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Shabbat — February 18, 2012

I’m in mourning.  My father died five months ago.  My grandfather died 40 years ago on this date.  I rise for the Mourner’s Kaddish with others who have experienced loss.  I say the prayer the way my grandfather did, with soft S sounds instead of hard T’s.  I weep silently.

The moment the prayer ends, almost before I can take my seat, the prayer leaders break into joyous song and the congregation follows suit.  They are singing “I Am Alive.”  I am crushed.

How can I possible segue to a joyous song in those few seconds?  Worse still, singing “I am alive” feels rude, disrespectful, as if my life matters more than theirs;  “ha ha, I’m alive and you aren’t.”

Afterwards, I gently probe the prayer leaders.  Why that song?  Why so soon after the Mourner’s Kaddish?  They defend themselves; the Mourner’s Kaddish doesn’t talk about death, but rather celebrates God, they tell me.

Yes, I say.  It’s not about death.  It is in fact a paean of praise to God, with no mention of sorrow or death or loss.

But my heart was with my father and grandfather.  I needed a moment, a few moments at least, to gather myself and return to the community from my place of loss.

Reciting the Kaddish as a mourner, I stood among those who were seated.  We do this deliberately – our mourners are singled out purposely, so the community sees who might need comforting.

It is not insignificant that I was at “prayer camp” when this service occurred.  We pray three times a day there, each time with a different group of service leaders.

For the next several days I paid close attention to how each group handled the moments after the Mourner’s Kaddish.  It is, perhaps oddly, placed just before the end of the service.  It is understandable that my colleagues wanted to end joyously that morning, but they forgot that in so doing they were leaving some of us behind.

As I observed them, several prayer leaders followed the Mourner’s Kaddish by reading poems.  Some asked the mourners to share the names of their loved ones.  Some simply held the room in silence.  Some sang upbeat songs (but not about the beauty of being alive) and started them slowly and quietly before building to a crescendo of joy.

This training experience for nascent service leaders has taught me many things.  Not least among them is to remember that each person in a congregation is distinct; I may not know how the service is affecting them, what they will take away from the experience, what will hurt and what will open their hearts.  I can only  open my own heart and pray that I have served them faithfully.

And remember that the mourners among us are revisiting pains, both old and new.  They will need a moment.

Frederick W. Glassberg

10/22/1933 – 9/15/2011