In 2008, my older brother died after several years of illness. A close friend, a temple member, asked if I would be sitting Shiva. I was initially taken aback at the suggestion. Although my wife, children, and I had long been members of the temple, I was not then Jewish and my deceased brother wasn’t either. Wasn’t a goy sitting Shiva for a deceased goy somehow, well, inappropriate?
A practical consideration then began to sway me. Because the funeral would be out of town, none of my local friends would be in attendance, and so it would be convenient–”nice,” I thought–to have a local opportunity to see them and take comfort from them. I talked with Rabbi Portnoy, and she assured me that there would be nothing inappropriate about it, and so I decided to do it. Rabbi Portnoy came to the house, and conducted a Shiva service with 30 or so of our close friends, many of whom were temple members.
“Nice” turned out to be a far too inadequate word. As Rabbi Portnoy led my family, friends, and me in the blessings and the prayers, I felt comfort and solace. The service was warm, supportive and moving. Sharing my grief lifted my sense of loss. Perhaps the most remarkable thing was that I drew this comfort from a ritual that was not part of my personal tradition. But it resonated with me nonetheless, and it was exactly what I needed at that time.
From this experience, I learned that the purpose of sitting Shiva is not to provide some kind of testimonial to the Jewishness of the deceased or his survivors–obviously inapplicable in my situation. It is rather the exercise of a lesson learned over the centuries, that what a mourner needs most of all is the collective strength of a congregation through a ceremony by which, through shared participation, the members reassure the mourner that we feel your loss, we share your pain, we are here for you. It is a precious gift.
Although my Shiva experience would have stood on its own in life, it was, in fact, a key factor in a decision that I had been contemplating for some time. Shortly thereafter, I converted to Judaism, and this past summer, I became a Bar Mitzvah.