How an Ancient Jewish Story Taught Me to Mourn Loss

As someone with an intense “doer” mentality, I don’t take time to mourn. When my great aunt died, or when my son's childhood altered dramatically in the Covid-19 lockdown, I did what I always do: I figured out what was needed by those around me, and I got it done. 

I never considered that mourning was on the to-do list. Then in early 2021, when I was in the throes of some of the worst stages of PTSD flashbacks, a friend asked me, “What can I do for you?” and I said “I want to sit shiva on the beach.” I didn’t know what I meant or how to ask such a thing of people. If I didn’t have time to mourn, or even consider what I was mourning, how could I ask other people to take the time? 

A seed of an answer had been planted several years before when some of my favorite activists gathered to study our traditions’ ancient texts. As Bring Back Our Girls activists, we chose texts that spoke to wars being fought on women and girls’ bodies. At the closing of our study session my friend, Rev. Dionne Boisserie, asked me, “What do Jewish women do to remember the daughter of Jephtah?” 

I had no idea what she was talking about. As I learned, in the book of Judges chapter 11, a father makes a terrible bargain with G-d. Jephtah basically tells G-d, “If you help me win this next battle, the first thing that comes through my door when I get home will be completely sacrificed to you.” Jephtah’s daughter (who has no name in this text) becomes the offering, a gratitude sacrifice to God. 

When Jephtah’s daughter learns this is her fate, she tells her father that he must follow through, but first: “Let this be done for me: let me be for two months, and I will go with my companions and lament upon the hills and there bewail my maidenhood.” The story ends promising that Jephtah and his daughter followed through on his vow and, “So it became a custom in Israel for the maidens of Israel to go every year, for four days in the year, and chant dirges for the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.”

As a Jewish woman, I had never mourned Jephtah’s daughter. Reading her story, I mourned that I never mourned. This realization came back to me when, as a trauma survivor, I realized that therapy was not my only tool or language for mourning and healing. I also recognize that,  according to the CDC, half of all women in the U.S. have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. With all this in mind I began researching a project that would become “Survivor’s Shiva.” This project is meant to honor Jephtah’s daughters and all the nameless, as well as named, women who have lost so much: autonomy, safety, physical and mental health…the list is as nearly-infinite as those who have experienced the loss.

Jewish tradition has a set of rituals related to loss, specifically around a death in a family and community. One of these rituals, shiva, is traditionally a week long: the immediate mourners stay home while comforters come to listen, sit with them, and bring them food. 

This spring, my organization Wonder and Repair ran our first Survivor’s Shiva project. This summer we are scheduled to run a second version of the program for “lower-case t” trauma survivors, meaning people who experienced events without violence that still create significant distress (e.g., breakups or job loss). 

Who should attend these shivas? Jephtah’s daughter’s narrative contains guidance. In her story there are no mothers, grandmothers, aunts or other female elders to support her or intervene; her chosen family, her sister-friends, mourn with her.

After I sent out the call for a Survivor's Shiva, where I would be the survivor “sitting shiva,” I received an outpouring of love and support from the small circle of friends who know some of the dark details of my story. A colleague I admire and learn tremendously from at every turn agreed to be our ritual facilitator. I took all this in for a moment and then went ahead and did the next thing on my to-do list — after all, my days are full, like yours. 

Then one of my closest friends in the world texted I booked a flight, I will be there. And I had to stop my world. I put down my phone. I put down my list. My eyes brimmed with tears. I took a moment to sit with how loved I felt and how painful and needed this ritual felt to me. This was a moment of “sitting shiva” before shiva for me, a prelude and a taste of how to sit with a tremendous feeling.

Shiva is a time where mourners sit for a significant period, to exist in their friends’ presence and to sometimes choose to sit in silence. Mourners share their pain with people who listen and do not negate, they witness the mourner’s loss. At the end of shiva it is customary to walk around the block outside the home where the mourner “sat shiva.” This is an invitation to the next phase in mourning and healing; it is not a call to “be done with it.” 

It feels funny to say, and vital too: I wish you all the discovery of time for mourning. I wish you time for sitting with whatever you need space to mourn, hopefully with people who can witness and support your mourning. I also wish you support in whatever comes next.

At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.


Jephtah’s Daughter (Book of Prophets, Judges 11:1 - 40), Sefaria

Jewish Grief and Mourning Resources (including Shiva), The Shomer Collective

How an Ancient Jewish Story Taught Me to Mourn Loss
Tehilah Eisenstadt
Tehilah Eisenstadt

Tehilah Eisenstadt is an New York City based educator, writer, activist, community-builder and consultant who is studying to become a rabbi at the Academy for Jewish Religion. She learns the most from her students, be they preschoolers or adults. Tehilah is the founder and CEO of Wonder and Repair, whose latest project, “Survivor’s Shiva” launched in Spring 2023.

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