Mourning Non-Jewish Loved Ones

"Can a Convert Say Kaddish?" and Other Questions

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- Will the synagogue's cemetery permit the interment of a lifelong member of the congregation who never made his conversion formal?

- Can a rabbi offer a prayer or eulogy at the church funeral of a congregant's non-Jewish husband?

- Will the name of a convert's non-Jewish family member be included in the Yizkor list of names published for Yom Kippur?

- Can a charitable contribution made in memory of a non-­Jewish parent be memorialized by a brass plaque in the temple?

These are questions that rabbis and synagogues answer in a wide range of ways and often on a case-by-case basis. They are certainly fodder for congregational debate and evidence of the changing nature of the community as a whole.

Other questions and concerns are far more intimate than institutional and, unfortunately, tend to leave mourners feeling isolated just when community is most needed. For example:

- A Jew-by-choice from a large Catholic family is told that his mother's wake will include an open casket. Can he raise objections to the practice? Can he refuse to attend the wake without giving offense? Is it meaningful to sit shiva without his siblings?

- Another convert finds herself shut out of the planning for her brother's funeral; she feels like a guest rather than a mourner at the funeral. Back in her own congregation she doesn't know if she is "entitled" to sit shiva, or how to ask for support.

- A non-Jewish synagogue member asks his rabbi if she would bury him, to which the rabbi replies, "I only know how to bury Jews."

Family dynamics, personalities, and synagogue custom determine how situations like these are resolved. But while everyloss is unique, community support remains the keystone of the Jewish response to bereavement. Mourners who feel marginalized because of religious difference should know that the issues facing all mourners--regardless of religious background--are more similar than different.

For example, the disagreements that divide interfaith families are not all that different from the ones that cause conflict in all-Jewish or all-Christian families. Most extended families are split over religious observance and practice: Some members are more traditional than others; some are affiliated while others are not. Likewise, the sense of feeling split geographically as well as religiously is a common phenomenon in the Jewish community. Holding rituals and observances that meet the needs of different branches of the family, often in different cities, is common practice.

A death can expose unreconciled issues, profound differences, and old tensions within any family. If there has been a conversion or intermarriage, old feelings of abandonment and loss may rise to the surface. Your rabbi can act as a thoughtful sounding board at such a time. He or she may have seen other mourners through similar problems.

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Anita Diamant

Anita Diamant is a writer. Her books include Choosing a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Wedding, Saying Kaddish, and The Red Tent, a novel. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.