During the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur, it is the custom in our congregation that as the name of each person who died during the previous year is read, their loved ones stand to indicate their status as mourners* to the rest of the congregation. This part of the service takes several minutes. If you must stand though, it feels like an eternity until the rest of the congregation rises to join you in saying kaddish.
This year I’ll be standing.
My uncle George Mitnick, a celebrated figure in the Jewish and secular worlds, passed away this summer at the age of 87.
I confess that I never fully grasped the meaning of the term “the greatest generation” as applied to this age group until this summer. Oh, I did get it on face value, but it was in these summer months that I came to understand what this greatest generation, and its passing, really means to the Jewish people.
My fifteen year old daughter undertook, as a personal project, to find several thousand dollars to fund Holocaust education at her public high school. As she solicited people in Uncle George’s generation, they opened their hearts and wallets in an astounding way, both in their generosity and in their absolute grasp as to why this was so important. My generation, and many of them are Jewish leaders themselves, while impressed that she would undertake such an initiative, didn’t always exhibit the same tug to help this project along. Generally speaking, the older the person was that she met; the more likely they were to offer a hand and or a check.
What struck me this summer, between the Holocaust project and our family’s personal journey through illness and death, was how weak our Jewish world may indeed become when it is fully in the hands of those of us who have never known a time when there was no state of Israel. And I am terrified at the prospect of our Jewish world in the hands of those whose only real exposure to Israel is from CNN and the rest of the horrendously biased modern media.
This stark realization came to a person who has spent much of her adult life in various roles in Jewish leadership. In the more recent years I have spent a good deal of my time trying to convince others how important it is to leave a bequest or a Jewish legacy so that their values can live on. It all hit home to me this summer in such a personal, yet different way.
I am privileged to be President of my synagogue. I spend literally hours and hours of my time thinking and working on how to recruit and retain members. What an amazing thing this now seems in the face of the passing of the greatest generation. It seems even more odd to me that we have to work to convince people that they must “belong” to support and maintain the cornerstone of Jewish life—the synagogue. Throughout the history of the Jewish people, the synagogue was the first building to be built and the indisputable place of gathering. In my work, I spend my time trying to convince people that the synagogue is vital to their family’s life. They see it as a place they “use” like a health club or a time share. When the Bar Mitzvah is over, or the kids have left the nest, they really examine whether they “need” their membership. After all they don’t “use” the temple very much any more. And besides, they can always buy High Holy Day tickets.
Uncle George’s greatest generation got it. They knew that the responsibility for Jewish life rested on their shoulders 365 days a year. They also recognized the synagogue as their spiritual home and felt a place for themselves there. They understood that to be a part of a community, you have to help create and maintain it. You give, you get, just that simple.
So as my generation becomes grandparents, we must insist on each other’s personal commitment to build and maintain the fabric of our Jewish community, the synagogue. It is the place of beginning and end, literally. But it is also the place that connects us in the middle. It connects us to our Judaism and to Israel. It connects our children to their Jewish heritage and can give them the Jewish education they deserve so that they will be able to set their own priorities and properly choose to “belong” no matter the cost because, G-d willing, they will come to understand that it is what it takes to make us a people.
The message Uncle George wanted to send to his grandchildren, and he did so by asking the rabbi to tell them at his funeral, was that the fate of America and Israel are inextricably linked. They are linked by their love of freedom and they are linked by their commitment to decency and justice. The rest of the world cannot stand without us and we cannot stand if we are not connected to our Judaism.
So this year, I’ll be standing. Zichrono liv’racha. May his memory be a source of blessing and comfort to us all.
In our reform congregation, we give fitting tribute to loved ones even if they are not one of the seven types of relatives (father, mother, spouse, sister, brother, son, daughter) for whom one is traditionally considered a mourner.