Here at JOI, we spend much of our time focusing on enriching the lives of the intermarried, and welcoming the unengaged into the community. Through programs like Empowering Ruth, we also offer resources to Jews-by-choice, hopefully serving as one of many guides on their Jewish journeys. However, all of our work is, essentially, focused on the living—creating programming to learn about the Jewish holidays, helping communities hold Public Space Judaism programs, etc. But what happens when a Jew-by-choice faces the death of a loved one, and isn’t quite sure how to mourn? Can kaddish (the Jewish prayer for mourning) be said for a non-Jewish parent? Can a yahrzeit candle (memorial candle) be lit in their memory?
In a recent article for Tablet, Thomas Israel Hopkins, a Jew-by-choice, discusses this very issue, and how he found the answer to mourning his mother. Hopkins goes through years of changes in how he and his family honored his mother. From a tree planted on a family farm, to his father’s own recollection of his wife’s death, the family grapples with finding a physical mode to remember her with. In Judaism, a yahrzeit candle can serve this very purpose—a small flame lit for 24 hours, as a reminder of a loved one’s passing. Personally, I have always found comfort when I see this candle lit in my house, almost as if my loved one is there with us. But Hopkins’ serious question, of whether or not he can say kaddish for his non-Jewish mother, is a legitimate one.
Luckily, he seems to have found his answer somewhat easily, and I believe he has found the right one. Judaism is centered on love and understanding, inclusion and not exclusion. Why, then, should a son not be able to mourn his mother, regardless of her religion? Judaism also teaches to honor our parents. The books don’t say “only honor a parent who is Jewish.” It is this concept that I have always loved about Judaism—family and friends first, politics and religion later.