Thursday, October 26, 2017

Kaddish - A Daily Ordeal (and How Shuls Can Help)

Reciting kaddish daily after the death of a close family member can be trying at the best of times.  FIRST, there is the tetris challenge adjusting your schedule around changing minyan times.  THEN comes the feat of arriving at the start of services, which can be likened to running to catch a train three times a day.  FINALLY, there is the stress of keeping up with the chazzan, so as to be ready to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish in the appropriate places in the service.  While these three challenges are shared by all, after this point, the experience diverges for male and female mourners.  


Male mourners may be faced with the chiyuv, the obligation, to lead the service and catch a few extra kaddishes in memory of their loved one.  They may receive diverse feedback regarding the pacing, speed and volume of their performance, which can be confusing at best, or hurtful depending on how it is offered.


Female mourners have a different set of challenges.  On any given day, most of the following thoughts flit through my head during the service:

  • OK, I’m here… I’ve entered (or found, or constructed or negotiated for) the women’s section.  Will there be a minyan for the early kaddish?  
  • Will there be anyone saying kaddish on the men’s side?  I don’t want to say kaddish aloud on my own unless I know that the Shul will support me in doing so.  
  • Do I need to alert someone that I’m here to say kaddish?  How can I get their attention?
  • Will I be able to hear the man’s kaddish? Will I be able to keep pace?
  • What if I miss a beat and pause at different intervals than the others.  Will anyone answer to my kaddish? Or will I be greeted by silence?
  • I wish I didn’t have to be sitting here alone.
  • Oh good, company!  … but I hope she’s not here to say kaddish too...
  • Oh no… glad to have company, so sad we have to meet under these circumstances.
  • I don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb; it feels strange and uncomfortable to hear my voice in a shul service.
  • Will they think I’m trying to make a “statement?”  
  • I never asked for ANY of this!
  • Gosh I miss my father…



How a Shul Can Be More Friendly to Women Saying Kaddish

  • Ensure that men do not sit in the Women’s Section.
  • Make sure that the Women’s Section is unlocked, with lights, air conditioning, and siddurim available to all who arrive at whatever time they arrive.
  • Ask the male mourners (or at the very least one male mourner) to stand near the women’s section so any women saying kaddish can keep pace with him (it can be hard to hear a group scattered throughout the room and keep pace with one person).
  • Arrange for someone on the men’s side to recite kaddish at the minyan every day, on behalf of anyone who needs to follow along (and may not make themselves known in advance).
  • Delegate a gabbai, officer, or member at large to welcome women when they arrive and/or at least be available to notice if a woman tries to signal that she is there to recite kaddish.
  • Create “notification cards” in the women’s section that can be passed to the rabbi or gabbai to notify them that a women is planning to recite kaddish at this minyan (so that the minyan can make whatever preparation necessary to ensure that kaddish is not skipped or rushed through).




How a Shul Can be More Accommodating to All Mourners

  • Set a consistent pace:
    • Designate one individual to recite Kaddish loudly and set the pace for all. This could be the Chazzan (Leader) or someone with a loud voice.
    • Designate a central location from which Kaddish is recited by all (preferably near the woman's section so women can easily hear and keep pace).
    • Announce "Kaddish" so that mourners can collectively begin at the same time.
    • Make an effort to minimize talking during this time, as well as noises that emanate from movement (chair scratching, doors closing, etc.), because this makes it more difficult for mourners to hear each other and keep pace.
  • Recommend that the Chazzan breathe (pause) before finishing Aleinu - to give those reciting Kaddish a chance to finish or come to a good stopping point before the Kaddish that follows.

  • Have copies of both the Mourner's Kaddish and the Rabbi's Kaddish available separate from the siddur (so that a mourner arriving just in time has quick and easy access to the words).
    • These pages can include transliteration for those who need and a note of when kaddish is recited by that specific minyan.
  • A little preparation makes a big difference:
    • Letting a new arrival know when during the service Kaddish is to be recited is very helpful (also managing expectations by giving a heads' up that there may not be a minyan for the first Kaddish will go a long way).
    • Announcing page numbers (so the text can be quickly found).
  • Encourage congregants to turn toward and respond when Kaddish is recited.



Thursday, October 19, 2017

Saying Kaddish as an Orthodox Woman in a Shiva House

Regardless how liberally minded one is, if she connects to the Orthodox arena, she will never have recited kaddish before… not once.  According to Halacha (Jewish law), Kaddish is one of three prayers that are considered D’varim She’B’kdusha, which require a minyan (quorum of ten men) to recite.  Therefore, these prayers are omitted from Women’s Tefilah services that involve women only, and always led by men in the presence of a minyan.  (The other prayers are Barchu and Kedusha).  


The experience of reciting Kaddish aloud, in a mixed setting, and waiting for a response from that same mixed group of people can feel shocking, surreal, uncomfortable and any number of other emotions.


^ Clergy should be cognizant of looking out to make sure the woman reciting Kaddish has the correct place in the siddur, knows when to begin and how to proceed, and helping to set an appropriate pace for the rest of the congregants who are reciting the Mourners Kaddish.  The woman’s voice will likely not be loud enough (by nature or by design) to rise above those of the men and demand attention.


~ Friends can help by standing nearby and offering moral support and a response where warranted.


~ If you are in shul and a woman is saying Kaddish, turn toward them, or even sit closer.  There’s a good chance they will welcome your proximity - I know I have.


Uncomfortable Experiences to Be Prepared For:

  • “Yechupitzville, Population One”: Standing by oneself on the far side of the room from the rest of the minyan (in lieu of a mechitza).  Even well-meaning close relatives who love you may not understand how it feels to be deported to Siberia.  
    • ~ friends visiting a shiva house where a woman is saying kaddish can make an extra effort to stand near her (or as close as is comfortable if they are male) to offer moral support.  
  • “What am I, chopped liver?”: Watching any male mourners surrounded by supportive community members for the recitation of the first Kaddish, while you are left alone to fend for yourself.
    • Hat tip to my neighbor who noticed me standing with a siddur, intending to recite the kaddish, and made a point of standing near me to help me find the right page and offer moral support while I worked my way along.
  • “Yoohoo, I’m over here!”: attracting attention of those leading the minyan to submit the name of a “sick or recovering relative or friend” for a Misheberach (prayer for the sick).  This is especially tricky if everyone in the room is hard of hearing…
  • “You’ve got to be kidding!”: waking up early to get to minyan in time for the early kaddish (~2 minutes after start time) only to have it skipped due to lack of minyan (bring tissues for such an occasion, especially first day out of the house after shiva).  
  • A few tips and tricks:
    • Keep a stack of post-its and a pen nearby
    • Write the name of the sick friend on a Post-It and leave strategically around the room before the service begins (keep an extra stack nearby for when those Post-Its you placed are not found when needed)
    • Use your speaking voice - when the men announce "kaddish!" from a huddle reminiscent of football practice, call out “What page?!”  That will remind them you are present and perhaps inspire them to wait for you to catch up.  Otherwise you may never find the place in time.  

Monday, October 16, 2017

*Kaddish at the Funeral - know before you go (if possible)

The kaddish recited at the funeral is longer, more complex, and different from every other kaddish that is recited.  It is only recited at the funeral, by the mourners (immediate family), and should be taken very slowly.  


^ Clergy should be cognizant that some of the mourners may be encountering kaddish for the first time, and give some guidance regarding

  • when to begin
  • how fast to recite
  • where to find the text (before the train leaves the station).

Sunday, October 8, 2017

What to Say (and What Not To Say)

Before I continue, I want to say that I appreciated every single visit, phone call, text, email, Facebook chat and comment, WhatsApp message, virtual hug and telepathic communication I received during shiva and beyond.  It was nothing less than an inundation of love and caring that helped to add a cushion to a very difficult time.  

I also recognize that many people feel uncomfortable when faced with someone else’s loss and do not know what to say in consolation.  It’s a tricky time when emotions run high, and well intentioned comments may come with a sting.  

For this reason, I want to use this space to offer some tips to those fortunately uninitiated into the club of loss and those who struggle to find the right words when words feel so terribly inadequate.  Note: if you have used any of the phrases on the “Don’t Say” list in the past, don’t waste time feeling badly.  I know that your words were well meant and I will never hold it against you… there’s also a chance it gave me a much needed laugh (not at your expense, but at the words themselves).  Don’t look back; just move forward and choose from the “Say” list in the future.


Here’s a great article from the New York Times, published the day after I got up from Shiva.  Many of its recommendations are on point.  My personal suggestions are below: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/24/smarter-living/condolence-letters-how-to.html


Here’s What You Can Say:
  • “May your memories bring you comfort.”
  • “May you find comfort among family and friends.”
  • “May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
  • “I don’t know what to say.”
  • Just say my name.
  • “Can I give you a hug?” (good idea to ask first, not everyone will accept)
  • Nothing at all… just sit and be there with me.
  • Tell me a story about my father that I don’t know… or remind me of a shared memory.
  • Ask me about my father or if I want to show you a picture.
  • Remind me who you are…
    • I want to remember, I really do.  Seeing your familiar face means the world to me at this moment.  
    • Please don’t be offended if I can’t recall your name right away… my brain is on overload.  I promise, it’s not personal.
  • Walk up to me with confidence.  
    • It’s a sad moment, but I promise not to bite you for walking through the door.  I am glad you came.  Don’t forget that I’m still me.  Please treat me like you would always treat me.  If you enter shyly or look uncomfortable, it will make me feel uncomfortable too.  
  • “Thinking of you and sending a hug.”  (If you can’t be there in person)


Don’t Say:
  • “I’m sorry about your loss.”  
    • Do you think I misplaced him, like a missing sock?  Kind of hard to overlook a close family member.  (I know what you mean, but I found it more comforting to hear “I’m sorry about your father.”)
    • Some feel that the word “loss” is too generic… personalizing the sentiment can help to comfort the person who is mourning (please do be sure to get it right, though).
    • Better to be specific, though if you’re not sure who passed away, stick with generic loss.  Far better than mistakenly mentioning a relative that is still living.
  • “I can’t imagine what you must be going through.”  
    • I’m SO glad you don’t know and I don’t want you to try.  It’s bad enough that I know what I’m going through… your imaginings won’t help me and they’ll scare you.  My father said that the bad times will find us, “don’t waste time being afraid.”  
    • Just be here for me.  You don’t have to say anything and you definitely don’t need to try to imagine what I'm feeling.
  • "I'm sorry I didn't call/text/teleport/fax/etc."
    • I know you mean well, but apologies are not necessary. I don't want to know what you were doing while I was hurting... your mentioning it just sends the memories rushing back.
    • Focus on right now - use any phrases from the "say" list and then follow my lead about whether I want to talk about my loss or about something/anything else.
  • “We’re short one (for a minyan).”  
    • Of course we are - it’s a shiva house.  Watch your words please… this can bring back hurtful thoughts.  I’ll just go ahead and call my dad…. oh wait…  he’s not here… anymore.  Tissue please.  
    • Figure out a better way of finding that last person for the minyan (note: I know your heart is in a good place… this is probably something you’ve never thought of before).
  • “How are you doing?”  
    • How do you think I’m doing?
  • “What’s wrong?”
    • Ditto above…
  • Baruch Dayan Emet (blessed is the true judge).”  
    • This is the first blessing a mourner is allowed (forced) to recite after tearing clothes at the cemetery.  Please don’t throw those charged words back in my face… this is my tragedy, not yours, and you don’t get to cavalierly tell me what I should be thinking.
    • You can say this when you hear bad news yourself… but saying it to the mourner in person or in writing is in poor taste (my humble opinion).
  • “I hope you’re doing well.”  
    • What’s wrong with you?
  • “What happened, was he sick?”  
    • Does it really matter?  
    • How does making me rehash the horror help you (or me, for that matter)?
    • If you want to know whether the death was sudden, try asking exactly that: “Did you have any warning?” This focuses on the mourner's experience rather than any extended illness or discomfort that preceded the death.
  • Tell me all about your own tzuris (troubles).  
    • No offense, but my brain is not in a place where it can take in anything beyond the immediate task of navigating grief.  
    • Don’t be upset if later I don’t remember anything you say… it wasn’t the right time to share it anyway.
  • “Let me know how I can help.”  
    • I know you mean well, but now I have to a) remember that you offered, b) think about your want/need to help me, c) find a job for you, d) look up your phone # or contact info, and e) reach out and ask you to do it.  
    • You really want to help?  Call me with a specific offer.  I’ll know you’re there and willing to help and will be more likely to either give you a job right then or think of you later when I need the same job done.  [See post: "What Can I Do To Help" for some constructive ideas.]
    • Remember, I don’t know yet what I’ll need to get me through the next days and weeks and months, and the needs may change and evolve with time.  Please don’t be offended if I don’t take you up on this well intentioned offer.
  • “Call me if you need anything or want to talk.”
    • Ditto above.
    • The sentiment is sweet, and if I ever get to make the list I intend to create of all the people who reached out with all of their generous, considerate offers, I'll make sure to make a note and reach out when I need to. In the meantime, checking in every so often and asking what I'm up to (rather than how I'm doing) will be much appreciated.
  • “That's life.”  No it's not, it's death.  If you don't know, don't try to tell me… (I'm SO glad you don't know.  Still, don't tell me.)
  • “Things happen for a reason.”  Were you trying to make me feel guilty?  I feel badly enough already… and if given the choice between your “reason” and my father, I’d choose my father.  But no one gave me a choice….  Go philosophize out of my earshot.


Tips for the mourner:
  • Think about what YOU want to talk about during the Shiva and deflect the conversation in that direction. Personally, I wanted to collect as many stories about my father as I could.
    • (I also wrote them down in a notebook and told the visitors I was doing so - this helped me alleviate some of the fear that I would forget.  Someone else I know used a tape recorder to preserve stories about his father.)
  • Prepare a quick and pithy response to the inevitable questions about cause of death (and other annoying questions), then redirect the conversation toward your own goals.
  • When people offer to help, tell them to check in with you in a month or two.  You can even start assigning 2-3 people to give you a call in a specific month by giving them a concrete assignment: “Please take me for a walk in September” or “Let’s meet for dinner in October”
    • You may need to remind people that you’re not yet able to make specific plans, but if they check in as time goes on, you’ll appreciate it, and have a better idea of your needs.
    • Don’t offer this invitation to someone whose company you will not appreciate.
    • Direct people toward a friend or friends who can coordinate on your behalf concrete things such as meals, company for minyanim, walks, etc.


Again, these tips are meant to make the consolation process a bit easier for all concerned and should in no way be taken as a criticism... by anyone. I appreciated all the outreach I received and continued to receive, and will always remember the love and caring that surrounded me and helped me move through the darkest moment of my life.


The Blessing of My Tears

Written in memory of my father, Maury Joseph Fechter  מרדכי יוסף בן שמואל on his 2nd Yortzeit, כד׳ אב. In honor of my father's 2nd...