How We Found the Holy in Creating Our Temple's Annual Memory Book

Inside Leadership

How We Found the Holy in Creating Our Temple's Annual Memory Book

Unlit white memory candle in a glass votive against a black backdrop

Before the High Holidays this year, our synagogue altered the process for listing family names in our Yizkor (memory) book.

Unfortunately, quite a few congregants seem to have either misunderstood the changes or neglected to reply to our letters (or both). Judging by the emails and telephone messages we received in response, other congregants were more than a little upset about the new process, too.

Another complication was our ongoing “six-word project.” We invited each congregant to choose one of their loved ones listed, and add six words to describe that person. This was our third year doing so, so quite a few names were gathering descriptors that enabled us to know more about the people remembered in the book. Alas, some congregants were confused about the six words, and we recognized that we needed to address that problem, too.

And then there was the question of the whole purpose of the memory book. Most people read it during our congregation’s Yizkor service, and sometimes they take it home with them. The book includes the names of recently deceased congregants or their relatives, as well as a few prayers about death.

The memory book is, of course, intended to help our members grieve, and to honor their ancestors and other loved ones. But it's also a money-maker for the synagogue, as people customarily send a donation along with the list of people they're remembering. The dual purposes of the book sometimes conflict, as we try to maintain a healthy balance between the emotional needs of our members and the financial realities of our organization.

We worried that congregants who listed names last year but hadn’t responded this year might really have wanted their family members included again. So as not to disappoint anyone, our office manager and I started making telephone calls. As we worked into the evening, we found that most members did want their family members listed! Quite a few added their six words about a special relative, and many promised to send a donation, too.  

But here was the lovely surprise: Congregants were delighted that we reached out specifically about this concern and that we did our best not to overlook them. In addition to being happy to hear from us, many talked about how meaningful the memory nook was to them each year, and how grateful they were that the congregation maintained this annual ritual. Some told us more about a much-loved relative, explaining their carefully chosen six words. Before we hung up, we cheerfully wished each other shanah tovah (happy new year), and all those unexpected personal connections became a meaningful part of my High Holidays experience this year.

As we typed and edited the pages, watching the lists grow and take shape and collect more meaning through the six words, we became more aware of the true meaning of the memory book. Our congregation is more than 160 years old, and these were the names of so many of our beloved people.

As a long-time member, I had known quite a few of them, and I recognized many names from current congregants' family stories heard sitting around Shabbat dinners and at onegs (refreshments following services). Our office manager was intimately familiar with many of the families, due to her special role assisting them with funeral arrangements and mailing monthly yahrzeit (anniversary of a death) notifications.

That evening, the whole memory book project was transformed before our eyes. What was originally considered to be merely office minutia and fundraising became what it truly was: sacred work.

Rebecca Carlson is a past president and active volunteer at Congregation Anshai Emeth in Peoria, IL.

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