Turning Cemeteries into Sanctuaries



There’s a saying in the world of professional Jewish educators, “When it comes to Jewish identity, there’s no business like Sho’ah business.” There is nothing like the Holocaust to engender a sense of Jewish identity.

Stinging and tragic though that statement may be, I myself am a walking testimony to its truth. A mildly-affiliated, wildly-assimilated American teen, I had zero interest in the banal goings-on of my local synagogue. The only thing about Judaism that was even remotely interesting to me was the Holocaust. My gateway into Judaism was this epic nightmare of my people’s past.

Now I wish I could say that I got turned-on to Judaism because of some joyful Shabbat song or a bite of a really finely done potato-kugel; but it wasn’t. The thing that first pulled me in was the loss of my ancestors and this sudden vast sense of history, gravitas, and responsibility towards them. My doorway came through shared mourning, shared grief. Because something happens when we mourn together. When we weep together, we are woven into family.

When we share mourning, we share housing. When we mourn together we become mishpacha. And then, as a family, we can come together to turn our cemeteries into sanctuaries with our songs of hope.



This House of Israel is in mourning.

We sit upon the floor and weep

the mirrors are black,

our robes are slashed,

and leather-less our feet.


Our clan is clad in ash and sack

a dirge between our bones

a wail of anguish unabated

rises from this home.


The pittance of admission here

is expression of lament

—authentic, rasp and risen

mangled and intense.


Here the graves are multiple

and flanked with stacking stones

which could, perhaps, be launched at enemies

but sit instead in memory of what is gone.


Our weaponry is our weeping;

our protection is our prayer

our strength is born when we gather to mourn

made siblings by shared despair.


And in lamentation lies our comfort

and in this meeting, our home is built

founded firm on the raw resilience

of the families of the killed.


But hear this, our love is

mightier than our anger!

For we are a nation of mothers

and fathers and priests.


We build houses out of war-stones

and change cemeteries into sanctuaries

with our songs of hope.


A knock upon the lintel lets in the shiva guests.

God shuffles in amongst them

and bends to offer His condolences.


And in the madness of the mourning

and the anguish so immense

a dwelling is suddenly erected

– regal & resplendent.


And a sacred space is made

amidst the family who endures

such loss and grief.


And our household stands strong

amidst the weeping throng

and God’s Presence refuses to leave.


Our household stands strong amidst the weeping throng

and God’s Presence refuses to leave.


How do you turn cemeteries into sanctuaries?

About the Author
Psychotherapist, performance artist & Co-Director of Jerusalem's Shalev Center. Maybe you've seen her one-woman show "Babel's Daughter"?... Maybe you will soon. Chaya lives in Nachlaot with her husband R'Hillel & their three energetic children. Her motto is, "Every mess is Messianic."
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