Sinai Chapel starts NextSteps to fill gap in grief process

For those who are already suffering the loss of a loved one, events like the Sept. 11 attacks can magnify their grief considerably. That was the focus of the first meeting of NextSteps, a new group for mourners offered by San Francisco's Sinai Memorial Chapel.

The organization, which held its first meeting on Sunday, was formed to fill a void, according to Lee Pollak, NextSteps' program director. While Judaism's rituals help many to work through their losses, sometimes those who are grieving need more.

"There is a gap in the grieving process, from the time when acute grief sets in right after the time of death, to the point where loved ones take part in community services," said Pollak, a licensed clinical social worker who has led bereavement programs for the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services. "During that time, mourners often spend time at home alone."

The program, which is free and available for those who have used Sinai's services, will work with a number of other Jewish organizations, including the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, which participated in NextSteps' first program.

"Our purpose is to serve the Sinai family," said Gene Kaufman, Sinai's executive director, adding that Sinai does not plan to become a social-service agency.

At Sunday's meeting, the healing center's Rabbi Eric Weiss showed the 15 attendees how Jewish tradition deals with the grief process. In what roughly resembled a flow chart, Weiss took participants through six phases of mourning, listing the accompanying "major practices" and "emotions." The healing process took on added significance in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 events. Several participants wept as they talked about feelings of isolation, fear, and disillusionment.

"We're all walking wounded," said San Francisco resident Gabriella Schultz. "I think it's great to have a place to reach out and touch each other, and share these feelings. I've done the Bill Graham auditorium-style of healing, and it just doesn't work as well."

Another San Francisco resident, Bill Shore, expressed generational angst, wondering aloud where the revolutionary spirit of the '60s had gone. "It's difficult to get past the comfort level, and the money and the self-absorption," said Shore, who is the president of San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel. "It really makes you question where my generation went wrong. I actually think that we had it all right — it's just that we didn't take it far enough, and we fell asleep at the wheel."

The analogy of a bridge was employed several times to help assuage feelings of anxiety and isolation. Ann Gonski, NextSteps' program associate, said that it was helpful to visualize a bridge suspended high in the air, perpetually swaying between fear and hope. "We no longer have the Pollyanna-ish feelings of strength and invulnerability," she said. "But in order to keep ourselves solid, we need to accept that uncertainty can lead to imagination…and that's where true healing begins."

Weiss said that imagination has always been a key to the Jewish people's survival — from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem through the Holocaust — and that accessing that imagination could lead people to a higher spiritual plane. He offered two psalms of healing for the participants to recite and mull over.

"Let yourself feel whatever internal fluttering occurs," said Weiss, "and allow yourself to settle on a word, phrase or an idea that appeals to you…and let it accomplish something." After some moments of silence, San Francisco resident Shira Shore, who played the guitar throughout the session, suggested that since the participants were already joined in a circle, they should join hands and affirm the possibility of healing the world.

Before the event ended, Kaufman spelled out one way in which the disconnection between the diaspora and Israel can be bridged.

"I think we in America now have a little better understanding of what people in that part of the world go through every day," he said.