From Generation to Generation: Honoring Family Memory - Lesson Plan for Family/Congregational Education
This lesson plan is part of a larger Go & Learn guide entitled “Henrietta Szold on Saying Kaddish.”
Life & Death in JudaismThe most sacred thing in Judaism is LIFE. We say the prayer Modeh Ani each morning to thank God for another day of life. We say the blessing Shehechiyanu at each milestone and holiday, thanking God for keeping us alive to participate in this event. We put life above all else: in order to save a life, we can break almost any other Jewish law. We learn that to save a life is like saving the whole world. We have rituals for those who are giving life, for those who have just been born, and for those who have survived a life-threatening experience. But just as we celebrate and sanctify all aspects of life, we also recognize that a normal part of the life cycle is death, and we have many rituals and blessings for those who have died and for those who are mourning a loved one.
Kevod Hamet/Honoring the Dead
These acts are all ways of fulfilling the important mitzvah (commandment) of kevod hamet, which means honoring those who have died. We bring honor to them by taking care of their bodies when they have died, by burying them according to Jewish tradition, by sitting shiva and saying Kaddish and remembering them in our hearts.
The tradition of saying Mourner’s Kaddish goes back generations and generations, for hundreds of years. When we say Kaddish for our family members who have died, we join a long chain of other Jews who have lived, have believed in God, and have honored their relatives by saying Kaddish during the mourning period and also every year on the anniversary of a loved one's death. It used to be that only men could say Kaddish for their family members, and because women were not counted in a minyan (the ten people who need to come together to say public prayers like the Kaddish), they also were not allowed to say the Kaddish for their loved ones. Today we will meet Henrietta Szold, a very important woman in Jewish history, who will tell you her experience of saying Kaddish for her mother.
Meeting Henrietta Szold
Have a dramatically capable young person or teacher who has practiced “being Henrietta Szold” enter and greet everyone, using the following script (or a variation):
Hello, everyone! I’m Henrietta Szold. I lived not so long ago, and you might have heard of me, because I started a very successful, international Zionist organization of Jewish women called Hadassah. I worked hard my whole life on behalf of the Jewish people. I was a Zionist and I believed that we all had to work to make the land of Israel become a more livable place for both Jews and Arabs.
But that’s not what I’m here to tell you about today. Today I want to tell you a personal story about what happened when my dear mother passed away. You might know that women were not supposed to say the Mourner’s Kaddish. Well, when my mother, of blessed memory, passed away, a good friend of mine wrote to me, to say that he knew I could not say Kaddish, and I had no brothers to say Kaddish, so he offered to say it for her.
Well, that was the sweetest offer, it really was, don’t you think so? But I couldn’t let him do that, do you know why? Oh, I wrote it all in my letter back to him. Do you want to hear what I said? [Read letter.]
Oh, I get a little choked up just reading it again. So, what do you think? Was I right to refuse his offer? Have any of you had similar experiences? I understand that many women are now allowed to say Kaddish and I must say, I think it’s a good thing. It’s a very significant time in anyone’s life, to lose a dear relative, and I know I found it helpful to be able to honor my mother’s memory by saying Kaddish for her. I hope you will remember this.
Well, I must be going, but it’s very nice to meet all of you. Be well, take care, Shalom! Goodbye!
Small Group Time
Split adults from youth.
With the adults:
Ask adults to form small groups of three or four, give them a copy of the text of Szold’s letter, and ask them to discuss the following questions:
- What are Szold’s arguments for saying kaddish herself? Are you sympathetic to her wishes?
- How does Szold honor her mother’s memory in this letter? How is the letter itself a form of honoring her mother’s memory? Which of her mother’s values is Szold intentionally carrying on?
- Is there someone in your family whose values you feel that you carry on? Have you ever thought of this as a way of honoring their memories?
Ask each parent to write a letter to their children, telling them about a family member or friend who has passed away. Include a story about how that person acted out an important value, and how you see that value being carried on through your own family or children.
With the youth:
Discuss Henrietta Szold's letter:
- How was she honoring her mother’s memory by saying Kaddish, even though it went against Jewish tradition for a woman to say Kaddish?
- How was writing that letter a way of honoring her mother’s memory? (Think about the fact that we are still reading this letter, 90 years after it was written.)
- Read and discuss an age-appropriate story about death and remembering our loved ones, such as Tommie DePaola's Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs. Ask the kids if they have memories of relatives who are no longer alive. Have them share their happy memories.
Return to the big group and allow parents and children to share their stories and letters.