Speaker: Chloe Zelkha

Song, Soul and Society: Learning, Unlearning and Transforming Grief in Community

Our guest this week designs transformative, collective learning experiences for young adults, which now may incorporate trauma and grief work as well. What are some group spaces in which your learning has transformed, or where you have transmuted grief into wisdom? Share Reflection

“The wound is the place where light enters you.” – Rumi  

At age 25, Chloe Zelkha, a community organizer and educator designing “transformative learning containers” for young adults, suddenly found herself in the role of a first-time caregiver. Her husband met with a debilitating injury from a car accident. Soon after, her hale-and-hearty father of 66 suddenly passed away from an aortic aneurism in 2017.

At the strike of death and dis-ease in her family, everything she knew about these primal milestones from her academic religious studies went from being cerebral to lived. Impermanence of life seeped into her everyday experiences. At first, she wrestled with it, felt unsettled and doubtful, but gradually taught herself to welcome it. She eventually found it to be an existential question to work through – “how do we remain wide-awake to the precariousness of life in and around us, and also unafraid of it?

Chloe's work involved designing transformative group experiences for young adults (ranging from retreats to DIY rituals to performance arts). She had been an organizer with The Food Project, a youth employment program that brings diverse cohorts of teens together to grow food, learn about oppression and liberation, and connect across difference. Later she had transitioned into a role as Fellowship Director at Urban Adamah, a Jewish farm in Berkeley. There she led semester-long deep dives for young adults into Jewish spirituality, farming, mindfulness, and social justice.

In pursuit of the existential question she was now grappling with, Chloe opened a new stream in her path – to lean into death and dying. She trained as a hospital chaplain at UCSF Mission Bay and Parnassus Hospitals, seeking clarity "by putting myself in constant proximity with people who are in free fall." She offered spiritual care to those who were ill and dying, as well as to their families – in order to create a shift in “our death-denying culture which is set up for us to look away from mortality, look away from pain.” She says, “grief means being with things the way they are. It means seeing the beauty and heartbreak of living and dying up close. It means tasting the moment, just as it is. Mourners are awake.” Stepping aside from the conventional take on chaplaincy as fixing of spiritual crises, she executed her role “as more of a student, sitting at the feet of the real masters” – which reinforced that “grieving is a courageous act.”

Witnessing mourners and their loved ones during her chaplaincy, she realized that the majority of grief programs are designed for children and older adults, with the young demographic, those in their 20s and 30s, being underserved. So she gathered a couple of friends – particularly those with relatable experiences in grief, trauma, therapy, social work, community organizing – to put together ongoing events such as weekend sleep-over retreats for young adults to process the grief of losing a parent, friend or loved one. Drawing from the community experience that empowered her own processing of loss, she felt that programs for younger adults must place peer connection and community – e.g., circles of sharing stories, workshops, bonfires, song and silence – over clinical care.

She also co-founded the COVID Grief Network, a mutual aid organization that offers free community and grief support to young adults who have lost someone to COVID-19, especially with the hope of undoing some of the isolated grieving during the pandemic.

Such birthing of new ideas into existence – whether to bounce from setbacks or to actualize fresh intentions when old norms transition away – falls comfortably in Chloe’s family of entrepreneurial, artistic, and musical talents. Her father was an Iraqi Jew raised in Iran who emigrated to the U.S. when he was 19 and embraced the failures and successes in his entrepreneurial ventures with equal joy. Her mother was a labor and delivery nurse for 40 years who helped people give birth and knew how to ‘midwife’ new ideas. Her brothers are also entrepreneurs in the art and music space, respectively. Everyone in her family had permission to follow their curiosities and be different – which acted as a connector, of sorts.

A by-product of this open-spiritedness was that her parents enrolled her in elementary school at Ohlone school in Palo Alto, California. The project-based, participatory modules; absence of grading, homework, and bells; mixed-age learning; whole-child pedagogy; and emphasis on emotional quotient helped her relate differently with her surroundings. It reinforced that she has power, that her ideas count. She also took proactive interest in regularly journaling her ideas on how she would teach, wrote angry letters to the principal of her high school on rote teaching methods, debated conventional teaching with her parents, discussed pedagogy with her middle school teachers etc. It got her excited about how people learn and unlearn – “how learning spaces can be transformative, even sites of spiritual transformation.”

Though her parents didn’t carry much of an affinity towards Jewish religiosity apart from celebrating rituals and major holidays with laughter and gag-gifts, Chloe was enrolled in Hebrew School for becoming a bat mitsvah. It was there that she began innately identifying with the Jewish spiritual practice. It was also the first time she sang in public, and began to love using her voice in liturgical contexts. St Augustine’s words – those who sing pray twice – come to mind immediately.

These early learning experiences created the groundwork for Chloe – and came more and more into presence in college where her interest in social justice led her to religious studies, because it “helped me understand the ways people make meaning.” With diverse coursework including Religion & the Black Freedom Struggle, Taoism, Religious & Moral Issues in the Holocaust, and a study abroad program in Mexico focused on Catholic Liberation Theology, Chloe earned a B.A. in Religion from Carleton College, where she was trained as a community organizer through the JOIN for Justice Fellowship in Boston.

Chloe also holds a Master’s in Education—focusing on transformative experiences—from Harvard University. She is currently studying towards rabbinic ordination at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, where she is a Wexner Graduate Fellow. Her guided offerings draw from her widely inclusive approach to faith -- combining song, Buddhist insight meditation, and Jewish scripture and spirituality.

Her approach remains – “Precarity is what it is. But fractures to our defenses aren’t bad.” They can project wisdom, when embraced as spaces for creative learning.

Join us in a conversation with this experimental educator helping to transform grief into wisdom, and to design powerful spaces for collective learning and unlearning.

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