Monday afternoon in the middle of a meeting our security guard walked in to tell me there was someone at the synagogue looking for a rabbi. In walked a young woman, crying, explaining that her father had just died.
"He was a Jew but didn't raise me in any faith tradition and I don't know what to do." So I cleared the next hour in the calendar and sat with her until we came up with a plan.
"I don't know what to do."
This is the classic predicament of so many contemporary liberal Jews. The best education, the most liberal democratic society affording aspirations and professional pursuits with unlimited horizons, but in the face of death, we are faced with the question of all questions: what to do?
We talked about Jewish burial rites and customs; preparing the body; burial and sitting shiva. In the end, she determined that her father had left in his will that he wanted to be cremated, so that's what she decided to do. Though "against" Jewish law, the Jewish funeral homes in New York offer it as an option. As in all things, there's what we're "supposed to do" and what we do. Sometimes, but not always, they meet up.
After our conversation she asked, "What does it cost?" I said, "Nothing. It's a mitzvah." I knew she'd be paying to move her father's body; and I'm sure there would be numerous other costs as well. I wanted to keep money far from our engagement.
Today we gathered for a memorial service in our chapel. Over the course of an hour or so, the family shared stories about the deceased and I read psalms and talked extemporaneously about Judaism and death.
I'd never explained so much before but it felt right--an amalgam of funeral service and seminar in why religion matters.
I spent a lot of time on El Maleh Rachamim (maybe too much time, I don't know actually) and afterward we stood around the chapel, talking. An aunt came up to me to offer a check to the synagogue for my services. I graciously thanked her and said, "It's been a mitzvah." She said something that has stayed with me all day. Laughing, she said, "Other places don't act that way."
But we do, I said.
I actually don't think it's true what she said. I think we're all predicated on the performance of the mitzvot; I think we're all set up to serve. But I'm sure that out there it goes wrong. Seekers come in to the engagement needing to be helped and are turned away; clergy are willing to help but run into a wall of resistance in those who are predetermined to fight against any religious expression. Or, to be more clear, people are often very mixed up about their relationship to faith and tradition. And when you add the intensity of critical life moments--birth, marriage, divorce and death--there's no guarantee who is going to be left standing.
But today, in our chapel, seeker and sought embraced.