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A Deeper Look at Traditional Prayers of Mourning
September 13, 2018
A Deeper Look at Traditional Prayers of Mourning

Posted by Elizabeth Schön Vainer

“At the rising sun and at its going down; We remember them. At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter; We remember them. 

As reward for [giving charity on the person’s behalf], may his or her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.

May we live unselfishly, in truth and love and peace, so that we will be remembered as a blessing, as we lovingly remember, this day, those who live on in our hearts.

May they be at one with God, who is life eternal.

May the beauty of their lives shine forevermore and may my life always bring honor to their memory.”

For many Jews, this is a season of remembering. For some, echoes of those recently or long gone blend in with the preparations for and observance of the upcoming holidays.

These memories are often beautiful. However, as a community, we frequently overlook the fact that not all memories are good ones and not all relationships are healthy, safe, and happy.

In particular, the readings and tone that surround Yizkor and the Mourner's Kaddish can be difficult. Many people welcome these words of comfort, finding solace in the notion that the person somehow lives on. For survivors of abuse, however, the idea that the abusive person is still with them can be both terrifying and literal, as they will carry painful memories and physical and emotional scars for the rest of their lives. Many survivors encounter prayers that ask that the deceased person be protected under a divine wing – protection they might not have felt for themselves when the person was alive. These can be tough words to say.

Moreover, some abuse survivors sit through these sections of the service feeling not only invisible and alienated, but also painfully reminded of the healthy and loving relationship they did not have with their partner, spouse, or parent. They might be ambivalent or even relieved that this person is gone, and also angry that they were left with a body and spirit that may or may not heal and will most certainly never completely forget.

So here is the challenge for clergy, lay leaders, and whole communities: Are there ways to create a safer and more welcoming space for abuse survivors who want or need to mark a particular passing, but find themselves feeling far outside the usual liturgy and therefore far outside the community? Validating words from the bimah can go a long way, as the service leader acknowledges abuse survivors’ experiences and creates space for people who have complex emotions after the death of a controlling, abusive, neglectful, or otherwise destructive partner or parent. Words from members of the community that acknowledge loss–but do not make assumptions about how a person might be feeling that loss–also can be both meaningful and validating.

During this season of remembrance and renewal, we encourage Jewish communities everywhere to create an inclusive space for abuse survivors as they, too, stand with their communities to mark a passing and try to make meaning of painful and difficult memories. 

The staff of Journey to Safety and Jewish Family & Children’s Service join me in wishing everyone a safe, peaceful, and meaningful new year.

Elizabeth Schön Vainer has been the program director of Journey to Safety, the domestic abuse program of JF&CS, since March 2010. Elizabeth is passionate about Journey to Safety’s commitment to prevent domestic abuse. She believes that we must work at the individual, community, and legislative levels to shift our societal view that allows abusive behavior to remain so prevalent and damaging. When we focus on speaking up, listening to, and collaborating with others we can have a real impact. Prior to working at JF&CS, Elizabeth worked for 25 years in victim services at both the Middlesex and Suffolk County District Attorney’s offices. Elizabeth holds a BSW from the University of Tel Aviv and a MS in organization and management from Antioch University.

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