Speaker: Chloe Zelkha

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

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

At 25, Chloe Zelkha, a community organizer, chaplain and educator for young adults, suddenly found herself in the role of a first-time caregiver. Her husband sustained a debilitating injury from a car accident. Soon thereafter, her hale-and-hearty father passed away from an aortic aneurysm. Facing sudden death and dis-ease in her family, everything Chloe had learned from her academic religious studies went from conceptual to lived. From this period of tremendous trial, she emerged with a guiding question: How do we stay wide awake to the precariousness of life in and around us, and also walk in the world unafraid?

Rather than running from grief, Chloe chose to lean into death and dying. She trained as a hospital chaplain at the University of California San Francisco hospitals, offering spiritual care to the ill, the dying, and their families. “Our death-denying culture,” she remarks, “insists that we look away from mortality, look away from pain.” Instead of the conventional chaplaincy response as “fixing” spiritual crises, she stepped into her role as “more of a student, sitting at the feet of the real masters,” and understood grieving as a “courageous act.”

During her chaplaincy, she realized the paucity of grief programs supporting young adults. So, with some friends, she put together ongoing events, like weekend sleepover retreats for young adults who lost a parent, friend or loved one, focusing on peer connection and community — circles of sharing stories, workshops, bonfires, song and silence — instead of clinical care. When the pandemic hit, Chloe responded similarly, cofounding the COVID Grief Network, a mutual aid organization that offers free community and grief support to young adults who lost someone to COVID-19, especially in hopes to heal the isolation.

From a young age, Chloe had been supported to feel that her ideas mattered — whether in rebounding from setbacks, or actualizing fresh and novel intentions. She attended Ohlone Elementary School in Palo Alto, California, where the project-based, participatory, mixed-age, whole-child pedagogy taught her to relate to her surroundings with curiosity. She kept a “teaching ideas journal” and often pitched creative curriculum ideas to her teachers (“usually unsuccessfully,” she adds with a chuckle). As she grew, the raucous discussions she initiated at her family’s dinner table on teaching and learning would come to incorporate how people unlearn, and eventually, “how learning spaces can be transformative, even sites of spiritual transformation.”

Chloe’s parents also helped nurture her enterprising spirit. Her father, an Iraqi Jew raised in Iran, emigrated alone to the U.S. when he was 16. An entrepreneur, he would embrace with equal joy the failures and successes of his ventures. Her mother was a labor and delivery nurse who, having supported and witnessed countless mothers giving birth, became adept at “midwifing new ideas.” Although their family didn’t observe the religious dimensions of their Jewish culture, Chloe was enrolled in Hebrew School for becoming a bat mitsvah. It was then that she began identifying with the spiritual practices of Judaism, and for the first time in public, she sang. In St. Augustine’s words, “Those who sing pray twice,” and Chloe’s voice became one of her favorite expressions in liturgical contexts.

Beyond grief work, Chloe’s work also focuses on community and healing in other sectors. Even before her chaplaincy training, she had helped design transformative group experiences for young adults (from retreats to DIY rituals to performance arts). She was an organizer with The Food Project, a youth employment program that gathers a diversity of teens to grow food, learn about oppression and liberation, and bridge differences. She also served as Fellowship Director at Urban Adamah, a Jewish farm in Berkeley, where she integrated spirituality, farming, mindfulness and social justice.

Chloe's social justice interests at a young age had inspired her to study religion at Carleton College, because it “helped me understand the ways people make meaning.” Her diverse coursework included offerings like Religion and the Black Freedom Struggle; Taoism; Religious and Moral Issues in the Holocaust; and a study abroad program in Mexico on Catholic Liberation Theology. She then trained as a community organizer through the JOIN for Justice Fellowship in Boston. At Harvard University, she earned a Masters in Education, focusing on transformative experiences. Currently, she is studying toward rabbinic ordination at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia.

Her guided offerings draw from her widely inclusive approach to faith — combining song, Buddhist insight meditation, and Jewish scripture and spirituality. For anyone interested in more singing or contemplative prayer videos, she offers a whole playlist!

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

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