Lessons Learned from Loss
I dedicate my writing this week to the memory of Abraham Mordecai Akselrad, z”l
It is fair to say that I attend more funerals than the average person. I am usually in the room with the family tearing the black ribbon, standing behind the lectern, driving the first car behind the hearse in the processional. The honor of performing the mitzvah of kavod la-met (honor to the dead) or of nichum avelim (comfort to the mourners) is very great but it is also very difficult. As rabbi, I gain strength knowing that I can truly help in many ways: standing steady for a family when the world is tilting, explaining a ritual with compassion, educating a community about how to pay a shiva call, or calling a grieving daughter a month after shiva has ended.
This past week, I remembered with full force what it means to perform these mitzvot, but without the designation of “Rabbi” as I did so. I realized with humility how performing kavod la-met or nichum avelim as a rabbi provides a layer of protection to me as a person in such sad times.
Just before Shabbat last week, Jonathan and I lost a dear friend of thirty years after a heroic battle with cancer. Abe Akselrad loved life completely and fought for every day and every hour he could spend with his wife Claire, his four children, son-in-law, and two grandchildren. The entire community of our synagogue in Caldwell attended Abe’s funeral this past Sunday, and he was buried in a downpour.
As friend in the pews rather than rabbi at the podium, I learned many lessons that I want to share with you. I believe that in the OJC community, we are supportive, appropriate and understanding of the laws of mourning and comfort. But we can also improve and grow. In that spirit, I share my learning of this past week.
One of my friends called me on Friday midday and asked how she could help the family who were overwhelmed by people stopping by with their sorrow, their condolences and their fruit platters. I suggested that they hang a sign on the door: “According to Jewish custom, it is not traditional to visit a family until after the funeral has taken place.” When Jon and I entered the funeral chapel, we saw long lines waiting to enter the room where the family sat before the service. We chose to enter the chapel directly instead and sit quietly. After the service, I saw friends clinging to Claire, crying with her, when I thought that she probably wanted to just get into the limousine and prepare herself for the cemetery. I thought about the way all of us have a need to ensure that the bereaved know we are there for them. Sometimes our need to be known outweighs common sense about what true comfort means. Claire and her family would never complain. I know that they have felt the love of family and friends. My first lesson is that all of us need to check our motivation in comforting very carefully: are we acting out of our own need or what we believe to be the needs of the bereaved?
As Jonathan and I sat in a row waiting for the service to begin, we were joined by friends from the Caldwell synagogue. At the end of my row was our friend Rabbi Michael Jay. Both of us have been well-schooled by Rabbi Scheff to sit silently in the presence of the dead. As rows all around us filled with chatting people, our row, anchored by Michael’s and my respectful silence, remained relatively quiet. The second lesson is that we can carry our learning wherever we go and model behavior that shows compassionate understanding of mourning ritual.
Presiding at the funeral was Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Congregation Agudath Israel, the Drill family’s rabbi for more than thirty years. He spoke about Abe as a congregant and as a cherished friend; he presided at the baby namings and bris and b’nai mitzvah of all four Akselrads, and at the oldest, Aviva’s wedding. His words brought comfort and an uplift of the heart not just because they were beautiful, heartfelt words, but because Rabbi Silverstein was speaking from a true relationship with the family. The third lesson I share today is that I came away from the funeral affirmed in the rabbinate that Rabbi Scheff and I have created at the Orangetown Jewish Center. We know you. We know your passions and your sorrows, your celebrations and your questions. “Relationship” is the mantra of our rabbinates. . . and for good reason. Truly knowing you allows us to be there with our full selves, as rabbi and as person, in your greatest joys and times of need. If we don’t yet “truly know” you, call one of us for a cup of coffee or a meeting at the shul. We do not want to wait for a time of loss to establish our relationship with you. Visit with us to make a meaningful relationship so that we can continue to build our community together.
Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill