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Kriah and a Crucifix: A Rabbi’s Story of Interfaith Mourning

Recently, I officiated the funeral of a middle-aged Jewish father of two who had suddenly died from cancer. The wife, a practicing Catholic and member of the local Russian community, wore a kriah ribbon at the funeral. This black, torn ribbon is often worn by Jewish mourners as an expression of grief and loss.

The wife was beside herself in grief. She was anguished after losing her husband, and her grief was compounded by the fact that her young adult and teenage children no longer had a father.

Early on in our initial conversation, the widow shared that she was not Jewish but that her late husband was, and thus, she wanted a rabbi to preside over the ceremony. I spent our time together mostly listening to the bereaved woman and her daughter recall memories, inside jokes and silly quirks about their beloved husband and father. Amidst the mournful tears and fists full of crumbled tissues were spurts of laughter and smiles as the two reminisced. Toward the end of our time together, we agreed that the funeral should be conducted primarily in English, with the eulogy delivered in Russian, to accommodate the majority Catholic-Russian-speaking guests.  

After the funeral, I parted ways with the family. Hugging the widow and her children, I told them to give me a call if they wanted help processing their loss. 

Later that week, I received a text message from the widow: “I’m having a difficult time. Would it be possible to meet and talk?” The next day, I visited her at home. As we sat down at her dining room table, I noticed she was still wearing her black kriah ribbon. She expressed how she found comfort in this ritual despite it not being from her tradition.

“It makes me feel close to him,” she said. At the same time, she was clutching the crucifix necklace around her neck. These symbols of two faiths, the kriah ribbon and the crucifix, lay side-by-side over the woman’s broken heart, each providing her comfort in her grief. It is a poignant illustration of how interfaith relationships play out and an example of how interfaith couples find meaning in each other’s traditions, even (and perhaps, most especially) after one of them has died. 

This experience helped me be more mindful of the faith traditions of the families I encounter, especially amidst end-of-life decisions. I have tailored the way I conduct funerals to be more inclusive of family members and friends who aren’t Jewish. I have welcomed family members of different religious backgrounds to participate in kriah and other traditional Jewish rituals. I’ve realized that in a person’s darkest hours, my role as a rabbi isn’t to set boundaries and limit the participation of mourners but rather to do what I can to make them feel included and supported in their grief.    

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, the rate of interfaith marriages in the United States for liberal Jews is over seventy percent. Typically, when clergy and others in the Jewish community think of and talk about interfaith families, the discussion focuses on engaged or newly married young couples navigating their relationship or on how to raise children in one or both faith traditions.

Those of us who work with and care about the inclusion of interfaith families in the Jewish community need to focus more attention on the challenges interfaith couples and families face as a loved one nears the end of life. It is essential for clergy today to be mindful of interfaith family dynamics when supporting grieving families and their loved ones, and to be well-prepared to meet the needs of mourners of other faiths who aren’t Jewish — such as this widow’s comfort in both a crucifix and a kriah ribbon. We also need to be supportive as Jews mourn loved ones of other religions.

If we genuinely want to be inclusive of interfaith couples and families, we need to understand their unique needs and be there for them not just when they’re beginning their lives together but also when their lives together have ended.

Rabbi Simon Stratford

Rabbi Simon Stratford serves as the Associate Rabbi and Director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Sholom in Cincinnati, OH., where he works with individuals of all ages and families of diverse backgrounds. Before being ordained in 2017 by HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, Rabbi Stratford received his BA in Social Work from Michigan State University. As a rabbi, he is in the business of building and sustaining sacred Jewish community, the foundation of which rests upon meaningful personal relationships. Rabbi Stratford is in Cohort 4 in 18Doors’ Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship.