Sunday, August 25, 2019

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 Yortzeit, I have a special request: Please don't apologize for my tears!

In the last two years, I've experienced such a variety of emotions that it is sometimes hard to sort them all out.  Sadness, loss, grief, anger, love, pride, joy, excitement, longing... the list continues.  Getting married was a true emotional high and such a joyous day.  Walking to the chuppah without my father by my side was something I had never imagined. 

I've cried so many kinds of tears in the last two years that it is impossible to keep track... and sometimes impossible to hold them back.  And I don't want to.  

Each tear is love.  

Each and every tear is a memory, part and parcel with the emotions it triggers.  

And each tear keeps my father close to me in ways that I cannot describe.  But I will try. 

I am so very proud to be my father's daughter.  He was a kind and compassionate man, who quietly tried to take away pain wherever he could.  The Rabbi who conducted my new niece's naming drew a comparison to spices... everyone who met my father walked away with a positive experience.  What a high bar he set for the little granddaughter who carries his name!  

My father was a talented and gentle dentist who preferred not to be any more intrusive than necessary.  I miss him every time I schedule an appointment to sit in the dental chair.  Moreover, he was a dental therapist, who helped calm the emotional nerves, while the novicane controlled the physical ones. 

I tear up when I hear a familiar cadence, or when my husband unknowingly uses a similar mannerism.  I cry to think that my husband never met my father and will never know how wonderfully similar they are in kindness and caring and compassion (as well as punniness and culinary interests).  

I know it sounds like I'm crying all the time (inside, if not outwardly), but I'm not.  I live my life as my father would wish, experiencing positive, happy emotions on a daily basis as well.  Sometimes months go by without a tear.  Sometimes the floodgates open with a particular trigger.  I generally cope pretty well, with moments of weakness here and there.  I'm choosing to give voice to those moments now because they have become a part of me and a part of my process.  And because one thing I wish more people understood about grief is that I'm not ashamed of my tears.   

I get emotional when thinking about my memories and also when I'm afraid that my memories are getting lost. I'm angry at my father for leaving without warning and, at the same time, glad he didn't suffer.  I miss asking him my dental questions - no one will ever take as good care of me in that chair as he did.  And I miss the memories I'll never have - of him meeting my husband, walking me down the aisle, and holding my children.  

It's a mixed deck, but it's the hand I've been dealt.  My biggest fear is that with time he'll slip away completely.  That I'll stop crying one day for good.  And I can't bear that thought.  Because I want to feel.  I need to remember.  I must tell his grandchildren and great-grandchildren what a wonderful Zayde they had.  

Sometimes the tears run quietly down my face, and sometimes they are accompanied by sobs.  Sometimes they simply glisten at the corners of my eyes.  Sometimes there are long dry spells; while sometimes they come in a flood.  But each one is an expression of love.  A memory.  A thought or a feeling.  

Each one tells me that I can still feel.  And for that I'm truly grateful.  

So please, please... don't apologize for my tears.  Offer me a tissue or a hug, or better yet, offer a memory or ask me to share one with you.  Help me remember, help me feel, and most of all, let me add my tears to the river of memory. 

Friday, March 15, 2019

Offering Comfort After the First Year

Everyone knows that the most acute period of mourning is the days and weeks immediately following the death of a loved one.  The only way to survive that time is through the rallying support of one's community.  And our community is truly a beautiful one!  My family and I were truly comforted by the outpouring of love we experienced from family, friends, and acquaintances in the immediate aftermath of my father's passing.

I understand that grief takes many forms for many different people.  However, one commonality is the painful loneliness left in the wake of loss.  A child, who loses a parent in the natural order, experiences the sudden disappearance of the loving parent who was once easily reachable at the other end of the phone.  On the other hand, a spouse is suddenly bereft of the support system of marriage and all that that entails, and is now left living alone and rebuilding life as a newly single adult after many years as a couple.  No matter how much time passes, and how many new relationships and routines are formed, our loved ones leave an indelible mark on our hearts.

In the months and years following shiva, mourners move into a different phase of mourning,  lesser-known and little talked about.  It's the period of rebuilding a life with gaping silences; a time of learning which friends can be counted upon and which friendships have run their course.  I had to draw a line in the sand when planning my wedding, and that line fell very neatly between the friends that reached out to me during my year of mourning and those who seemed to disappear. At my wedding, without my father present, I wanted to feel only support and love and not the pang of fading friendships.  The months after shiva are a time when the mourner is trying to forge a new place in the world and come to terms with who they are without their loved one by their side.

So I have a project for the community.  We can call it "Bikkur non-Cholim," or a "Continuation of Nichum Aveilim," or just plain "Being Good Friends and Community  Members."  Whatever its name, there is a real, genuine need in the community for outreach to those who are suffering.  

To be clear, no one wants to be pitied or coddled, especially not healthy, capable, independent adults.  That being said, no one wants to be forgotten either, and it is easy to feel that way in the aftermath of a loss.  Whether friends keep distance because they are unsure what to say or uncomfortable with this reminder of their own mortality, cutting ties with a healthy widow/er simply because their existence is a reminder of a lost friend is cruel and unusual punishment for the survivor.  We all live busy lives, but little touches can go a very long way.  

Here's how the community can help in the aftermath of the acute mourning period.  

  • Call to say "hello" and catch up - ask "what's going on?" or "what are you up to?" 
  • Extend an invitation to a movie, a show, dinner, coffee, a walk.
    • Show the person you want to spend time with them because you like them and value their company, not as part of a couple but for themselves and the connection you can forge together.
  • Shabbat invitations! (for a meal or a weekend) 
    • Shabbat can be a very lonely time for newly bereaved, as well as months and years after the event! 
    • Don't think that mourning ends after the year of aveilut.  It often takes at least a year to make connections when one moves to a new city/town.  Getting acclimated in your own city/town in a new phase of life can be even more challenging.  
    • Shabbat is a weekly reminder of what was lost and the silence, when alone, can be deafening. 
  • Send a quick text, a random photo or link to an article you find interesting.
    • This lets your friend know you are thinking of them and opens lines of communication if/when they want to reach out.
    • Especially helpful if you don't know what to say.
Most importantly, keep in mind that the point of this outreach is to remind the mourner that they are still loved and valued for themselves, their human traits (humor, kindness, intellect), and not less of a person because one who loved them no longer marks their passage through the world.  Everyone wants to be noticed.  Let's make an effort and notice those in our community who are hurting and offer what band-aid we can in the form of friendship and kindness. 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

A New Normal

Everyone says that firsts are hard.  After experiencing a second Yom Kippur, I think that seconds can arguably be worse.  First occasions: holidays, birthdays, milestones truly are difficult to weather with a missing loved one.  But by the time the second one comes around, it’s the beginning of a new routine. The distraction provided the initial outpouring of sympathy is mostly gone and you are left alone with the reality that your loved one really isn't coming back. And that realization can be just as hard, if not harder.  It's a different kind of pain - less acute and raw and more of a subtle dull throbbing.

It niggles underneath all of the other mundane thoughts: How can we move on when our loved one is not with us?

And now I’m beginning to wonder if I just imagined it all to begin with… has the father I remember become a figment of my imagination?

I know this may sound crazy to some, but for me, this whole experience is tinged with an element of disbelief.  Initially, I felt a sense of unreality because my father died so suddenly, with no warning or preparation or closure.  At the funeral, I felt like a character in an alternate reality: in the “real” or “parallel story,” my father lived a full life, celebrated his children’s weddings and had the opportunity to dote on and enjoy his grandchildren.  In this fictional narrative, the pallbearers are his grandsons and great-grandsons, instead of only loving nephews. In the harsher world of reality, my brother and I both planned our weddings during the year of mourning, and instead of playing with him, my father's grandchildren will bear his name.

Now that my wedding is approaching in a couple of months, this element of disbelief continues.  How can my father not be here to walk me down the aisle?! How can I get married without him?!  And how is it possible that my wonderful fiance, who had to comfort me through a year of Kaddish and endless stories, never got to meet him in real life?

How can this be?

In the beginning, it just felt strange, knowing my father was not going to be present for holidays and milestones.  Now, reality is setting in, with a rough introduction to the concept of “never.” It’s the start of a new normal, and I don’t like it at all.  

But like most things in life, I don’t get a choice.  A year of Kaddish was a logistical challenge, but also cathartic. It was a bit like summer camp, with the crazy schedule and socialization born of repeat encounters with fellow minyanaires. Not to mention, thrice daily opportunities to reflect and cry and miss my father in a real, palpable way.

Now that the first year has passed, I cannot continue to maintain the frenetic pace of barrelling down the street before shacharit, interrupting client sessions to catch mincha, and finding maariv after 9 or 10 PM. Moving forward is hard, but it doesn’t mean I love my father less or that I won’t miss him during all kinds of moments big and small.  I don’t have to like it, but I do have to live it, even if the reality stinks. Surreal or not, this is the hand I've been dealt and there are beautiful occasions coming that deserve my attention, energy and emotions. My father would want me to embrace them and his memory deserves nothing less.

Which leaves me getting used to a new normal - and to an even newer understanding of what that means compared to when I first wrote about the concept a year ago. The thing that helps the most, I've found, is the support of my friends, family, and community. It was hard to look forward to getting married without my father, until a friend started singing Od Yishama over the phone in response to news of our engagement. It didn't begin to feel real until my fiance's extended family started kilili-ing in our honor. And when the year ended and my cousins surprised me with a bridal shower (in my own home!!!), it finally became possible for me to start to get excited about the wedding. Shopping expeditions post-mourning have been a proactive way to help me prepare for upcoming events and start feeling fresh and pretty again with a new wardrobe. But most importantly, friends reaching out, asking about the wedding, making plans to be present and celebrate at the out of town event itself or during sheva berachot... these have been important and necessary steps in helping me bridge the gap between grief and living.

I don’t want to feel my father's loss any less, but I cannot hold onto such an acute hurt forever. I know I can see the thestrals, but I don't have to stand alone when I do. If I have learned anything from this experience, it is that real, human interactions, connections and relationships can add a much-needed cushion to the pain of loss and grief. It's a different reality to the one I envisioned at the funeral, but it has its own inherent beauty that I can't and won't ignore. I count myself lucky that I have been blessed, not only with happy occasions to look forward to, but to friends I can truly count on to see me through the hard times and help me celebrate the good times that are coming.

May we all merit to see only simchas!

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Yortzeit Reflections: Sensitivity, Community & Chutzpah

Remarks shared at Congregation Ohab Zedek during Seudah Shlishit on August 4, 2018, on the occasion of my father's first Yortzeit - Mordechai Yosef ben Shmuel.  May his neshama have an Aliyah. 

There’s a saying that “the days pass slowly but the years fly.” I cannot believe I’m standing here today on my father’s Yortzeit, marking a whole year without him. It’s been a whirlwind year, with so many milestone moments, both related to remembering my father and adjusting to the new normal, as well as preparing to step into another new chapter in my future. I’d like to take a few moments now to reflect on what I have learned through this year of saying kaddish in shul regularly….

My father was one of the kindest, gentlest people you could ever meet. He was a quiet man, unassuming, sensitive soul, who loved to help people heal, both personally and professionally - he was a dental craftsman, skilled, caring and devoted to his art… I learned recently that he even talked about dentistry in his sleep. And my choice to say Kaddish this year, which started as a final gift that I could give him, actually turned into a gift for myself as well.

People have said some interesting things this year… well, people say interesting things all the time… and most are very well-meaning. One of the things I’ve heard a lot lately is how much extra time I’ll have on my hands once I don’t have to rush off to shul anymore. It’s true, I won’t miss springing out of bed at the sound of my alarm so I won’t be late for Shacharit - picture the cartoon Goofy landing on a pincushion - arms and legs taught and suspended inches above the mattress. I won’t miss barrelling, (yes barreling.. there’s simply no other word for it) down 95th street like an offensive linebacker, frightening dogs and people out of my way as I raced down slippery marble stairs just in time for Kaddish (I’m so grateful that there are now rugs to absorb the water and make that descent just a little less treacherous). I won’t miss interrupting dates and dinners to catch the last minyan - its hard to forget the night we left my future in-laws waiting in the restaurant between dinner and dessert while we headed down the street for Maariv after Tuesday night learning!

But there are plenty of things I will miss - and plenty of unexpected things I gained - from a year of saying Kaddish every day in all sorts of familiar and unfamiliar minyanim: and of these, the main categories are Chutzpah, sensitivity and community.

First of all, I have to say that my choice to say Kaddish was not a political statement of any kind, and certainly not an attempt to prove a point about women in Orthodox shuls, although I learned a lot about this topic too. It was not even a commitment to say Kaddish “all year,” but a choice I made (and continue to make) one day at a time. But as a woman choosing to say Kaddish, I surprised myself with a chutzpah I didn’t know I had, barging into Kollels and Chabad houses and collecting men for minyan during conferences and house parties. I advocated for myself with Rabbis and gabbaim, mourners and other congregants with the goal of ensuring a place to stand during the service and a pace for Kaddish that was reasonable enough to follow. Of course, what I felt to be “barging in” was in reality more of a gentle and respectful "acquaintance making" in my father's style, but it still felt strange on many occasions to wait for a mechitza to be set up or to wonder with trepidation throughout the entire service to find out whether Kaddish would be recited at the end. I developed a habit of doing research, calling ahead and arriving early any time I was too far from my “comfort minyanim” - OZ is one of these- where I knew what to expect. I even printed up “Kaddish cards”- business cards that could be easily passed through the mechitza to the minyan leadership, which included my father’s name and yortzeit, along with my blog address, for easy reference. These proved to come in very handy during the year, and my only regret is in misprinting the Hebrew month in which I printed them (after shloshim) instead of the actual Hebrew date of my father’s yortzeit - 24th of Av!

I also watched myself seek out other male mourners and advocate for my needs by asking the men to speak louder, stand near the mechitza, or adjust their pace. On one occasion I even asked certain gentlemen why they felt it necessary to wander through the women’s section during davening…. I’m not sure everyone was pleased with my requests all the time, and while at times I was quite embarrassed by my “big mouth,” I did feel a certain sense of satisfaction because of the way the community rallied to make small but powerful changes that made my Kaddish experience increasingly comfortable, and therefore more meaningful.

Sensitivity is the second lesson, and as I’ve already alluded, there are so many things that one notices when one finds oneself in the same place for an extended period of time. Firstly, I noticed how arranging my work schedule around minyan time allowed me an element of relief in knowing that my davening would happen at a specified time that day. While I certainly disliked the initial sprint to get there, once I was in shul, I had the rest of the time to simply be… to be present, to think, to reflect, to fume, to strategize and to feel. I noticed some minor things such as how the shadows fell differently on my siddur depending on whether the mechitza was two inches to the right or left of usual, and how other seemingly small things, like word choice, had a major impact on how welcome I felt in a certain minyan. I learned that idle conversation next to the mechitza adversely impacts the quality of my davening, while a single “amen” to my Kaddish lifts my spirits for the rest of the day. I’ve learned that cameraderie in the recitation of Kaddish offers a band-aid to my suffering soul, while company in shul by women NOT saying Kaddish offers a comfort beyond the power of words, as well as a sense of normalcy in a period of upheaval and stress.

I learned to be sensitive to my family’s reactions to our shared tragedy and to how other people reacted to my outward display of grief. I learned to be sensitive to my wonderful fiance and his likes and dislikes, and to recognize his beautiful acts of generosity and patience through a tumultuous year of dating riddled with kaddish. And I learned to be sensitive to myself - to my own feelings, wants and needs and to be more direct and blunt than I have ever had cause to be in the past - and that advocating for myself, with a sensitivity to where the other parties are coming from, was an important step not only for me, but for any women and any mourners who will follow me (but not until 120 on all sides). I also recognize now, from the other end, that a community as a whole cannot be expected to feel the acute mourning experience of the individuals reciting kaddish on a perpetual basis. That said, I have sincerely appreciated the way my comments and requests have been received with empathy and sensitivity in most circumstances. I recognize that it was much easier for a woman to recite Kaddish in 2018 than it has been in years past, but we as a community still have a way to go. Even so, I’ve never been more grateful for Jewish community and I hope that my reflections here and in my blog will serve to help women feel even more comfortable, both here at OZ and in all the communities where we travel.

Mourning is a funny thing - as an Avel, one is supposed to separate onself from the community in celebrations, concerts and other happy gatherings. On the other hand, saying Kaddish requires one to step into the public eye to daven daily with a minyan. The overtures of this community, the connections I made this year, and the relationships formed will always hold a special place in my healing heart, including people in this room who don't even realize the impact they have made by their simple presence in shul. I appreciate every person in every city who turned to face me while I recited Kaddish, who offered a verbal response, or who simply stood still and quiet during the recitation. I am forever grateful to the men who either recited their Kaddish loudly or stood near the mechitza so I could hear them to recite Kaddish together. I am especially grateful to those Chazzanim who paused to breathe at the periods during Aleinu so that I could finish the last paragraph before launching into Kaddish at the end of the service. There are no words to express how I felt as certain members of this community took me under their wing, some even offering to interview the guy I was then dating to make sure he was going to treat me right sincemy father could not do so.

During this year I found myself in dozens of shuls in at least half a dozen states which showed me the breadth and depth of our greater Jewish community. With countless hours in places I’d never otherwise have ventured into, I learned about sensitivity and kindness in the most unexpected ways. Men I never met volunteered to recite kaddish along with me so that I did not need to recite it alone. Some communities had clear policies on women and kaddish and encouraged me to recite it ‘loud and proud’ (as we say in school). Men set up movable mechitzot upon my arrival in places unaccustomed to having women present. Rabbis reflected on the wording of annoucements and updated policies based on items I brought to their attention. And I met and shared memories with dozens of women who kept me company during their rotation of yortzeits and aveilut, finding myself surrounded and enfolded by a club no one wants to join that is built upon the poignancy of shared pain and effort of memory. I thank all the women who have come before me to pave the way and those who have kept me company through shared loss and commitment and every person, man and woman, who supported, encouraged, assisted and inspired me.

I’ve had countless hours to reflect on the whole experience, and have a blog dedicated to my thoughts on various topics related to Jewish mourning and women in shul in general. I welcome your feedback and encourage you to share the posts widely if they resonate with you. Regular synagogue attendance is no small feat - I admire anyone who manages to do so, since it required me to reorganize my entire schedule to achieve - but the benefits of community, connection, consistency, relationships, schedule, routine, etc. - are many.

My father was a man of few words, and I had a lot of time this year to reflect on their power. More than anything else, I’ve learned that words can hurt and words can heal and sometimes there are no words and sometimes words have no meaning and sometimes it’s important to say the words regardless - because the saying of them is one positive thing you can do to recognize the memory of a loved one, no matter what it takes to make it happen, because eventually, their meaning will penetrate and because the time it takes to say them is valuable time for reflection about loss and life and love.

In memory of my father, Dr. Maury Fechter - Mordechai Yosef ben Shmuel, I hope that these words will in some small way help to inspire chutzpah, encourage sensitivity and build community in the minds and hearts of all who hear them.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Balancing Security and Visitor Access

From a security perspective, it goes without saying that synagogues and religious institutions in this day and age need to be cautious about security.  There are numerous strategies that I've seen exployed at the many shuls I have visited on this Kaddish tour, including live security guards, cameras, and pass codes, among others both visible and not.  These institutions want to ensure that the individuals entering their premises are there for genuine and appropriate reasons.  And they have every right to be selective in whom they admit and whom they do not. 

From a Jewish perspective, it is a beautiful mark of community that someone can join a minyan anywhere in the world and find familiar texts and rhythms included in the service.  I am constantly I awe of how the routines of halacha, and minyan in particular, bring together individuals with diverse languages, perspectives and experiences to achieve a common goal.  I continue to be amazed at how the word "Kaddish" is a universal password that elicits warmth, compassion and welcome. 

Except when it's not...
And when that exclusion is a function of circumstance and security features operating all too well. 

Last night, my fiance and I tried to catch a late Maariv at a synagogue we had not attended before.   We elicited help via Facebook to identity a likely minyan in our target area.  As we arrived (on time due to distance, rather than early as is my usual practice at new venues), we observed several men walking toward the entrance.  We felt we could relax, we made it in time. We parked the car and approached the entrance ourselves.  Unfortunately, by the time we reached the doors, they were locked.  Ringing the bell on the intercom did nothing, as the office wss closed at 9:45 PM.  There was no number pad in sight to try the usual suspects.  I even approached someone sitting in a parked car, having no idea if he would be friend or foe, to see if I could glean any information.  

I was not looking for the pass code.  Why would I, a visitor on one occasion so far, need access to sensitive security information?

What I did wish, was for a way to alert the people inside the minyan that there was someone outside who wanted to recite Kaddish.  We had no way to reach anyone or seek help until the service was over.  

For ten minutes we stood outside, trying every means we could think of to gain access.  When I finally saw movement in the lobby, I sprinted to the door to ask to be let in to say Kaddish.  I was answered with regret that the service had ended. 

To the credit of the congregation, when they heard what happened, almost everyone there filed back into the chapel to say a chapter of tehillim so that I could say Kaddish at the end of it.  I am grateful for this kindness and show of support and acceptance after the unfortunate ordeal.

And now I wonder... what is the solution? 

If this happened to me, it can happen to others, and I can't imagine I'm the first to miss a service for lack of communication with the minyan.   The reality is that while catching a minyan is not a life and death situation, minutes still matter and emotions are particularly raw. 

So perhaps the synagogues that rely on passcodes for access might consider a sign for visitors, with a phone number of someone inside the minyan, or a bell, that can alert those inside that someone would like to join.  The synagogue office is typically not open during minyan times, so an alternative point of communication is important.  Perhaps this visitor information about communication could also be posted on the website. 

Ultimately, the question remains for each institution to wrestle with: how can it ensure the security of its members while also opening the door to visitors who genuinely wish to connect. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

More Perspectives from the Other Side of the Mechitza - by Michal Greenspan

Michal Greenspan has bravely and graciously agreed to share her perspective as a regular minyan attendee and a woman who is NOT saying Kaddish.  May she not need to learn about Kaddish until 120 on all sides, and may we benefit from her wisdom to improve the experience of Minyan for all, men and women inclusive.  

It is inspiring that Michal focuses on the varying reasons why people attend minyan and emphasizes the positive: "Understanding what makes other people connect to elements of religion can be inspiring and thought-provoking, and so I encourage you to continue to learn why people do what they do. But be sensitive.... Not everyone shows up to shul for the same reason. That’s what makes us interesting."

Michal also writes: "I wanted to share what it means to be on the other side of the mechitza when you’re not saying Kaddish. To be trying to connect, only to be made to feel like an outcast..." Isn't it a shame that someone so committed to exploring and building her relationship with both God and her community is made to feel this way? No wonder so many women find minyan attendance a challenge when they are not compelled by circumstances!

On a personal note, women like Michal have been my mainstay during these last few months. It has been heartening to have the companionship of other women during the service, especially those whose arrival does not break my heart through the shared grief of a joint Kaddish. Standing lonely on the other side of a barrier is no picnic, and only heightens the experience of loss and disconnection that a mourner can feel - especially when compared to the camaraderie and social capital that builds among men on the other side of the Mechitza. This is one of the reasons I stopped attending daily minyan many years ago, long before I was faced with Kaddish. Wouldn't it be beautiful to see a community of women in attendance every morning - mourners and non-mourners alike - so that those of us reciting Kaddish could have someone to turn toward us and respond? I yearn for the day when women's weekday attendance can grow to a place where I can greet others with "Good Morning" rather than "I'm sorry for your loss."

Perhaps this begins by encouraging women to attend Minyan once a week, on any day of the week - not as an attempt to obligate ourselves in the time-bound commitment but to simply help us find that elusive spiritual connection long before Kaddish enters the picture. Or perhaps it begins with some important steps on the part of the community to ensure that women feel comfortable once they do arrive. Either way, let's brainstorm together how to ease the path for all. Please use the comments as a forum to share ideas and thoughts for supporting the women of our collective community.

By Michal Greenspan

It’s been about 5 months since I’ve been attending morning minyan on a regular basis. What started as a quasi-experiment, has become a ritual routine, so embedded in my daily schedule, that without it I feel un-whole- which is unexpected, considering there have been long stretches of times in my life that I didn’t daven at all.

My mother has always been extremely spiritual. “Jewish music is food for the soul,” she says. JM in the AM would blare on the radio every morning before school, and every month I wake up to a text reminding my brothers and me that it’s Rosh Chodesh.

When I was younger my mother would try to encourage me to daven on Friday nights or Sunday mornings, but I was generally apathetic and somewhat cynical. And as I got older, she stopped asking. Instead, she would simply do. She’d pause our Friday night conversations to recite Kabbalat Shabbat or delay a Sunday morning activity so she could finish saying Tehillim.

I grew up in a house of brothers. I never felt left out of their minyan attendance. Honestly, I felt grateful. Being religious is hard. I wasn’t looking to add another thing to the list of dos and don'ts. I was never the woman who wanted to Lain, or carry the Torah, or put on Tefillin. In so many ways, I just didn’t care.

I used to make fun of my mom for her spirituality. I grew up in a house of faith, but in schools of logic, ritual, & thought. I spent more time learning Gemara than Nach. I was taught to think critically. To find meaning in text rather than song.

And yet, as I’ve gotten older, and gotten further and further from the years of formal Jewish education, I’ve found myself looking for ways to connect. And surprisingly, it has been through elements of religion that I used to laugh off. Zmirot. Jewish Music. Tefillah. I think more than anyone, I am the most surprised by how much the religious experiences I connect to have changed over time.

Recently someone asked me why I go to minyan. “Are you saying Kaddish?” he asked. And on multiple levels, the question stung. Because no, thank God, I am not, although I am surrounded on a daily basis by men and women who have committed their time to doing so. Would you ask a man that question, I wondered? Would I be more or less offended if I actually were saying Kaddish? I understood on some level why he asked. Most of the women who come to minyan say Kaddish. I would be lying if I said that when a new woman appears at minyan, I don’t look up during Kaddish to see if she too is part of the mourners club. Because we have been raised in a world where the norm is for women to show up once a week, often hours late, without any explanations or demands to do better. I’m not here to reform these expectations. As a community could we do more to encourage women to participate more? Of course! There are a million things we could be doing better, hundreds of ways we could up our standards. But I think a simple place to start is creating spaces where women feel just as comfortable as men to show up every morning to daven, without having to be the only ones to answer the question of “why are you here?” I’m happy to explain why; I know why you’re asking. But how many men have been asked the same question?

To say I started going to minyan because I was seeking religious guidance and connection only would be a lie. Sure a part of it was what many seek from religion. To feel part of something larger than themselves. To feel inspired. But I’ve realized, as I’ve been getting older and needing to learn to manage my own time, that structure is something I require. And so, honestly, a big part of Minyan for me has been adding another element of structure to my day, both religiously and logistically. It’s also really been about trying to focus. To try to stretch out the time I devote to thinking about what I want, or need, or am grateful for to more than the five minutes I used to carve out in between getting dressed and eating breakfast (which I’ll admit is not always successful).

There have been both men and women who have been encouraging of my daily routine. Whether it be a simple smile or wave of recognition when they see me on the street outside of shul, or a simple remark that they’re impressed that I go, which I don’t find offensive because honestly, I’m impressed by anyone who goes. It’s hard. And maybe it shouldn’t be. We don’t congratulate people for keeping kosher or Shabbat. But in the world we live in, minyan has become a challenge, and finding ways to connect to God is really really difficult, and it would be unfair of me to say that it’s easy for anyone.

At the same time, I think people overhype it sometimes. I was reluctant to write about my experience. Even to talk about it. Mostly because although minyan is somewhat public, for me it is personal. I do it for myself. I don’t expect others to congratulate me or pat me on the back for committing to something. Everyone makes commitments- religious or personal- public or private that can be challenging or easy.

But I’m sharing for a few reasons.

Because I found something that works for me. That works on religious and logistical levels for me at this time in my life and in some ways has become a little easier for me than I expected. And so I’m trying to lean into it. I’m not saying this to minimize my commitment, rather to say that it doesn’t have to be this. It doesn’t have to be every day. It doesn’t have to be religious, or public, and it doesn’t need to require waking up early. And so if you find something similar or wholly different, but something that brings you some sense of fulfillment I hope you try to embrace it, because your ability to commit to it may surprise yourself most out of everyone.

Because I found my mother’s actions inspiring, but maybe you connect to written words, and so here they are. I’m not a Rabbi or teacher by any stretch of the imagination. But I’m aware that there are many elements of my religious and personal life that require more effort and could use more growth. I’ve found reading other people’s experiences to be helpful at varying moments in my life, whether it be as a point of connection, inspiration or even contradiction so if this helps encourage you or make you think differently in any way, then I’ll be glad I shared.

And I wanted to share what it means to be on the other side of the mechitza when you’re not saying Kaddish. To be trying to connect, only to be made to feel like an outcast in the hopes that maybe we can try to be a little better. It’s ok to ask why I go to minyan. Understanding what makes other people connect to elements of religion can be inspiring and thought-provoking, and so I encourage you to continue to learn why people do what they do. But be sensitive. Ask everyone. Men too. Understand that your questions may be laced with bias whether intended or not, or simply try to ask without a sense of judgment or assumption. I’ve found, it’s much easier to learn this way. Not everyone is saying Kaddish for the same reason. Not everyone shows up to shul for the same reason. That’s what makes us interesting. That’s what makes this religion thoughtful and bigger than just a group of people going through the same motions like robots.

And I think on a more personal level, I also wanted a way to express something that maybe everyone else already knew, but I’m just starting to learn; my relationship to Judaism and God is in constant flux, and the things that once made me scoff, make me feel inspired. And the cynicism I thought had been embedded in my religious observance, was simply just an emotional reaction like any other, that has the ability to change with time and with experience. And that’s what makes religion dynamic and exciting. And I think maybe it’s what makes our connection with God an actual relationship. And maybe tomorrow I’ll wake up cynical again. Who knows? But for now, this works. So I’m trying to embrace it.

What Can I Do To Help?

"Kids, when your best friend loses someone, you drop everything and rush to his side, only to find yourself standing there with no idea what to do or say."  
                  - Episode: "Last Words," How I Met Your Mother 

It's hard to know how to help, even if you have experienced loss before.  Every loss is different and every person grieves differently, but there are some concrete steps you can offer in an attempt to ease the difficult time.  Just remember that not all gestures will be accepted and appreciated by everyone, so tread forward with care and sensitivity. 

During Shiva:
  • Pay a shiva call.  
    • You don't have to say anything at all.  Your presence alone will show the mourner you care and they will talk to you (or not talk) as the spirit moves them.
    • Your simple presence brings much comfort in this time, whether you are a close friend or a more distant connection.    
  •  Send in a meal.
    • Be advised - some Shiva homes are overwhelmed with offers of food and meals, while others have fewer connections reaching out to help.  Try to find out the lay of the land - who is coordinating, what meals are needed for the week.  
    • Aim for variety and/or try to find out what foods the mourners prefer - healthy, dessert, snacks, drinks, cut vegetables, etc.  Try to help mourner retain normal eating routine, though eating may be a challenge at this time.  Don't be offended if your offer is not accepted or enjoyed in the way that you hoped.
  •  Offer to coordinate offers of assistance or help direct offers to the Point Person.
    • For meal planning, there are websites that can help with this: or  
    • There should be a point person coordinating orders of this nature as well as the mourners' needs throughout the week, re: minyan, shopping, food, medical concerns, etc.   
    • Once you know who the point person is, help direct other friends to that person so the offers of help can be coordinated in a way that is constructive without adding unnecessary extra work. 

After Shiva
Note: the mourner will need support for a long time to come.  Here are some actions that can be taken throughout the year and years to follow.
  • Put a note in your calendar several months out to reach out.  
    • There is often a beautiful outpouring of help offered to mourners during Shiva and even during the weeks of the Shloshim.  However, as life gets back to normal, people fall back into usual routines and the outreach grows much more scarce.
    • Phone calls throughout the year are welcome and appreciated because they help the mourner feel the support of the community, while they are still grieving for their lost relative. 
    • Don't be hurt if the phone call is not returned immediately.  I received many emails/calls/texts/facebook messages/etc. during Shiva and after.  I have not forgotten the feelings they engendered, nor the people who sent them.  Each one helped me to feel the love of my friends and community, even if I was unable to respond in what most would call a "reasonable timeframe."  
  • Assist or keep them company during routine household tasks.
    • I found challenges in accomplishing things that once came easily, which lasted for months after shiva.  
    • Organizing paperwork, paying bills, cleaning my apartment, planning meals, shopping, laundry, and even returning phone calls might have been easier with someone nearby, encouraging me to put one foot in front of the other.  
    • Go ahead and offer to assist with a specific task, but don't be offended if this offer is not accepted.  It may be embarrassing for the mourner to ask for this kind of assistance, or it may not even cross the mourner's mind (it didn't for me except once or twice for big projects), but when I did have the company, it was very helpful.  
  •  Perform or help with a specific task: 
    • example: "I'm going to the grocery store, pharmacy, etc. this afternoon.  What can I pick up for you?"
    • or even suggest specific items: "Can I bring you Orange Juice, toilet paper, Advil, etc."  
  •  Company for a minyan.  
    • For both men and women saying Kaddish, this is not an easy step, especially in the first days, and company can be helpful for moral support.
    • Note - for myself, I always appreciated the company, even when I was simultaneously concerned that my saying Kaddish - so painful for me - might also be painful to my friends who had not yet experienced loss.  I was afraid to make others hurt on my behalf (it is still difficult for my mother to hear me recite the Kaddish). 
    • Attending minyan with a friend in mourning is a kind, generous gift, just prepare in advance for the emotional impact both on you and on them. 
  •  Go out for a walk, a museum, a drink.
    • Find out what restrictions the mourner is observing during the period of Aveilut and find an activity that falls within accepted parameters.  
    • Distractions are good (at least they were for me).
  • Allow the conversation to flow.
    • Note - grief is different than depression.  The mourner need not (should not) be focused exclusively on their loss all the time.   Moments will come that trigger strong emotions of sadness, but mourners will experience a full range of emotion throughout the year.  
    • It is not necessary to continually redirect the conversation to focus on the loss or ask how the mourner is feeling.  Asking what the mourner is doing at the moment will allow the mourner to guide the conversation in the direction that best suits their mood.
    • Allow them to enjoy moments when they do not focus on their absent loved one - the moments when they do remember will be plentiful enough. 
  • Invitations to Shabbat meals or to spend a Shabbat/holiday at your home.
    • The mourner may feel lonely at times, especially around Shabbat and holidays.  Even if the offer is not accepted (for whatever reason - prior obligation, etc.), the invitation will help the mourner feel loved, wanted and appreciated.  
  • Exercise.
    • Offer to go out for a run, attend an aerobics, yoga, spin class, or something you know is in the mourner's ballpark.  
    • Setting aside time and motivation to work out can be challenging, as time seems to take on new meaning and move slower/differently than before the loss.  Helping to encourage healthy routines (in a pleasant, friendly way) and offering your company & moral support may be appreciated.  

A Word of Caution:  
While we know you mean well, sometimes open-ended offers are hard to accept.  Here are two phrases I heard very often...  and how they often landed, especially early on.  If you have used these words in the past, don't waste time feeling bad.  Just please keep these nuances in mind for the future.
[Reposting from "What to Say (and Not to Say)"
  • 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.  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 it's hard for me to keep track of all these generous offers. For now, checking in every so often and asking what I'm up to (rather than how I'm doing) will be much appreciated.]

These are just a few ways to help... throughout the year and beyond.  Use this list as a jumping off point for brainstorming additional ideas.  Please feel free to share them in the comments.  The more we gather, the more equipped we will all be to support those in our community when the need arises.

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...