When I read reports of an unfortunately conflicted Woodside Park rabbi who prioritised officiating at wedding over that of a shiva I couldn’t but help think of an unsung quote from Kohelet: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting.”
Obviously Rabbi Pinchas Hackenbroch couldn’t be expected to be in two places at the same time, so attending and officiating at a wedding, with the date booked many months if not years before, was bound to take priority.
One of the reasons most shul members regard funerals and the shiva services that follow as priority is that they have paid for them – probably many times over. It has long been the case that one of the most profitable businesses for the United Synagogue (and for that matter many regional communities) is the burial levy.
Indeed, one suspects that were such a service not available many people would have given up their shul memberships years ago. The fear of not being buried with one’s own people in sanctified ground is extraordinarily powerful. The reality is that a simple burial (or life insurance) policy, underwritten by a traditional broker, would probably be a better economic proposition.
As a former member of the US Council, I was always fascinated that it was the US Burial Society surpluses which made an important contribution to education budgets. This is a satisfying case of inter-generational transfers at a time when it is a topic high up the national political agenda.
Death, mourning and yahrzeit are often on my mind at this time of the year. One of the things that really works for me in Anglo-Jewry is the way communities welcome you into the fold. As a member of an older but smaller US community in Richmond-upon-Thames, putting together a morning minyan for yahrzeit is difficult and an unnecessary burden on friends and fellow members.
So it has long been my habit to attend morning (and if possible) evening services at Western Marble Arch, as was the case when I was in mourning. WMA and its delightful Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld are unfailingly courteous and attentive when I turn up a couple of times of year to commemorate the deaths of an older brother (several decades ago) and my mother, both of blessed memory.
With a help of a little coaching some years ago from Rabbi Rosenfeld, I am able to lead the services although fear sometimes my Ivrit is not quite up to scratch.
Nevertheless, I’m welcomed and tolerated and the shul even has a record of the family names for memorial prayers – even though I’m not a member. That seems to me a great reflection of community spirit.
This year for my mother’s yahrzeit I found myself in Cardiff and attended morning minyan there. Even though it is a small community there was a good Sunday turnout and, once again, I was invited to lead services in spite of being a stranger in a strange land.
So while it is only too easy for people to criticise when things go wrong, as they are fully entitled to do, my own personal experience of communities in central London and the provinces is of a determination to do the right thing for mourners and those commemorating yahrzeit – whether you are a member or not.
This, in my view, is Anglo-Jewry at its very best – kind, caring and making sure that the visitor is treated with exactly the same respect as the regular.
To all those involved I say kol ha-ka vod. Well done.