A few weeks ago, Natan Sharansky was in New York at the time of his mother’s yartzheit, the anniversary of his mother’s death. He needed a minyan to recite Kaddish, a prayer we recite over those we have loved and lost. It‘s not hard to find a minyan in New York, and my friend Michael Paley from UJA Federation of NY quickly organized one.
Natan said the Kaddish, and Michael asked him to say a few words about his mother. Natan talked about how she fought on his behalf and took trips to the Gulag to visit him, knowing full well that the guards wouldn’t let her see Natan. Once or twice she actually got through with a warning not to say anything about what she saw, the obviously horrible conditions of the Gulag. But, like mother/like son, she had press conferences about everything she witnessed the moment she got back. She was clearly a woman who would not take “no” for an answer. She believed in the impossible and was not afraid, and clearly passed on those same qualities to her son.
Standing there in that group that was pulled together last minute, I was thinking about the nature of a minyan - a communal event that brings together people to acknowledge a loss in one person’s life. The centrality of Kaddish is remarkable in our tradition. We require a community of other Jews to hear acknowledge the life of another person, even the life of a stranger. Everyone has a story of loss and of joy. In these moments, we learn and teach others.
In our everyday lives, we don’t have many moments when we can gather people together so that the personal and the communal can intersect, when our routines merge with ritual, history and personal narrative. Our tradition carries great wisdom.
But as I listened to Natan’s story, I also wondered if this sense of bonding will exist in the future. Will our children and grandchildren who are not steeped in the tradition reap these benefits? Will they celebrate moments of darkness and light within a community of faith and ritual? I do not know, but I know that we as a community can no longer be complacent when thinking about questions of meaning.
Dr. Misha Galperin is President & CEO of the Jewish Agency International