Jewish bereavement camp becomes a cathartic experience

In the main building at Camp Tawonga, they told stories and sang songs until well after midnight.

"I had a great time," said Michael Taller. "I wouldn't have expected that in a weekend about grief."

Berkeley resident Taller, 35, who directs Jewish men's groups, and his mother, Dolores, 63, attended the "Healing Weekend for Bereaved Individuals and Families."

In addition to singing and story-telling, the 56 participants attended healing workshops and Shabbat services and created symbolic tool boxes. They also buried their grief ceremonially. The second annual retreat held near Yosemite was sponsored by Tawonga, Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center and the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services.

"It was cold and wet all weekend," said Taller, whose father died of cancer in October. "And I didn't hear one person complain."

What people did do was rather remarkable.

"There was a total warmth and permission to grieve," said Ann Gonski, associate director at Tawonga. "We understood each other. People don't get tired of hearing about someone else's loss.

"Your heart bursts open when you're grieving and you have enormous capacity for empathy," she added. "During the weekend, everybody is operating on a very deep emotional level. They're not distracted by the details of life like driving, working, cooking and cleaning."

When Gonski, Rabbi Eric Weiss of Ruach Ami and JFCS's Lee Pollack began collaborating on the project, their aim was to create a communal retreat that combined emotional and spiritual healing in a serene, natural setting.

"We did a lot of research and were pretty amazed that there wasn't anything else like this," said Weiss. "I think we're the first Jewish bereavement camp."

Gonski was familiar with hospice weekends and a UCSF retreat for families mourning the death of a child, but none had a Jewish bent.

A long-term goal of the coordinators is to teach the program to other organizations, such as Catholic Charities, which may emulate the format.

"What makes it work is bringing people together because grief is an isolating experience," Gonski said. "At some point, your friends don't want to listen anymore."

The weekend's Jewish foundation was important to Ilene Vranesh, who, along with several family members, had returned to the camp for the second time.

The Kentfield resident lost her younger brother, Paul, 32, a couple of years ago and found herself looking for spiritual answers.

"What's so beautiful about Judaism is that death is confronted in a very real and whole way," she said. "There seems to be an understanding of the process when someone dies. There's the task of having an ongoing relationship with that person through deeds, prayers, rituals and actions in the world.

"The way it was presented in a workshop on Kaddish, it helped me move through grief and not get stuck in it."

Vranesh was especially moved by the weekend's closing service, a tree planting held along a riverbank. Participants stood close together in a prayer circle with a giant patchwork memorial tallit draped over their shoulders. Pieces of fabric, like a tie or part of a T-shirt belonging to the deceased, had been sewn together by the mourners.

They were also asked to write a message or regret on a piece of paper and bury it in the hole where the tree was being planted. "It was a concrete experience of literally letting something go and not having to carry it inside you," Vranesh said.

The tree planting was a powerful gesture for Jackson Holtz, 29, whose 36-year-old sister, Karen, an expert cyclist, was killed last year by a drunk driver.

"In some ways digging a hole and filling it in replayed the funeral for me," said the San Francisco resident. "We had a funeral that used the Jewish tradition where we filled in the gravesite.

"I went through those emotions again. It was sad, but it wasn't overwhelming to me because I felt like I was in a different place. The camp brought me a step forward in my mourning path."

At Friday's opening session, each adult told the story of their loss. "By Sunday, people were hugging and holding hands," said Gonski.

It was Saturday night's talent show, followed by a spontaneous sing-along, led by Tawonga's song leader, Jonathan Ferris, that was the most healing experience for many.

"Singing is such a life-affirming thing for me," said Taller, who is a song leader himself. "It was clear that for a lot of us, it hadn't been that easy to let ourselves enjoy our lives and really sing out. A couple of people there had not really sung since their loved one had died."

Gonski was also touched. "There were people who weren't talkers. Yet, through the singing, their emotions came out," she said. "It sounds hokey, but at the end of the evening, I felt as if God had visited us in that dining hall."