Rabbi Michael Zimmerman is the rabbi at Congregation Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Lansing, Michigan. He also serves as a hospice chaplain for the Visiting Nurses Services, the Jewish representative on the Chaplaincy Advisory Council for the State of Michigan's Department of Corrections, a spokesperson on various environmental campaigns, and a frequent speaker and clergy representative for various interfaith panels and civic events. A passionate supporter of the concerns of interfaith families, he has developed and supported creative liturgy to link contemporary values with traditional wisdom and poetics.
Providing Comfort to ALL Who Mourn
Sid Huberman was a gentle man, although he had once been a Jewish resistance fighter. His son Fred was a founding member of our congregation, and had organized our cemetery association. Out of respect for his father's wishes, Fred drafted by-laws restricting burial to Jews. The by-laws passed without opposition, and Sid Huberman was put to rest with dignity and love.
Twelve years later, Milt Goldberg went through a difficult divorce. Soon after, he commiserated with a colleague at the university, Kathleen Flanagan, who had just learned of her husband's affair. Over the next three years Milt and Kathleen were there to help one another, and increasingly found joy and fulfillment in each other's company. By the time Milt and Kathleen decided to marry, Milt's adult children, Lisa and Josh, who themselves had married non-Jews, warmly welcomed their Irish-Catholic stepmother into the family.
Once Milt's cancer was detected, he had forgotten his vote years earlier approving the cemetery by-laws. He knew that he wanted to buried in the family plot he had purchased, but he also wished to be surrounded by his loved ones after death.
This frankly fictional tale of two families highlights a true dilemma for our congregation at this time. In my rabbinate, I see my sacred duty as assisting everyone in the congregation who suffers the loss of a loved one to find comfort and support, and to ensure that those who die are honored according to their wishes. But in this situation the needs of one family conflict with those of another. How could we honor Sid Huberman's last request, while enabling the Goldberg family to remain united in death?
The percentages of interfaith families in congregations are growing rapidly. The fictitious Kathleen Flanagan was inspired by several extraordinary men and women from non-Jewish backgrounds who have enriched the life of our congregation with their contributions, curiosity, and humanity. Some have converted to Judaism; some spent years in the accepting embrace of our community before eventually deciding to convert; some have held onto their Christian identity while learning as much as they can about Judaism and taking an active role in congregational life; and still others have chosen not to become involved, yet have encouraged and supported their spouse's Jewish activity.
Jewish practices around death and mourning can provide comfort, strength, and the possibility to restore wholeness during this most difficult of life transitions. Rabbis and congregants alike are guided to act according to cherished Jewish values: caring for those in need; respect for the dead; the sacredness of the family bond; affirmation of life amidst the cycles of birth and death; and keeping faith in the depth of despair.
When confronting an impending death, interfaith family members often ask, "What are we supposed to do?" and "What are we, as non-Jews, permitted to do?" My approach is to counter with a different question: "What do you and your loved ones need at this moment, and what can I do to help you meet those needs?"
While it is important for any family to discuss issues around death and mourning when everyone is still alive and healthy--so they can explore deep needs and complex feelings and make wise decisions--this is especially important for interfaith families. That is because religious issues come to the forefront at the time of death and mourning, and also because there could be unexpected obstacles around the practices and values of a particular Jewish community. The time to purchase cemetery plots is long before there is any need for them. It would be better for Kathleen, Josh, and Lisa to face the problems surrounding interfaith burial in a strictly Jewish cemetery at a calm moment when Milt is still there to join the conversation, rather than in the difficult hours when they are making last-minute funeral arrangements. A rabbi, counselor, or trusted friend can be very helpful in sorting out a family's wishes and how to meet them. I urge interfaith families to build a trusting relationship with a rabbi who will be there for them when death strikes, and to find a congregation that understands and honors their concerns.
Meanwhile, I am happy to share that our congregation has found a solution to the Goldbergs' problem. Under rabbinic law, it is possible to isolate a cluster of gravesites as a Jewish burial site by marking it off with trees or stones. We could, in this way, reserve an area of the cemetery that includes interfaith burials, and another area where only Jews are buried. The almost imperceptible boundary between the two areas would fall somewhere between the Goldberg and the Huberman family plots. This solution is intended to maximize options so that we can comfort all mourners, respect the dead and their wishes, and maintain the sacredness of the burial ground, even though our community may hold opposing conceptions of how the holiness of a cemetery manifests.
The death of a loved one is usually a devastating event, the shattering of an essential dimension of our lives. A caring support network can soften the blow and enable you to rebuild your life. Fortunately, there have never been as many opportunities for interfaith families to find this support within the Jewish community as there are today. Though the fictitious Milt Goldberg has not yet passed away, I know that when the end does come, Leah and Fred Huberman will be there to shovel dirt over Milt's remains and offer hugs, prayers, and chicken soup to Kathleen and the kids. And when Fred's mother dies, Kathleen will do the same.