A life-changing event has the potential to inspire individuals to rethink how they live. For nonobservant Jews, a birth, bar/bas mitzvah, wedding, or death is often a rare moment when Jewish custom is brought into the picture. In my extended family, there are no Orthodox Jews. The men who attended cheder and leined their bar mitzvah parshah in the prewar years are gone.
Their widows still have memories of parents or grandparents who kept kosher, mothers who covered their hair, and the sanctity of Shabbos. The generation born in the Soviet Union after the war did not have any Jewish education, and the following generation raised in New York has fewer reasons to connect with our heritage and halachah. They light Chanukah candles and eat matzah on Pesach. They are proud Jews, and that’s about it.
But when a death in the family occurs, the funeral contract explicitly mentions the chevrah kadisha, the l’vayah led by a rabbi, and the family plot, where the decedent is reunited with siblings, cousins, and parents. The family then eats a memorial meal and returns home to sit shiv’ah. They approach me with questions about Judaism that they’ve never asked before.
Until that moment, they keep questions of religion, the soul, and the existence of our Creator to themselves. With their work, daily chores, and other bread-and-butter matters suspended for a week, topics of spirituality take on greater meaning for members of an estranged generation. They want to do it right. Candles are lit, low chairs are brought into the room, and a minyan is requested so that Kaddish can be said.
I do not hold any illusions of kiruv in such situations. I would rather see my cousins, aunts, and uncles respond Amen on a happy occasion. I do not imagine having an ability to convince others to become observant, as much as I desire to see such a result. Miracles on the magnitude of k’rias Yam Suf and the korban offered by Eliyahu HaNavi gave our ancestors inspiration to believe, but shortly afterwards most of them returned to complaining and idol worship.
The best that I can do is to answer their questions in an impartial and authoritative manner. If they request a kosher restaurant for a memorial meal, I provide them a list of establishments supervised by the Vaad Harabonim of Queens (VHQ). If they would like a minyan at the shiv’ah home for one evening, or for each day, I make phone calls and Chabad of Rego Park director Rabbi Eli Blokh provides bilingual siddurim. He is the rare Russian-speaking Ashkenazi rabbi in Queens, a unique position that results in his role as the “mesader” at numerous life-cycle events for non-Bukharian Russian-speaking families in the borough, including many of my relatives.
He is a shaliach, the trained professional who knows how it is done. The death of an uncle this past summer, my mother in September, and an aunt last week reconnected my family with Rabbi Blokh. He delivered the hesped, walked with us to the k’vurah, and visited the shiv’ah homes, but then he entrusted me to carry out the remaining tasks. It’s my family, and who knows them better than me?
A few things that I’ve learned from recent deaths about communicating with non-observant relatives who wish to do the shiv’ah right:
Presume that they know nothing and everything about observance. When saying Kaddish, say it slowly so that the aveilim can repeat each word correctly. Don’t assume that the transliteration in their hands would serve them: They will pronounce the -ch in malchus as the -ch in “much.” Remind the family when to say Amen during Kaddish and Chazaras HaShatz. Encourage them to say a brachah before eating an item of food in the shiv’ah home, l’zeicher nishmas the decedent. Teach them about the value of learning a mishnah in memory of this person.
The family is knowledgeable enough to know that mirrors must be covered up, the same torn shirt is worn for a week, and the candle burns continuously. Ask them what they already know about mourning in halachah before offering them a crash course.
The relatives may have preconceived notions about Orthodoxy and how it relates to non-Orthodox Jews, intermarriage, the role of women, politics, etc. Shiv’ah is the worst time to discuss such matters. Do more listening than talking; provide short answers, and an invitation to discuss the matter in depth after shiv’ah is concluded.
They are not used to having a steady flow of strangers entering the home throughout the day, for minyanim, and with trays of prepared meals. “We never talk to our neighbors, we’re not comfortable with so many people in our home,” is one comment I’ve heard. I remind them that we are more than a family. We are a people, and Jews support one another. At the same time, a sign on the door should remind well-meaning neighbors not to knock at 11 p.m.
The relatives may feel inclined to give tz’dakah in memory of the deceased. My advice is that the recipient should have a connection to the life and ideals of the decedent. If my aunt received packages from Tomchei Shabbos of Queens or Masbia, or attended a particular shul (even if only for the Yamim Nora’im), then these would be the most appropriate destinations for the money collected during shiv’ah. For the purpose of Jewish continuity, I also encourage giving towards kiruv and chinuch programs.
Once the shiv’ah concludes, I remain in contact with the grandchildren of my grandmother’s cousin-in-law who died. I will not attend birthdays that take place on Shabbos, or intermarriages, but they know that when it comes to bikur cholim, shomer meis, l’vayah, shiv’ah, answering questions, and simply being there when needed, that’s the role of this Orthodox relative.
Rabbi Blokh has been to so many simchahs and funerals in my extended family that he once spoke of being the “family’s rabbi.” But then one relative bestowed this title on me. It is a role that I accept with great responsibility, knowing what it means for the neshamah of the deceased and the living descendants in this world who are in mourning.
I dedicate this piece in memory of Bluma bas Feivel, who died last week. May her neshamah have an aliyah.
By Sergey Kadinsky