My Idea: Let the Mourners Saying Kaddish Stand Alone
by Rosalind A. Gold
I grew up in a congregation in which the entire community stood and recited Kaddish Yatom, the Mourner's Kaddish. We were told we should do so because of the millions of people who died in the Holocaust who had no one left to say Kaddish for them. Anyone who had a yahrtzeit for a family member would say Kaddish along with the congregation. As a child and young adult I repeated the words, but they never really held much meaning for me.
My father died in 2004, shortly after my retirement. I committed myself to say Kaddish for him every Shabbat for a year. On some Friday nights I would worship in my congregation (which I had served as rabbi for 23 years), where everyone rises for Kaddish. Other times I would attend Shabbat morning services at the Conservative shul in my neighborhood, where only the mourners rise. As a result of these experiences I came to feel strongly that only those who are mourning should stand and say the Mourner's Kaddish.
Having someone in your mind and heart when saying Kaddish changes the experience. As a mourner I felt the power of the prayer—not only the words, but its pulsing rhythm. The act of rising and reciting the Kaddish only with other mourners was my way of saying, "I have experienced a loss. My father is gone, and I wish to honor him by standing up and claiming his memory surrounded and supported by my community." The physical act of standing and hearing myself reciting the words that acknowledged my loss became an important part of my grief journey that first year as an aveyl , a mourner.
Three years later, my mother died. Again I was an aveyl and committed myself to reciting Kaddish Yatom for a year. And again I stood with the other mourners, reciting the prayer, embracing my loss, honoring my parent. In those moments I felt an almost mystical connection to my mother, remembering when she said Kaddish for her mother. I also felt a deep sense of communion with the other mourners, as all of us shared a life-changing experience. I was standing by myself but was not alone as I paid homage to the woman who gave me life.
Nowadays, I feel "cheated" in a way when my parents' yahrtzeits come around and I am in a congregation where everyone, not just the mourners, stands for the Kaddish Yatom. It feels as if I didn't do anything special to recognize the day, as though this Shabbat is no different from any other. Standing and reciting Kaddish with the other mourners is a gift of love I give my parents—something that forges a bond between earth and heaven—a way I thank them for all they gave me. And I feel torn, because at my home congregation, led by clergy I respect and care for and filled with people I love, my need to stand with the mourners during Kaddish is not fully met.
I think our congregants would be more likely to come to services for a family yahrtzeit if they knew they would be standing, literally and spiritually, for their loved one. They would also understand the supportive beauty of remaining seated and joining in the communal responses on weeks they have no yahrtzeit to commemorate. To make sure they don't feel uncomfortable standing alone and saying the prayer, we have a responsibility to teach the Kaddish to our people. It is also incumbent on us to teach the mitzvah of nichum aveylim, of comforting those who have identified themselves as mourners—an act that builds relationships and strengthens community.
As for saying Kaddish for those who perished in the Holocaust, a sacred Jewish responsibility for all of us, we do this on special occasions throughout the year, such as Yom HaShoah, Tisha B'Av, and as part of yizkor on Yom Kippur. These times of remembrance are, and should be, very different than when we recall the memory of our own loved one who has died.
I encourage our Movement to broach the issue of how Kaddish is conducted in the congregation. The question of "who stands for the Mourner's Kaddish " might be introduced as part of a Yom Kippur yizkor sermon, inviting a conversation through the ritual committee, the synagogue newsletter, and social media.
How we remember and honor our dead is a central feature of our faith and worth revisiting.