December 10, 2018

Michele Prince: Helping Kids and Adults Through the Grieving Process

After years of working in advertising, Michele Prince decided to go back to school to pursue a joint master’s degree in social work and Jewish communal service through USC and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

In 2012, Prince, now 51, who attends Mishkon Tephilo synagogue in Venice, became the CEO of OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center. The nonprofit supports kids as young as 4 and adults of all ages who have lost a close loved one: a parent, a partner, sibling or child.

OUR HOUSE offers services in English and Spanish in multiple locations throughout Los Angeles and Orange County, including West Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley and Koreatown, where it operates out of The Karsh Center at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Now in its 25th year of operation, Prince spoke with the Journal about the important work the organization provides and why she’s drawn to help the grieving.

Jewish Journal: Much of your work focuses on bereavement. What is it about this work that called to you?

Michele Prince: My mom died when I was 16 and there was nothing like an OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center that my family found. And so, when I [went] back to school and actually learned about this agency, I was like, “Wow, that’s what I am going to devote my life to: making sure people have those kinds of resources.”

My mom’s death actually followed two earlier deaths. The year before, my sister’s 4-year-old son drowned. It was a terrible tragedy, the worst anyone can imagine. And the year before that, one of the boys in my social circle within the Jewish community killed himself. So that was pretty intense to grow up with and not a lot of support, and that’s why I do what I do.

JJ: Is there a stigma surrounding grief support?

“There is still a stigma around grief support and just about getting help, period. Couple that with a stigma around anything to do with death [and it’s] a doozy.”

MP: There is still a stigma around grief support and just about getting help, period. Couple that with a stigma around anything to do with death [and it’s] a doozy. It’s certainly been reduced. But for many people it doesn’t even occur to them to reach out for help. But then many people think, “I’m OK.”

We still have such a bootstrap society of just pull yourself up and get over it. But that’s why we’re here, because we know it really helps to be in a grief support group with others who understand what you are going through. And I really believe in it. We see miracle after miracle every day.

JJ: What does a miracle look like?

MP: Let’s say we’re sitting in this room and it’s the first night of a young widow/widower group. So they are in their 30s and 40s and they are dragging themselves in here, and their faces are gray, and their clothes are disheveled, and they can barely get up into the world. And then they do the work in the group and they are comforted by the group leaders and their co-group attendees, and in 18 months, our group leaders will share with us, “I heard the laughter” or, “There was a little lipstick.”

They were just holding themselves up a little bit more, re-entering life with a little more resilience or vibrancy than when that group started. And it’s not Candy Land. It’s still painful. And grief doesn’t have an end date. It’s a process and a path that people follow. And so we help them find that glimmer of hope and that transformation.

JJ: Is this work depressing?

MP: I try to be really protective of the staff because they are hearing people’s worst day like 14 times in a day. They are taking that phone call that if you heard it once, it would devastate you. So it is hard. But that’s different than sad because everybody is very mission focused. They know that transformation that I was describing is possible for that person who is calling. We know it’s going to be better for them.

JJ: Do some people feel, “Well I have my rabbi, I’m OK”?

MP: Some people do feel that. But first of all, many clergy members are not amazing at this. Even if they are skilled, again, the idea of being in a group is so powerful because even if [the bereaved] do meet with their clergy member a few times, that’s still short-term. And it can be comforting, also, to be in a really neutral place whether their congregation gets every gold star: They came to shivah, they brought meals, they had Friday night services, or on the opposite end, nobody came, they didn’t call, if they came they bumbled. So in both of those scenarios, people can come here and they can be honest about the things that went well and didn’t go well.

Sitting Shivah in Parkland

Women react during a candlelight vigil for victims of yesterday's shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, U.S. February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

I never imagined that my Shabbat sermon in Los Angeles would lead me straight to Parkland to make shivah calls with grieving families. Here’s how it happened and what I learned.

In my Shabbat sermon, I spoke about the purpose of God’s hiddenness in the Megilah. From there I reflected on the horrific tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., where 17 innocent people were brutally murdered. After my sermon, the chairman of Yeshivat Yavneh, where I am Dean of School, approached me and suggested we go beyond the lecture: Why not take some eighth-graders to visit the families sitting shivah in Parkland?

This was unexpected, but he was right. Judaism is not just a religion of ideas, it’s also a religion of action. We decided to take Estee Einhorn, our daughter, and Benjamin Rubin, David and Gitel Rubin’s son. They both lived with a shivah this year as my wife recently sat shivah for her mother, and David sat shivah for his father. Perhaps a little of what they experienced would help them process what they would witness in Florida.

We took the red eye to Fort Lauderdale on the night of Feb. 18 and hit the ground running at 6 a.m. Feb. 19. We got off the plane and started our experience with a visit to the school. It was beginning to get real. The memorials, wreaths, press and candles laid out in front of a giant school immediately drew us in to the scene of the crime. We carefully read the testimonies and letters of love laid out in front of a picture of each child killed. At that moment, our heart was officially in Parkland.

Next we went to the Chabad of Parkland to pray. It seemed like the appropriate way to start our morning. Rumor had it some family members were going to be there. They never showed. The Chabad rabbi said, “Last night was just a very difficult night; nobody was going to join this morning.”

And then it was time. We made our way from shivah to shivah. The pain, the suffering, the anger and resilience all filled the air. We did what we needed to do. We were there to support, experience and become the sounding board for their pain.

The best response in the face of unspeakable tragedy is exactly that — to unspeak.

There is so much to say and describe about these individuals, the lives they led, and the world they leave behind. But I will simply share a few impressions we walked away with:

1. Diversity. It was unexpected to see how the grieving process varied among people who suffered the same tragedy. Some were in a state of shock, some were in activist mode, others were in a state of deep reflection.

2. There’s a chance that we may have witnessed history. More specifically, we may have been witnessing how law and policy really start to change. Our history teachers may educate us on the three causes of the Civil War, but often there are less-noticed triggering events that set off the actual sea changes. I witnessed family members actively engaging lobbyists and lawyers, instructing to use the emotional moment to create significant change in our gun control laws.

3. Our children learned how sometimes the best response in the face of unspeakable tragedy is exactly that — to unspeak. Silence, comfort and a hug.

4. Evil is possible in the middle of paradise. Parkland and the greater Broward Country is just stunning. The blue sky and deep white clouds almost look too good to be real. Many of the houses are gorgeous, with surrounding lakes and everglades and Roman fountains. In the middle of this paradise, the worst kind of evil entered and darkened the heart of a community.

5. In times of darkness, it’s OK to break the rules. When we landed, we found out that the shivah times we were given were wrong. The shivahs would only be open to the public after we would be on our way back to Los Angeles. That didn’t stop us. If they don’t want to see us, they can tell us to leave, and that’s fine. But no one did. We were welcomed at every shivah call.

Our experience taught us that, when people are in pain, sometimes the biggest mitzvah is just to show up.


Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn is Dean of School at Yeshivat Yavneh.

What Amy Krouse Rosenthal taught me

Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Photo via Facebook/Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

I first connected with Amy Krouse Rosenthal when I sent her an email in the late summer of 2009 to tell her how much I had enjoyed one of her books.

You may have heard Amy’s name lately. She was the Chicago writer whose essay, “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” became a sensation after it appeared in The New York Times in early March. Nearing the end of her journey with ovarian cancer, she composed what amounted to a dating profile for the man to whom she had been happily married for 26 years.

By the time Amy died on Monday at 51, millions of people had read the column, which, like all of Amy’s writing, celebrated the world’s small delights (taster spoons, pancake breakfasts) and the preciousness of love and life.

On Amy’s website, she called herself “a person who likes to make things.” By any measure, she made a lot of things. She wrote 28 children’s books — whimsical, creative, clever — and two idiosyncratic and inventive memoirs. She created uplifting, homemade videos (in one, she had bystanders cheer for commuters exiting a train at day’s end as if they were marathoners), delivered TED talks and loved visiting kids at schools.

All of her work inspired two reactions: (a) it made you start noticing little things and moments and  appreciating them in new ways, and (b) it made you want to be friends with Amy.

Both of those explain why I felt compelled to email Amy to tell her how, while reading a library copy of her memoir “Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life,” I had noticed a smudge at the bottom of a page. Looking more closely, I saw that a previous borrower, after accidentally smearing mascara there, had penciled a note to future readers because she “thought it was in line with this book to write about it.”

Amy didn’t respond immediately, but a few days later, at a shivah, I ran into my friend Julie, who had relocated from Los Angeles to Chicago. Knowing that I was a writer, she immediately asked if I had heard of Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Had I heard of her? I had just written to her!

Julie told me she was helping Amy with a movie project, a sort of crowd-sourced create-a-thon called “The Beckoning of Lovely.”

When Amy finally replied to my email, she had learned through Julie that I had once been a writer at People magazine. In her note, Amy expressed — in the gentlest and least self-promoting manner possible — how wonderful it would be if People ran a story about her film project.

It was less a pitch than a prayer. “That’s my little note,” she wrote, “scribbled down in earnest, placed in a small metal tin, and buried in the ground that is cyberspace. Thanks for listening.”

I politely explained that I didn’t work at the magazine anymore, and since the movie was in its early stages, it probably wasn’t ripe for a People story just yet.

You’d think that would be the end of it, but it was just the beginning of a lengthy exchange of emails, one writer to another.

Amy asked what I’d been working on lately. I told her I had just sent out a proposal for my own memoir, about my son Ezra, who has autism. Amy kindly offered to introduce me to her literary agent. I told her that what I could really use was help with an idea Ezra himself had, for a children’s book.

She asked if I was comfortable sharing the idea. I did, and she wrote back almost immediately: “i love this idea. and i love the serendipity that just happened 10 minutes ago at lunch. i have to talk to you.”

I phoned, and Amy told me she had just come from a fruitless brainstorming session with Tom Lichtenheld, the illustrator who was her creative partner on many books. Ezra’s idea was just the kind of thing he was looking for. So she connected me with Tom.

That conversation led to a collaboration. Soon Tom was at work on a children’s picture book based on an animated video called “Alphabet House” that Ezra had created at age 12.

Two years later, my memoir about Ezra was published. And a month after that, Tom and Ezra’s book, “E-mergency!,” came out. Ezra was just 15.

On my book tour, I was about to start a reading at a suburban-Chicago bookstore when a petite woman with red hair approached me to introduce herself. It was Amy. I can still picture her, standing in the back through the whole event, a big, supportive smile on her face.

I learned later that Amy’s life was full of the kinds of coincidences I had experienced. Another mutual friend first met her when they struck up a conversation in a Miami bookstore. It turned out they were both Jewish writers who lived in the same neighborhood and belonged to the same synagogue a thousand miles away, in Chicago.

I’m not sure that these things happened to Amy more than to the average person. She was just more open to them. And more open in general: to people, to connection, to inspiration, to whimsy.

Still, it was difficult to fathom how a person could bring so many ideas to fruition. I often show my writing students a TEDx talk in which Amy explains how she utilized what she called the crevices of life, “those 20, 30, 40 minute interstices that dangle in the space between the real thing I just finished and the real thing I have to do next.”

Watching that lecture now, I am struck by one sentence Amy says: “It seems that tight parameters and small windows of time can yield the biggest results.”

They certainly did for her. In the last weeks of her life, facing, as she put it, “a deadline, in this case, a pressing one,” she penned the piece about her husband. Those 1,320 words generated far more attention than anything she had created in her five decades, making newscasts and headlines across the globe.

I couldn’t help but notice one small thing: an article under the headline, “A Wife’s Final Gift.” It appeared on page 53 of People magazine. If you scribble a note to the universe, your prayer might be answered. You just have to be open to it.

Tom Fields-Meyer, a Los Angeles writer, is author of “Following Ezra” and co-author of “Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism.” He teaches in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and assists individuals in writing memoirs.

Obituaries: Oct. 26 – Nov. 1, 2012

Mina Bear died Sept. 18 at 88. Survived by daughter Moraye (John Hall); brothers Nate, Leo Rosen. Hillside

Edythe Berman died Sept. 18 at 91. Survived by husband Isaac; son Paul (Becky) Gerwin; daughter Jeane (Zane Marhea) Freer; stepsons Ed (Robin) Ron, Gil (Nancy); 5 grandchildren; 4 great-grandchildren. Hillside 

Betty Brown died Sept. 16 at 83. Survived by daughters Janet (Howard) Lutwak, Debra (John) Edelston; son David; 2 grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Rachel Cohen died Sept. 15 at 78. Survived by son Solomon. Mount Sinai

Pauline Cordova died Sept. 14 at 94. Survived by husband Tom; daughter Bette (Dan) Marinoff; son Mark (Claudia); sister Betty Angel; brother David Franco; 6 grandchildren; 2 great-grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Robert R. Dubrow died Sept. 21 at 88. Survived by wife Marie; daughter Judy Horton (Brian); son Michael (Shauna). Hillside

Jerry “Hannah” Efros died Sept. 14 at 94. Survived by daughters Susan, Lynda; 1 grandchild. Hillside

Mildred Giesberg died Sept. 16 at 87. Survived by husband Richard; daughter Susan (David Lappen); son Daniel (Carol Lifland); 6 grandchildren; 1 great-grandchild. Hillside

Neil Gold died Sept. 21 at 70. Survived by wife Maureen; sons Daniel, Michael (Danny); sister Mona Goldpanitz; 2 grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Aviva Hoyer died Sept. 17 at 95.  Survived by daughters Jennifer (Mark) Holtzman, Stephanie Pinkus; sons Daniel (Megan), Paul (Helen); 10 grandchildren; 4 great-grandchildren. Hillside

Samuel Jacobson died Sept. 18 at 93. Survived by daughter Sharie (Hal Tipton) Woodward; 2 grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Evelyn Kanter died Sept. 13 at 92.  Survived by daughter Terry (Marcia) Rosenthal; son Randy (Pauline); brother Alvin (Elaine) Lewis; 4 grandchildren; 3 great-grandchildren. Hillside

Selma Esther Koletsky died Sept. 18 at 80. Survived by daughter Susan (Stuart) Davis; son Roy Aaron (Barbara); 2 grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Evelyn Kravetz died Sept. 17 at 90. Survived by husband Nathan; daughter Deborah; son Daniel. Mount Sinai

Renee Kupferstein died Sept. 17 at 91. Survived by daughter Phyllis (Don); sons John (Drina) Gruber, Ron (Merri); 6 grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Elaine Lenhoff died Sept. 19 at 85.  Survived by daughter Carol (Nathan) Nayman; son Alan Lefko; sister Beverly (Bob) Canvasser; 1 grandchild. Hillside

Melvin H. Levine died Sept. 17 at 96. Survived by son Harmon (Tema); daughter Barbara; 2 grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Irwin H. Linden died Sept. 17 at 86. Survived by wife Barbara; daughters Margo (Alexander) Linden Katz, Amy; sons Gregory M. (Pamela), Kenneth L. (Kathe), Charles E.; 8 grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Victor Lishman died Sept. 15 at 89. Survived by daughters Jo (Ira) Karnofsky, Robin (David) Berger; 3 grandchildren. Hillside

Louis Severin Lockspeiser died Sept. 12 at 91. Survived by wife Toni; daughter Irit; son Gideon. Hollywood Forever

Randall Charles Newman died Sept. 18 at 59.  Survived by wife Janet; daughters Sarah, Erin; brothers Robert (Debbie), Eric (Ronnie) Feldman; father Sidney (Adeline). Hillside

Doris Melnick died Sept. 15 at 97. Survived by sister Edith Sara Zinman. Hillside

David Moss died Sept. 12 at 76. Survived by wife Priscilla; daughter Elisa; son Jeffrey (Wendy); brother Irving; 1 grandchild. Hillside

Ida Pierson died Sept. 20 at 103. Survived by sons Sanford (Mila) Carson, Charles; 3 grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Harold Rosenbaum died Sept. 15 at 91. Survived by daughter Jan (Mark) Sass; sons Alan, Eric (Pierre Valet); 2 grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Gertrude Roth died Sept. 18 at 95. Survived by daughters Marsha Ann (Philipp) Wilson, Naomi (Michael) Elbert; 4 grandchildren. Hillside

Rita Rubin died Sept. 15 at 69. Survived by husband Robert; sons David (Ming) Berger, Richard Berger; daughter Kimberlee; 3 grandchildren; brother Stuart (Susan) Nacher. Mount Sinai

Beatrice Saphra died Sept. 21 at 88. Survived by daughter Zane Buzby. Malinow and Silverman 

Anne Margaret Schwartz died Sept. 16 at 93. Survived by daughters Teri, Susan (Robert) Rosser; 2 grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Neil Shanman died Sept. 19 at 76. Survived by wife Merle; daughters Allyson (Craig) Barton, Lisa Bacerra; sons Sandy, Kevin (Randy); 8 grandchildren; brother Jay. Mount Sinai

Grace Silverman died Sept. 14 at 91. Survived by son Larry (Gail); daughter Merle Yeager; sister Beatrice Dubman; 4 grandchildren; 1 great-grandchild. Hillside

Wilbert Stein died Sept. 19 at 93. Survived by son James (Diane); stepson Howard (Valerie) Price; stepdaughter Elisa (Steve) Rubin; 4 grandchildren. Hillside

Cecile Weiss died Sept. 15 at 92. Survived by daughters Yvonne (Stuart) Lasher, Monique (Marty) Hoch; brother Rudolph Loebel; 4 grandchildren; 15 great-grandchildren. Hillside

Rose Woronow died Sept. 15 at 91. Survived by daughter Judy (Don) Weber; 1 grandson; 1 great-grandson. Mount Sinai

Davood Yebri died Sept. 12 at 81.  Survived by wife Talat; sons Fereydoun (Roya), Farshid (Roya); 5 grandchildren.  Eden