Grief camp, memorial mark Jewish Healing Month

Ruach Ami, the Bay Area's Jewish healing center, constantly gets calls from Jews seeking prayers and guidance to face such traumas as chemotherapy, miscarriages or chronic pain.

The scenario was vastly different when Ruach Ami opened six years ago and the concept of "Jewish healing" was new.

"People wondered what it meant…When we started this organization, it was very difficult to get community support," said Ruach Ami administrative director Marsha Guggenheim, who has worked there since it opened in 1992.

The concept of turning to Judaism for spiritual healing has since crossed into the mainstream.

"I think today when Jews are confronted with illness, they won't be satisfied with just getting medical care anymore," Guggenheim said this week. That's due to a greater focus on spirituality and to studies showing that "people do better with illness when they have a spiritual component in their lives."

As part of its continuing effort to spread the word about using a Jewish spiritual framework to deal with sickness, death and mourning, Ruach Ami is marking its second annual Jewish Healing Month in May.

Jewish Healing Month coincides with two events: a weekend retreat for the bereaved and a community service to remember the dead.

"A Healing Weekend for Bereaved Individuals and Families" will take place Friday, May 15 to Sunday, May 17 at Camp Tawonga near Yosemite National Park.

This is the second year for the retreat, which focuses on creating mutual support and comfort within a Jewish framework for those in mourning.

"We learned so much," Ruach Ami's Rabbi Eric Weiss said of last year's retreat. "It was an extraordinary, transformative experience for people."

The cost is $150 for adults, $110 for children and $65 for toddlers under 3. The S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services is a co-sponsor. To register, call Ruach Ami at (415) 750-4197.

A twice-yearly memorial service will take place at 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 27 at Congregation Sherith Israel, 2266 California St., S.F.

Ruach Ami calls the event an Azkarah service, not a yizkor service.

Both are services of memory and remembrance, Weiss said, but the Azkarah incorporates elements not found in the traditional yizkor service, such as wordless melodies — called niggunim — and contemplative readings. The service also tries to reach out to Jews who do not belong to synagogues.

Weiss, one of three spiritual leaders at Ruach Ami, described an Azkarah service "as a contemporary effort to bring a sense of community and wholeness to the grief process."

To have someone added to the memorial list, call Ruach Ami.

As a follow-up to both events, a six-week support group for mourners is scheduled.

For Jewish Healing Month this year, Ruach Ami sent information packets to all Bay Area synagogues.

The packet included a list of local resources, other information about spiritual healing and a healing month poster. Yelena Karanovich, an emigre from the former Soviet Union who now lives in Alameda, won the community poster contest.

At the same time that Jewish healing work has grown in the Bay Area, it also has spread beyond the region.

Ruach Ami is still the country's only "fully functioning healing center," Weiss said. But rabbis, congregants and others across the country often call for advice about healing services, lectures and healing centers.

"When people face a crisis, then it's natural to look at one's life and ask questions which we might typically think of as the big ultimate questions," Weiss said. "We look for answers that are beyond our daily experience. We look to Jewish texts and resources to help us struggle with those questions."