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Why I Sat Shiva for My Brother, Who Wasn't Jewish

Why I Sat Shiva for My Brother, Who Wasn't Jewish

White Yahrzeit candle on black background

When my brother Jerry died about 18 months ago, the questions were not just where to sit shiva or for how long. They were more fundamental: Should I sit shiva for my non-Jewish brother at all?

Although I have been Jewish for more than 20 years, the fact that my parents were not Jewish, and that my siblings are not Jewish, meant that I needed to think hard about some questions whose answers may be a given in families that are all Jewish.

When I use the term “sitting shiva,” I’m referring to the more contemporary Reform usage of opening your home to receive those who wish to offer condolences, rather than the full, traditional seven-day mourning period. Still, I faced a lot of questions.  

How should I make such a decision about whether to sit shiva for my brother? Would he want me to? Were his wishes even relevant, given that shiva is for the living not the deceased? These last questions were the hardest, because in my family’s practice, the deceased’s wishes were obeyed despite my siblings’ and my discomfort with our parents’ wishes for cremation and my father’s insistence that we have no ceremony at all to mark his passing.

Though Jerry and I spent quite a bit of time together in the months before he died, and we spoke of many things, I never asked him how he would feel about my sitting shiva for him. Jerry was welcoming to a wide variety of ideas and practices, though, and he was generally happy to be celebrated in any way that was offered. After some soul-searching, I concluded that Jerry would take observance of shiva in the loving spirit in which it was intended, and he would be glad that I received support from my friends and temple community.

Feeling that I had Jerry’s blessing to do so really only opened the possibility that I could sit shiva if I chose to. After that, it took the encouragement of my rabbi, my husband, and my friends to convince me to actually go ahead and sit shiva for Jerry.

My rabbi talked with me about my spiritual needs and what would be most helpful; my friends (who know me well) went right for my Achilles heel of practicality, telling me, “Your friends are going to be sending food, and if you don’t sit shiva, there won’t be anyone to eat it!”

But it was ultimately an emotional decision for me. I imagined sitting miserably around the house with my husband and daughter versus accepting the love and support that I was likely to be offered by my community if I decided to sit shiva.

The next decision was whether to take my rabbi up on his offer to let me speak about Jerry during the minyan service. When I sat down for an hour and found I had written a complete speech, that decision became much easier.

As it turned out, the love and support that I expected was offered to an even greater degree than I could have imagined. At the time, my family and I were relatively new to our synagogue, so I did not expect to see or hear from many of our fellow congregants – but quite a few came, and they were joined by people from all aspects of my life here.

Speaking about my brother during the minyan service proved to be the most meaningful part of the various memorials we had for my brother, including the one we had for my siblings and one we had for his friends in his hometown. Sitting shiva allowed me to mourn within the embrace of my community, which was of great comfort at a difficult time.

Of course, decisions about what to do following the death of a non-Jewish family member can be a bit different than those for a Jewish family member. But for me, the decision to sit shiva for my brother absolutely turned out to be the right one.

Elizabeth Troop Rothstein is an active member and lay leader of Scarsdale Synagogue Temples Tremont and Emanu-El in Scarsdale, N.Y. Elizabeth, her husband Scott, and their two children (now off to college) reside in Edgemont, N.Y.

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