April 26, 2019

Rabbi explores grief in new memoir, ‘Faith Unravels’

With “Faith Unravels: A Rabbi’s Struggle With Grief and God,” Rabbi Daniel Greyber, former executive director of Camp Ramah in California, has written a memoir that explores the unique grieving process of a clergyman.

“How can I provide consolation when I myself need comfort?” Greyber writes midway through the book, after the death of his best friend.

The friend is Joel Shickman, who served as Ramah’s rosh musika (head of music) during the summers of 2005 and 2006. Shickman died at the age of 37 as the result of a rare form of leukemia. At the time, he was still in rabbinical school. With his death, he left behind a wife and three children.

In the book, which was released in September, Greyber tells the story of how he and Shickman and their families became close; how Shickman unexpectedly became sick and then underwent treatment, seesawing between infections and recoveries; how Shickman lost to the cancer after an 11-month battle and how this affected Greyber.

Now serving as rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in Durham, N.C., Greyber will be back in Los Angeles to discuss his book on Jan. 27 at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills.

“Faith Unravels” also follows Greyber tending to another wound. As he writes in the opening chapter, titled “Jay,” it is a story of Greyber’s best friend from high school and college roommate, Jay Rosen, who died in 1996 — also of leukemia. At the time, Greyber was too young to process the loss. 

Shickman’s death roused the rabbi’s memories of Rosen.

“I was confronting questions about the death of a friend that had not been resolved from many years before,” Greyber told the Journal.

Throughout the book, Greyber’s memories of Shickman and Rosen interweave. On Nov. 17, 2007, the day Shickman dies, Greyber walks out of the hospital and remembers when Rosen, during their days at Northwestern University, turned to him and said, “The big bad wolf is back” — a reference to the leukemia he had fought since childhood.

Greyber hired Shickman in 2005, who moved from Dallas to Los Angeles to attend rabbinical school, for the position at Ramah. In the book’s third chapter, “Joel,” Greyber describes his first impression of Shickman.

“Joel wears a tie-dyed shirt and carries a guitar most places … he is a mensch, a kind and humble person.”

Shickman died on a Shabbat morning. Greyber said that the next day, during a sleepless night in a hotel, he began writing about how it felt to be with Shickman when he died, and that was the beginning of the book.  

 “I needed to tell my story. I needed to talk about my own experience, my own crisis of faith, and how it was that — how this impacted me,” Greyber said. “It was not easy.”

Greyber found that his faith, his usual source of comfort when things got complicated, did not offer answers in his grief. Jewish tradition, filled with guidance for mourning blood relatives — the Mourner’s Kaddish and the act of sitting shivah are reserved for the biological family — does instruct us on how to mourn a friend. Friends are prescribed to the role of comforters, there to support the deceased’s family.

“How do we acknowledge the loss that is experienced by friends of those who have passed away? … There’s virtually no literature about it, both in terms of Jewish mourning practices and most other faiths,” Greyber said.

Greyber said in writing “Faith Unravels,” he wanted to create something to fill the void.

Initially hesitant to presume to include tips for mourners, Greyber changed his mind when his friend, actress Mayim Bialik, read an early draft. Bialik wrote the book’s foreword, and she told Greyber she wanted his practical advice on the subject.

As a result, the book’s appendix became a “Reluctant Guide” for mourners.

Greyber is 41, a husband and the father of three children, and he spends an early section in the book sharing how he became a rabbi, inspired first by being part of the 1993 United States World Maccabiah team, at 21, being surrounded by thousands of young Jewish athletes. At 26, he enrolled at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University).

He graduated in 2002, and spent the next eight years leading Camp Ramah, which mixes recreational activities with Jewish learning.

After Ramah, Greyber spent a year in Israel as a fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute, which provides support and tools for mid-career professionals in Jewish education and communal leadership. And when he returned to the States, in 2011, he moved to North Carolina to serve full time as the leader of a Conservative congregation of 330 families at Beth El.

This summer, Greyber will return to the U.S. Maccabiah team, as its official rabbi. In that role he will lead commemorative services at Yad Vashem and the Western Wall as well as preside over an adult bar and bat mitzvah ceremony for athletes who have never had that rite of passage.

His goal, Greyber said, is to “help people figure out what their story is.”