Sara Stock Mayo has surpassed a cultural hurdle without even speaking a word of Russian. Despite an obvious language barrier, for the past 18 months, Mayo, an American-born drama therapist, musician and chaplain, has officiated at funerals for members of the Russian Jewish community.
“Many of the people who have reached out to me have no specific connection with a synagogue or rabbi,” explained Mayo, who was a cantorial soloist for Temple Sinai for 11 years.
“When I basically became a free agent, Schugar’s [Ralph Schugar Chapel] called and asked, ‘Do you still do funerals?’ Based on my background, they knew that I could sing or do a eulogy; their question was whether I was interested in that line of work.”
Mayo indicated that she was and shortly thereafter began receiving referrals from the Shadyside-based funeral home.
“I started just doing several of them and got to know some people in the community,” she said.
Through word of mouth, news of Mayo’s abilities spread. What followed was an appreciation for how the Russian-speaking community existed in relation to the wider Jewish community. The Steel City resident remembered 1980s synagogues across Pittsburgh displaying, “Save Soviet Jewry” signage. She also recalled “tons of Russian families” from her college days working at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s Noar and Bogrim summer camps.
The movement to save and welcome Soviet Jews was successful in certain regards but failed in other aspects, she explained.
“We did so much stuff to get Russian Jews to America, but I don’t know what they did once they got here. In the years I’ve worked in synagogue life, I haven’t seen many Russian families.”
However, such inconspicuousness should not be mistaken for inexistence, explained Mayo. “It’s a very tightknit community.”
Rabbi Sharyn Henry of Rodef Shalom Congregation agreed.
“It’s interesting that the Russian Jewish community stayed together and didn’t really mix in with the [wider] Pittsburgh Jewish community,” noted the rabbi, who has performed various lifecycle events for members of Pittsburgh’s Russian Jewish community.
“We did a very good job financially integrating them into the communal aspect of Judaism but from a synagogue standpoint, not necessarily so,” said Mayo.
Over the past year and a half, the now soloist at Beth El and Temple David has sought to learn more about the other community she sometimes serves.
“To me, people’s personal stories are interesting, that’s kind of what you do in a funeral, tell someone’s personal story,” she said.
From these endeavors, Mayo has discovered harrowing tales of perseverance and sacrifice. She learned of people who survived Chernobyl, highly educated individuals who gave up touted professions abroad to work at Eat’n Park here and even others whose dream of coming to America was driven by a desire to own a car and possess the freedom to take it wherever they wished.
“To me, it’s the greatest thing to learn about people’s lives,” she said, “and I’m certainly no expert, I would like to learn more.”
From her various involvements, the singer, who is also spiritual leader and managing director of Pittsburgh Playback Theatre, admits that she is not entirely certain as to “what role religion or God play in the community.” Nevertheless, even when Russian Jews request a funeral devoid of traditional practices such as the Kaddish or El Malei Rachamim, Mayo is more concerned with providing Jewish service than Jewish services.
“Anyway that we can help people who are suffering, it’s our duty to.”
Such is why Mayo performs funerals for those with whom she deeply differs in religious views.
“For me, even though it’s not a Jewish funeral, it’s a Jewish act,” she said.
There is also the personal element involved.
“My family is from Russia. I am a third-generation American; we’ve been here for a long time,” Mayo said. “I don’t know a lot about that part of my family’s history, but when I do a funeral for a family and am surrounded by a family speaking Russian, there is some shtetl mentality that seems to make sense to me.”
Along with the narratives and knowledge uncovered, serving this niche has generated growth, added Mayo.
“Particularly as Jews, often we are coming from a situation of privilege, and we are not always experienced to feel what it is to be the other, even though we are,” she said. “What these experiences have caused me to do is ask myself, ‘Among our own people, how can we do that better?’” pjc
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.