Benjy Forester

Making Space for the Empty Seat

This past week, Jewish friends and families across the world came together round the Passover Seder table. At many of those tables, there was an empty chair(s) for a loved one – a grandparent, parent, spouse, sibling, friend, cousin, or even a child – who has died. Unlike the symbolic bite of bitterness (Maror) that is quickly washed away with the tasty festive meal (Shulchan Orech), the pain of that empty chair finds no relief, whether it has been so for months or many years. 

A week earlier, before Passover began, 16 young Jews in their 20s and 30s from around New York City sat around a table for the first ever Grief Group Seder, hosted by Sutton Place Synagogue with the support of Plaza Jewish Community Chapel. The Haggadah we created for the event called it “A Seder for when things aren’t so B’Seder,” punning on the Hebrew phrase “Lo B’seder,” which means “not ok” and literally translates as “out of order.” The Mishnah (Pesachim 10:4) teaches that the Seder story should proceed “M’gnut L’shevach” —from shame to praise. However, since the grief journey is far from linear (remember: Out of order / Lo B’Seder), our Seder jumped around the typically ordered Seder steps and prescribed arc from sadness to joy. 

We began by opening the door for Elijah, thereby welcoming in the presence of all of those not physically with us. We removed the place setting from one spot at the table to sacralize and memorialize the communally shared empty chair. Our Seder continued by having the participants place an object on a seder plate that helped invite the memory of their loved one to our Seder. As each participant helped fill our centerpiece with baseball gloves, photographs, jewelry and craft items, and more, they shared beautiful stories of their passed loved ones through smiles and through tears. 

We walked through most of the Seder steps, but with special prompts and questions — e.g. Karpas: How do you relate to your tears? Have you been surprised by moments when you did or did not cry? What’s the strangest circumstance where you started crying? The Mishnah (Pesachim 10:5) commands us to see ourselves as if we had left Egypt, and these participants brought new meaning to our timeless stories and rituals through their life experiences. 

We asked and answered our own Four Questions, we reflected on the Four Children as examples of the stages of grief, and we paired the traditional Psalms of praise (Hallel) with Psalms of protest that give voice to those who want to call out to God but feel hurt and betrayed by God. We ended our Seder on the optimistic note of “L’shanah Haba’ah / Next year,” offering intentions and hopes for ourselves, our families, and our world in the coming year. 

The Grief Group Seder emerged from a monthly Jewish Young Professionals (YP) Grief Group that I launched in 2021 as the Rabbinic Intern at Sutton Place Synagogue. A few of our YP leaders had lost parents, and they expressed interest in having a space to meet people their age to share and process their experience with death and grief. Since then, we have met monthly over Zoom with dozens of participants, all of whom are members of the dreadful club that nobody wants to be in. The attendees live around the New York area and come from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds. This Seder was just our second ever in-person gathering, with hopes for more in the future.

Everyone’s grief journey is unique, but YPs are forced to navigate social and professional orbits with peers and colleagues who typically cannot relate to their experience with loss. Young people hit milestones – like graduation, new careers, engagement, marriage, and having children of their own – that many of their peers celebrate with two living parents. Our group is a space to reflect upon those shared experiences and to feel seen, heard, and validated by the only people who truly get it. 

The Grief Group is a confidential space reserved only for those who belong to this unfortunate community, but I want to provide this window into our program to help destigmatize and spread grief support and advocacy in Jewish community. I have had people around the country asking me to connect them with their local Jewish grief group. Some communities do offer these types of groups, but most do not. I hope that synagogues, Hillels, Moishe Houses, JCCs, and Jewish family services organizations will look to partner with mental health professionals who specialize in bereavement to help train our Jewish communal professionals, so that these young adult grief support services can become more widely available.

While that one chair will always feel empty, we can do our best to make sure that the rest of the table feels full.

About the Author
Benjy Forester is the Rabbinic Intern at Sutton Place Synagogue. Benjy will receive rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Jewish Theological Seminary this May.
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