I had long wanted to travel to Dubrovnik, Croatia. I looked forward to swimming in pristine waters, sunning on rocky beaches, kayaking around beautiful islands, hiking mountains overlooking the city, attending classical music concerts, and learning about historical sites. There is also a “Game of Thrones” tour, as Dubrovnik is the filming location for that television series.
Last summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Dubrovnik; however, as it was within the year after my mother passed away, I was unsure whether I would be able to recite kaddish with a minyan. I knew that there was a synagogue in Dubrovnik, Kahal Adat Yisrael, that was established in 1408 and is the second oldest synagogue in all of Europe. However, today the entire Jewish community of Dubrovnik is 24 people and, other than the High Holidays and special occasions, there are no regular prayer services. Instead, the synagogue is mainly a museum with numerous Jewish ritual items and century old artifacts. Therefore, despite its glorified Jewish history and the existence of a synagogue, it seemed rather doubtful that in Dubrovnik I would be able to recite kaddish with a minyan.
Nevertheless, I was not willing to give up on my trip. I asked Rabbi Yosef Singer of Young Israel Ezras Torah of Potomac, perhaps unfairly, whether it was permitted for a mourner to purposely put himself in a situation in which he will be unable to recite kaddish with a minyan. Rabbi Singer answered with some very sage advice: “That is between you, your mother, and G-d.”
I quickly did a tally. I recused myself from the vote. I did not want to vote on behalf of my mother, as I could not know with certainty if she would approve. As concerns G-d, I reflected upon a tradition whereby when a mourner is unable to attend services, he should read a chapter of Tanach or study a mishnah. Even as I understood that my travel was not one of necessity, I still rationalized that perhaps G-d, as the source of all Jewish tradition, would be sympathetic to my situation.
Upon further reflection, however, I had an even better idea. Although there would not be organized prayer services in Dubrovnik, I could still recite kaddish, perhaps even with a minyan. The synagogue was primarily functioning as a museum, but it would be open and, undoubtedly, there would be many tourists, mostly from cruises, who would be visiting. I could go every morning to the synagogue, wait for people to show up and, hopefully, among these tourists, find other Jews who would give me the opportunity to recite kaddish.
In fact, my plan worked! Every morning I would go to the synagogue and enter the diminutive sanctuary. As I began my prayers, I admired my surroundings. There were high-backed benches along the walls. In the middle of the room was an oversized and raised bimah with bronze memorial lamps. The ark, draped in heavy maroon velvet, was in rich baroque style and held several Torah scrolls. There was also a Moorish carpet from the 13th century. Legend claims that the carpet was a gift from Queen Isabella to her Jewish doctor exiled from Spain.
Tourists from many different countries entered the sanctuary. As they saw me in prayer, I explained my predicament and asked if they would be willing to listen and respond as I recited kaddish. Without exception, every person whom I asked readily agreed. On one of the days, I enlisted the help of an extended family from California who were on a cruise in celebration of the bar mitzvah of one its members. The grandfather volunteered the entire family to participate and requested that I lead the family in a short prayer service. He then thanked me for giving him the opportunity to teach his grandson the importance of responsibility towards fellow Jews. On another day as I was reciting the kaddish, I realized that the couple who joined me were from Potomac, Maryland. In fact, they were members of Congregation Har Shalom, where I had been saying kaddish for most of the year!
To be sure, there were halachic difficulties with my reciting the kaddish in this way. Kaddish is a public prayer that should be recited with a minyan and, except for the group from California, I did not have the requisite number of people. In addition, although it usually came out in conversation, I never outright asked people their religion, so I am not even certain that those who stood next to be were Jewish. Nevertheless, reciting kaddish for my mother, in a centuries-old synagogue, in a beautiful and interesting city, and with the support of a community of people from all around the world, was a most wonderful experience. Thinking back on Rabbi Singer's advice, I do think that my mother, always the adventurer, would have approved.
By Paul J. Blank
Paul J. Blank is a teacher at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland.