Months ago when Ahavath Achim Synagogue Rabbi Neil Sandler invited Rabbi Daniel Greyber to travel from North Carolina to talk about the struggles of unacknowledged mourners in the Jewish community, neither of them could have known how timely the topic would be.
Rabbi Greyber, the spiritual leader of Durham’s Beth El Synagogue, will speak at the Buckhead congregation at 10 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 11, a week after the funeral in Israel for Rae Goodman, AA’s longtime rebbetzin. Many at Ahavath Achim are in the situation Rabbi Greyber is addressing: feeling grief at the death of someone important to you but not being one of the close relatives (parents, siblings and children) commanded by Judaism to mourn.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Greyber is himself in the first 30 days of mourning for his father.
“I think it will be in some ways even more poignant to do the presentation as I’m in the middle of shloshim,” he said in a phone interview.
He chronicles his own struggles to deal with the deaths of two young friends killed by leukemia in the book “Faith Unravels: A Rabbi’s Struggle With Grief and G-d,” published in 2012.
The first death is a high school friend, Jay, and Rabbi Greyber — then neither a rabbi nor observant — is bereft and baffled at being expected to toss a little dirt on his friend’s grave, provide a bit of support to the family, then fly home across the country.
That crisis leads to an overpowering moment alone and in the dark in the Negev and eventually sets him on the path to becoming a Conservative rabbi. But the death of his friend Joel, a rabbinical student with a wife and three young children about the same ages as Rabbi Greyber’s children, threatens to knock him off that path again.
“I think that one of the interesting questions as I teach this is that some of the time the people who are coming from outside the tradition will not even understand the question,” Rabbi Greyber said. “ ‘What do you mean that your mourning is not acknowledged?’ My sense is there’s a strength in the structure, but there is a shadow cost. Some questions we only understand when we understand what the costs are.”
Most of his book recounts, at times day by day, how Rabbi Greyber dealt with his grief and an understanding of a G-d who could let someone like Joel die. In the process, he develops guidance, though not a handbook, on how others can get through a close friend’s premature death.
The structure of the Jewish year provides important context for his faith struggle.
“Purim was very painful, very difficult,” because it’s supposed to be such a time of joy, and Rabbi Greyber had his own rituals with friends, including a party at his home with lots of scotch. But he said that “having the structure was incredibly helpful. It gave me the means to go through the process.”
He wants people to understand that the structure of the mourning process is not meant to be a foolproof recipe. People shouldn’t think that “if you go through these things and if you don’t feel better, something’s the matter with you. That’s not what the rabbis meant. It isn’t a prescription.”
At the time of Joel’s death, Rabbi Greyber was the director of Camp Ramah in Ojai, Calif., where Joel had worked as the music director. In the book, the rabbi wonders how he would have faced a congregation every day and led from the bimah each Shabbat if he had been a congregational rabbi, as he is now.
“I still wonder. Perhaps I would have figured out a way,” but he doesn’t know how, Rabbi Greyber said in the interview.
He said that while he feels some trepidation about mourning for his father while leading Beth El, “it’s a different type of mourning than I experienced with Joel. I feel more prepared for this process and also to share it with my community and to be OK with being lifted up with the community.”
He said he’s not sure whether Joel’s death played a part in his decision to leave Ramah and become a congregational rabbi, but his plan in rabbinical school was not to become a camp director.
The death of another childhood friend of a heart attack in November 2009 brought Rabbi Greyber to Durham for the funeral and connected him with Congregation Beth El, which was starting a search for a replacement for a rabbi who was retiring after 35 years.
That death is not covered in the book, but Rabbi Greyber had time to write “Faith Unravels” when Beth El agreed to wait a year for him while he took a Mandel Fellowship in Israel.
“One of my convictions about all of this is that each death is unique, as each life, and therefore the mourning for each person is unique and different,” Rabbi Greyber said.
He said it’s important for people to know that they are reacting within Jewish tradition when they have questions about G-d and faith and struggle with their feelings after a death. And he thinks all people, rabbis included, go through crises of faith during their lives, sometimes precipitated by a painful death.
For example, from some volunteering at hospitals, Rabbi Greyber said, he has realized that health care providers face the same problem as rabbis to provide care and support while struggling with their own grief.
“Many people have affirmed for me, which is what I think as well, that the structure Judaism has is a great strength and a great blessing,” Rabbi Greyber said. “At a time when you feel so lost, a lot of chaos, a lot unhinged, there’s a tremendous strength in having a way and having roles decided and having that structure.”
Who: Rabbi Daniel Greyber
What: Discussion on grief and faith
Where: Ahavath Achim Synagogue, 600 Peachtree Battle Ave., Buckhead
When: 10 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 11