Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the most solemn of the Jewish high holy days. I spent the day at the synagogue, fasting, singing, in prayer and meditation. One of the central features of the services during Yom Kippur (there are 7 starting the night before: Kol Nidre, Shacharit, Musaf, Avodah, Minchah, Yizkor and Neilah) is the kaddish, a very special and central prayer. There are several kinds of kaddish, but the one that is full of emotion and meaning for many is the mourner's kaddish (which interestingly, says nothing about death). The prayer is part of every service, whether Shabbat, weekday, or holiday. In many synagogues the traditions that only mourners--those who have a loved one who died within the year, or on the anniversary of their death--stand during the mourner's kaddish. (In many Reform synagogues everyone stands for the kaddish, the idea being that we as a community take responsibility for saying kaddish for the Jews who died in pogroms, the holocaust and other genocides who have no family to say kaddish for them).
The first time the mourner's kaddish was recited, I stood for the prayer. As this was a Reconstructionist congregation, not everyone stood. Afterwards, I mentioned to a friend that I was saying kaddish for the people who I had helped in their passage from life to death in the past year at work. My friend asked "oh, were any of them Jewish?" I replied "no, not as far as I knew."
Contemplating my impulse, I realized I returned to the idea that had had been planted from my days in Reform synagogues--that it is our responsibility to say kaddish for those who have no one to say it for them. While most of my patients are not Jewish, at this most contemplative time it felt right to remember and honor the memories of feel people who have passed through my hands and my heart, especially those who had no families: who came in off the streets, or out of the woods, who lost their families to illness, or death, or because of their history, past behavior, or mental status, who lost contact or become estranged from those who once, or still cared for them...who, for whatever reason, were alone. While not part of my Jewish community, they are part of another community of caring and I did not want their memory to pass unmarked.