Daring to Grieve Together: A Response to Death in the Tree of Life.
I spent the first 39 years of my life as a cultural and ethnic Jew, but not a religious one. I knew the people well, but not the religion.
When I uprooted from California and moved to Florida almost two years ago, that changed. I sought a sense of home, identity, belonging, and thus entered a temple for the first time. Temple, though I visit only occasionally, has since become a deeply sacred space of ancestral connection.
When the news hit last Saturday afternoon, I knew I needed to sit and to grieve with my people. To find solace in the company of shared stories, shared knowing, shared grief. To mourn not just the Tree of Life massacre, but the centuries of threat, fear, assault, massacre, the felt vulnerability of Jewish existence. When I learned the rabbi would be holding a special service on Sunday, I determined to go.
The temple, usually sparse on a Sunday morning, was full. Yet when the rabbi spoke, the tenor of grief was subdued. Given the number of children in the room, he spoke of the “bad things” that happened the day before, and the promise of our safety that day, given the police presence outside.
It was a difficult balance to strike, no doubt, between honoring the gravity of the moment and caring for the young psyches in the room.
Several faith leaders shared a few meaningful but brief words of solidarity and support, and then the rabbi led us through several prayers. Yet something in the room felt tight and contained. The service was hardly the collective wail I had expected.
Soon it was time for the little ones to go to Hebrew school, and for us adults to shift into an open discussion.
The discussion turned almost immediately to strategy: Do we now need police at every service? If so, shouldn’t the city pay? Why should we have to pay? And what was wrong with the brains of mass murderers? One congregant urged us to write letters to our congressional representatives to advocate for research on the brain defects of terrorists.
Hands shot up quickly for the rabbi to call upon, each speaker eager to introduce his or her ideas for how to keep us safe, to keep us protected, and make sure something like this never happened again.
The pitch of the voices in the room was high and tight. Urgency was thick in the air, as if to say: Hurry, they’re coming for us again, at any moment.
The beauty and the tragedy of our people’s survival mechanisms were front and center. The channeling of centuries-old grief and of fear into passionate intellectualism, an attempt to fix the problem, negate the threat, solve the puzzle — and quickly, before the oppressor comes — these did not emerge the previous day, but were born centuries ago in the traumatizing of our people.
I noticed my own heart starting to race. Panic. Hurry. We gotta fix it now. And simultaneously, a voice from deep within:
This is not why I came here today.
I knew I wanted to speak, but not what to say. I raised my hand regardless, and the rabbi called on me. Slowly I rose and faced everyone. I stood silently, clueless about what words would come.
I looked out at the human faces. Scared faces. Hurting faces. A few of them warm, with smiling eyes. All of them, my sweet people. All with me in the gaping void of that moment, with the uncertainty of what wanted to be said. The words I remember are:
I am noticing my pulse rising and my fear growing stronger, and I know that this fear is centuries old. I grew up feeling it, I know many of you did too. I know our ancestors felt it, and I am feeling it here today.
But I came here today because I wanted to be with you, my Jewish people. To feel your company. To grieve with you and feel connected to you.
My prayer is for us to feel not alone, to feel held and cared for in one another’s company. And so my hippie, therapy-loving self has an outlandish request. I would love touch. I’d like to request that anyone who is comfortable hold hands or make contact with your neighbor, and anyone who isn’t comfortable, please don’t.
I waited, unsure as to what would happen. The woman sitting closest to me offered me her hand. Surely enough, bodies shifted and hands began to reach. A line of connection weaving among the rows started to form.
There was one man in the front row with a particularly gruff demeanor, who had been advocating most vehemently for hiring private security. Suddenly he stood up and walked down the aisle toward the back of the room. Just as I thought he was about to walk past everyone and out the door, he stepped into the circle and asked to join hands with the others.
I invited us to notice the hands we were holding, the contact with our neighbors, the presence of safety and companionship and love in the room, and to breathe there.
The rabbi then stepped forward and invited us all to sing a line from the Mourner’s Kaddish.
Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael, v’imru: Amen.
(May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel — and all sentient beings. To which we say: Amen.)*
As we sang several rounds, I imagined these words being sung over the centuries, through the crusades, the expulsions, the herding of Jews into ghettos, through the pogroms and through the Holocaust. These same words recited and prayed, breathing spirit, communion, and sweet solace into the bodies of our ancestors, and now here, into our own.
The circle then broke. The discussion continued, and even though uncertainty over questions of security and prevention reigned high, there emerged softness in the voices, more women speaking, one woman daring to say she didn’t want more police officers, another daring to suggest we organize dialogue with white supremacists, even though it drew a groan and rolling eyes from most in the crowd.
When the rabbi concluded the discussion, several members I’d never met came to greet me, offering warmth and care in their voices and hands. The rabbi’s wife, too, approached, inquired about my work, and when I told her about Nonviolent Communication, asked if I would speak about responding to trauma to a group of Jewish faith leaders she directs.
Needless to say, I was moved and deeply grateful to feel the opening toward connection among the congregation — hands unclenching, hands reaching to say hello, offers of shared humanity, humble and uncertain, emerging among us.
I want this for all of us — this trusting of our instincts, this breaking of convention, this deep listening to our bodies and their longings.
And I want this daring to slow down amidst chaos, fear, and heartbreak. This daring to reach for one another to say, “Hello, I am here, I don’t have the answer, but I will stand with you.”
There is much debate to be had — on gun control, anti-Semitism, the need for multiracial coalitions, the impact of Trump’s divisive politicking. We need to organize — yes, oh yes! And… our bodies need our presence. Our hearts need hands to hold. Our rage and our fear, our terror and our grief — they need time and space to be felt, to mourn, to wail, to pound, to stomp, to shake.
May we not leave our hearts behind as we race to solve the tragedy of hate crime. May we allow wisdom to arise from our bodies, bringing our profound vulnerability and tender beating hearts with whatever precious time we have on this planet — to our organizing, to our space-building, to our campaigning, and to learning — again and again — what it means to love one another well.
* The translation I have offered adds the words “and all sentient beings” which is from a Jewish Renewal translation, and was not in our version of the Kaddish. Like most temples’ prayer books, ours spoke only of Israel. It is essential, to me, that reference to “Israel” not exclude the rest of humanity, and that we continually move to include all of us as equally blessed and worthy in the eyes of the Creator.
Marina Smerling is a life and relationship coach who supports women in radically authentic relating, based upon the possibility of saying Yes to our wildly beautiful and fallible human selves just as we are. Her work draws upon over a decade of training in Nonviolent Communication (NVC), the Hakomi Method’s mindfulness and somatic-based approach to transformation, as well as training with her spiritual teacher, Jeannie Zandi. When not coaching, Marina can be found organizing fossil-fuel divestment campaigns, nerding out over kombucha, dancing to anything with a beat, and otherwise navigating the art of living in a broken world with a wide open heart. You could contact her via her website.