped me up and walked with me around the block, which is how the traditional Jewish mourning process concludes. It is a symbolic act meant to remind us that grieving takes time but eventually must take us back into the world. And that is done through community and by conscious choice.
Grieving is personal; mourning is communal. We need both. I want to encourage us to create opportunities for much needed communal mourning and vulnerable conversations. To be honest in a different way. To examine where we were and where we are going. It offers us a shared experience and a way forward together. Today’s societal anger and divisiveness may be what it looks like when we collectively try and bury the pain of loss rather than address it.
The challenge we face is that many of us are in active and deep grieving. While it can’t be rushed, we need to make sure we don’t fall into prolonged despair. We need to look for signs of hope, even in the smallest of places, where connection is possible and where there is a distant shimmer of light.
We help many of the people who turn to us at JFS address the collateral damage of loss. We see people grieving in different ways across virtually every area at JFS. It is one of the many ways I am humbled by the people who I work with. Daily, they live out the most important aspects of our tradition simply by living lives of service. By showing up and offering to quietly listen. By offering a hand to help carry the load. And in this way, the staff at JFS model an important part of what is needed in our society if we are going to make peace with our loss and move back into life. We need to help each other on the path back to light.
When I think about how best to move forward, I think about a word I recently learned: “respair.” It is a forgotten word dating back to the 14th century. It is a noun and a verb and means, “The return to hope after a period of despair.” It is where I will always put my faith: that we will all support each other as we move through our personal grieving and collective mourning and not just feel “respair,” but actively help bring it into the world together.
May 2022 be a year of respair,
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