Dispatch from the Institute: Funerals for Jewish Interfaith Families–Knowing The Ideal, Then Navigating The Real

By The Jewish Outreach Institute


The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to “reach out and welcome in” the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI’s services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.

About the only people who enjoy talking about funerals are those in the so-called “industry.” For the rest of us, sidestepping any discussion about death is the norm. And yet, like many lifecycle events that raise the emotional bar in all families, funerals can bring added issues to interfaith families, with the potential to increase strain during what is already a tension-filled time. The best way to counter this tension is with open and honest discussion–preferably beforehand–no matter how unpleasant the topic may seem. This article may help get the conversation started.

When the funeral is on the non-Jewish side of the family, it is important to keep in mind that decision making for interfaith couples is often a dynamic process. Even when there’s been a decision to create a Jewish home and family together, it doesn’t mean that it is the end of the decision-making process. When dramatic events occur, such as the birth of a child, decisions are often visited and revisited, even when couples think that there is nothing left to be decided. Likewise, when a parent of the non-Jewish partner dies, there is often an inclination by that partner to think about returning to one’s religious roots, returning to what might have been a place of childhood comfort, even if only for the period of time during the funeral and mourning process. This can place strain on a variety of family relationships. It also may play havoc with relationships that have been established with Jewish clergy and a desire to have such clergy offer guidance during the mourning process.

The thing to remember is that the connection to Jewish community is often circuitous; it is not the shortest route between two points. And as therapist Esther Perel likes to remind us, for many non-Jews, living in the context of Jewish culture is similar to a person who has been born in another country moving to the United States and learning to speak English. Just because that French speaker, for instance, may return to France for a visit or speak French with some American friends who were born in France, that doesn’t mean she has any desire to return to France and make it her home once again. The Jewish spouse, and we in the Jewish community as a whole, need to show a greater understanding and flexibility toward newcomers to our traditions–especially in times of mourning.

When the funeral is on the Jewish side of the family, we are faced with an added difficulty, that in a traditional Jewish context a person is to be buried within 24 hours following death except in extenuating circumstances. That leaves a relatively short period of time available to navigate our way, while we are simultaneously burdened by the pain of loss and separation. It’s another important reason why it’s best to anticipate the issues in advance.

For the non-Jewish spouse, questions might include, how do I mourn? According to whose tradition should I be mourning? What is my role in the process now that I live in a different religious context or, at least, have been straddling two different religious worlds?

For those who have shaped Jewish families but have chosen not to convert to Judaism, this is indeed a challenge and requires the support and sensitivity of family members and clergy. You ultimately have a double duty: to appropriately honor the memory of those whom you love and also to mourn in the context of the tradition that you are now claiming as your own. Thus, it’s important to learn about some basic Jewish mourning practices.

The Ideal

Like so many other Jewish rituals, those that apply to burial and mourning are centered on community involvement. Although death may seem like a very private affair, in the Jewish context, it is one filled with communal obligations. Traditionally, as soon as someone dies, the community arrives. The body of the deceased is never left alone until it is buried. Because of the high value placed on human dignity, even in death, a group of community members usually called the chevre kadisha (literally, holy society) maintain a vigil over the body. They wash it in a prescribed way and say Psalms while in attendance of the body.

The funeral that follows is not necessarily a long ordeal and generally focuses on burial. After the appropriate blessings are recited, the body is buried and the entire community is required to shovel some earth onto the casket. This practice, which may be strange and loathsome to some, is considered to be one of the most important sacred obligations in Judaism. Because it can never be repaid, it is an essentially pure act, one not motivated by anything else.

Following the funeral, the community prepares food for the mourners so that they can focus on their emotions, rather than on practical concerns. Rather than sending flowers, which is generally not the practice among Jews, often people send food platters and fruit baskets as a way of expressing sympathy.

People then assemble at the home of the mourner so that the Kaddish memorial prayer may be said. During the seven-day mourning period (referred to as shiva) mourners do not have to leave their home for prayers (except for Shabbat). All of this insures that mourners are not alone and that others share in the burden of grief.

The Real

Although the traditional formula of Jewish mourning may be considered standard, each Jewish religious movement has its own expectations. You should also note, particularly if you are concerned about who will officiate, that while rabbis from various movements may be unwilling or unable to participate in wedding ceremonies of interfaith couples, they are more likely to be willing to support interfaith families in the face of death.

Similarly, each synagogue or community that adheres to a particular movement has its own guidelines for burial. Before making any decisions about any aspect of the funeral or interment, find out about such policies by asking the leadership or office staff of area synagogues and institutions. Listening to others who think they are “in the know” is often unwise because they may not be aware that policies regularly change.

The nature of your interfaith family may require you to alert your non-Jewish family members about what to expect at a Jewish funeral. You could prepare explanations for family unfamiliar with practices they will face or offer them guidelines to increase their comfort. For example, you might want to explain that Jews do not participate in “wakes” or allow for the “viewing” or open casket.

Although Jewish tradition outlines various rituals (and many customs) for all lifecycle events, for most people Judaism is best described as a continuum: the customs followed are usually those with the most personal meaning. Mourning might be a time when people along this ebb and flow of a Jewish continuum want to return to a more traditional formula, and try to incorporate greater religious meaning. Perhaps this is a result of thinking about what the deceased would have wanted. Certainly, saying “Kaddish,” the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning and remembrance, is a minimum for many Jewish family members. The key to this search for comfort through the Jewish religion is found within the context of community.

The intertwining of community and family is an important force in the life of individuals, especially during the trying period following death. Until you experience such a profound level of community/family interaction, you may not fully understand the potential inherent in a supportive Jewish community. For the interfaith family not already connected with the community, this mourning of a lost loved one might acutely highlight the disconnect. That’s one of the many reasons organizations like our own, the Jewish Outreach Institute, and InterfaithFamily.com, are so concerned with bringing intermarried families closer to the organized Jewish community–and helping both work through the current barriers and past pain that we certainly must acknowledge exist. For Jewish community professionals, reaching out to welcome newcomers is always a mitzvah (good deed), but it’s especially so during times of loss and mourning.

It is not altogether a cliche to say that death comes when you least expect it. However, knowing that the special needs of your interfaith family are attended to, that the Jewish community will aid you, is incredibly important. That is why it is so important to discuss issues concerning funerals and mourning with those you love now. For when that time comes, you will be able to take solace in ritual, family, and community.

About The Jewish Outreach Institute

The Jewish Outreach Institute is dedicated to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Its website is joi.org.