Monday, August 25, 2014

Reflections on Gathering in Grief for Hope and Healing: Israel / Gaza 2014 Conflict

 by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

After the violence began between Gaza and Israel, I felt such pain about the situation, and I didn't know what to do with those feelings. I was upset about many aspects and impacts of the conflict, and I was immobilized.

Then one day something shifted in me, and I suddenly found the strength I had been lacking. I began to realize that there is one thing we all share, and that is our intense grief – grief for those who have been killed, grief at the shattering of any hope that might have been building, despair that the future will ever brighten, and so much more. And it occurred to me that our grief could bring us together. I have led grief workshops in other contexts – facilitating and holding the expression of intense emotions in others are skills that I have. I realized that this was a way that I could do something, here was a way I could make a difference in peoples lives.

I reached out to my Muslim friend Chaplain Shareda Hosein, whom I know and respect from the chaplaincy world. When we spoke, she told me that when she read my email, she felt as though an aching prayer in her heart had been answered.

Shareda and I worked hard to design an environment for deep listening, which we wanted at the core of the program. The two of us clicked – the process was simple, for the planning simply flowed forth without hindrance. We contacted Open Spirit CenterA Place of Hope, Health, and Harmony, in Framingham, where both Shareda and I had previously lead workshops, and they eagerly agreed to host the event. 

Once Shareda and I knew what we wanted to do, we asked other faith leaders to help us facilitate the gathering, six in total, knowing that it would be too powerful for just the two of us to hold, and wanting to include our Christian friends. When the evening arrived, we had no idea how many people to expect, but at least there would be the six of us – Rev. Debbie Clark of Edwards Church and Open Spirit Center, Rev. Fred Moser of Church of the Holy Spirit in Wayland, Nabeel Kudairi of the Islamic Council of New England, Rabbi Matia Angelou, chaplain at Newton-Wellesley Hospital and Care Dimensions Hospice, Chaplain Shareda Hosein of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center and the Association of Muslim Chaplains, and myself, chaplain at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and rabbi of Ma’yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope.

When the evening came, people started arriving early. One woman told me that she wanted to get a parking space, and she feared the parking lot would fill up! Slowly people trickled in, in ones and twos and threes. Before long, the parking lot did fill, and we kept adding chairs to our circle.

Debbie welcomed everyone to Open Spirit, and we stated that we were not gathering to solve anything or to blame anyone, but to share what was on our hearts and to hear what was on the hearts of others. We acknowledged that what we had gathered to do was difficult, and that we needed both to be gentle on ourselves and also to hold ourselves to the ground rules we agreed upon.

We began by using ritual to create a sense of safe and sacred space. In the center of our circle we placed a large glass bowl of water. Shareda spoke about the importance of water in Muslim tradition for ritual cleansing, and then about gratitude. Matia gave each person a beach rock to hold, inviting them to squeeze it tightly if they found themselves triggered by something someone said. Fred spoke about deep listening from the perspective of Christian tradition.

Nabeel invited people to pair off and to practice deep listening by introducing themselves to their neighbor and then sharing about something for which they felt grateful. The previously quiet room was suddenly abuzz with voices as people got to know each other. We then took the time to allow each person to introduce his or her partner and to tell what they felt grateful for. A number of people mentioned their gratitude for being present in this gathering. We went around the circle in order, and by the time each person had spoken, the space inside our circle was being framed and held by gratitude. The sense of the sacred was imminent.

We turned then to grief. I spoke about the mosaic of grief: our grief in response to a personal loss is made up of many aspects and many emotions; it is not a single feeling, but a multitude of responses to our days, our environment, and our situation. When we are dealing with communal tragedy, it takes all of us together, with all of our myriad emotions, to create the mosaic of our grief.

We gave people sheets of colored paper and Debbie asked them to write down their feelings and place their papers on the floor. Gradually the floor became covered by paper “tiles” as we literally created the mosaic of our grief. As people finished, we spread out the papers and invited everyone to walk around and read all the comments.

Once we had returned to our seats, then, and only then, did we invite people to speak their grief. The circle of 39 people held all of our intense emotions. It was strong enough and solid enough to do so.

When we had finished speaking, we held our shared emotions in silence.

I spoke about post-trauma growth, and the fact that researchers have found that after a trauma, most people eventually work through it and grow. Our losses can, and do, transform us. We affirmed our dark emotions with a reading from Healing Through the Dark Emotions, by Miriam Greenspan.

We then shifted directions and invited people to speak about hope and faith and trust. Quickly, the positive connections began to flow and to fill the circle, entering into the spaces in the mosaic between the paper tiles of grief and fear and despair.

We took time for prayers from our heart, prayers for peace, prayers for the people of Israel and Gaza, prayers of hope and healing and faith.

The last words from one of the participants were – “We may have come in fear, but we needn't have. This worked. For me, it worked.”

We stood and stretched, with our arms and hands taking blessing into our circle and ourselves, letting it go outward in to the universe. And we concluded with Matia leading us in song, “Peace Will Come,” by Tom Paxton, which ends with the words “Peace will come, and let it begin with me.”

You and I, we cannot change the situation in Israel and Gaza. We can support those with whom we identify with our words and with our dollars, we can go there, we can support those we know who live there, but we cannot create peace there in the Middle East. We can, however, create a little bit of peace here, if and when we are ready to begin with ourselves.

Gathering in Grief for Hope and Healing: Israel / Gaza 2014 Conflict was not an ending, it was a beginning. We hope to build a cadre of facilitators willing and able to bring this program to other communities. We plan to develop follow up programs, to carry forth with the effort to connect with those with whom we may not agree by touching our emotions, and by building faith, and trust, and hope. We hope you will join us.

For more information, or to plan an event in your community, contact Rabbi Katy Allen at rabbi @ or Chaplain Shareda Hosein at shareda @

Rabbi Katy Z. Allen is the founder and leader of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope in Wayland, MA, and a staff chaplain at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. She is the co-convener of the Jewish Climate Action Network and the co-creator of Gathering in Grief: The Israel / Gaza 2014 Conflict.

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