Sow in Tears, Reap in Peace: Honoring the Life of Alyssa Alhadeff
Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches in his well-known book When Bad Things Happen to Good People that “why” is not the question we should ask after a tragedy. Rather, we should ask, “What can we do to grieve? How can we support those in emotional distress? What should we do as a community to offer consolation and love to those who are suffering?” This lesson played out in recent months with the family of URJ Camp Coleman, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Cleveland, GA.
Four months ago, the Camp Coleman community suffered a tremendous loss. Alyssa Alhadeff, a camper, was among the 17 victims killed at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. Immediately, the camp's staff started to plan for a summer knowing that campers would also be grieving the loss of their dear friend. Soon after, campers from Alyssa’s unit, Kesher 2017, came up with the idea of dedicating a swing at camp in Alyssa’s memory and went on to raised funds so that a swing would be installed next to her cabin
After visiting with the family and listening to Alyssa’s fellow campers, the Coleman leadership team assembled a group of Jewish professionals to work with them to address camp’s pastoral needs. Our advisory group reflected on the words of Torah used to describe Aaron’s response to the sudden death of his two sons, “Vayidom Aharon,” which means “and Aaron was silent." We selected this story because it underscores the idea that there are no words to address this kind of pain. One has no way to console a parent, much less grieving teens, when the unthinkable happens. Someone who loses both parents is an orphan, and a person whose spouse dies is a widow or widower. But there is no word for someone who has lost a child or close friend.
After our initial meeting, we recognized the need to help our campers and staff acknowledge Alyssa, remember her, and still have a positive summer. In addition, other campers and staff were present in Parkland and needed support. With that in mind, we designed two rituals to make the transition. The first part enabled campers to express their emotions. The second section involved establishing Alyssa’s memory at camp, while focusing on the sacred text, “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.”
On Monday night, the Chalutzim unit, which would have been Alyssa Alhadeff’s group this year, along with staff who knew her, performed a series of rituals to acknowledge the death of their fellow camper and friend. Rabbi Jason Rosenberg of Congregation Beth Am in Tampa, FL, guided the sacred moment. Opening words from Camp Director Bobby Harris set the tone, and he was followed by two of Alyssa’s friends. Most powerfully, Alyssa’s parents attended and spoke to the campers.
Wearing Alyssa’s shoes as a tribute, her mother, Lori, emphasized that if Alyssa were present, she would want them to have the summer of their lives. Filled with emotion, her father, Ilan, shared that, though he considered himself an accomplished man, he was humbled in presence of these campers who enabled Alyssa to have an amazing camp experience and also helped him to feel a little less pain based on their acts of compassion toward him and his family and in honoring Alyssa’s memory.
He ended with the message, “Shed all your tears for Alyssa in this space. When you leave here, don’t cry for her. Make this the best summer for Alyssa.”
The ceremony included the dedication of a swing in Alyssa's name. Walking silently to the swing’s location, everyone present planted seeds around the spot, symbolically adding new life in Alyssa’s memory. Standing in a circle, Lori asked if everyone would share what they loved about Alyssa. When the ritual finished, Lori and Ilan joined the unit and walked over to the soccer field where new lights were recently installed so that Coleman campers could now play soccer at night. How fitting it was that the Chalutzim would be the first unit to play soccer-Alyssa’s favorite sport on that field at night. A former college soccer player, Lori participated in a game with the campers scoring both the first goal as well as the game winning one. After she scored the final goal, all the kids rushed the field and celebrated with her, embracing her as they would their friend.
When tragedy struck Camp Coleman, we asked how we could respond. The answer was to cry together, support one another and establish a lasting legacy at camp for Alyssa. May her love, smile and laughter continue to live on through the words and deeds of those who carry her in their hearts.
Rabbi Adam Miller is the senior rabbi at Temple Shalom in Naples, FL, and is currently serving in his eleventh year on faculty at a Union for Reform Judaism summer camp. He also was a staff member for three years at URJ Greene Family Camp, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Bruceville, TX.