Singing the Sh’ma for Dad
by Jeannette Gross
Temple Isaiah, Lafayette, CA
When my Dad, Ken Harris, was dying two years ago, we were fortunate he had enough time and inclination to plan his own funeral. Since he had a very eclectic religious life (born and raised Jewish, a bar mitzvah, a wedding co-officiated by a rabbi and a minister in 1950; now on the board, in the choir and very active in the church where my Mom has been a member her entire life; very involved in multiple Masonic organizations; still a proud Jew in his heart and soul) it would have been difficult for anyone else to know how to create a meaningful service.
When he asked me (his only Jewish family member) to sing the Sh’ma at his church funeral, I was quite honored, but initially said no, I didn’t think I could do it. Fortunately I decided within a couple of days that I DID want to do this for him, scary as it was…. I loved that it was so important to him and that I was the only one of his children who could do this for him.
In the two weeks following this conversation I spent many hours with Dad, chanting psalms and prayers for him, watching him very quickly fade away, singing the Sh’ma countless times through the long hours of that final night, each time I thought he was taking his final breath.
On the day of his funeral, I was quite emotional, and not at all sure I could actually sing in front of the huge crowd of mourners (church filled to overflowing, social hall with standing room only in front of a big screen projection of the service).
When the minister asked me to begin the service with the Sh’ma, I was trembling. I stood at the podium, offered a few shaky words of explanation, closed my eyes and starting singing the Sh’ma…. within seconds voices joined mine – not just my husband and daughters, not just our Jewish friends there to support us, but many voices, and it kept building…. Jews throughout the church all sang as one, the sacred words of our people that were still so important to my dear Dad.
That feeling of wholeness, of Shalem, has stayed with me. I cherish the memory and look forward to each opportunity to sing the Sh’ma, connecting me forever to my Father, my Jewish roots, our people scattered throughout the world.