A letter writer is never sure what to do when it comes time for the Yizkor service during Yom Kippur. Miriam's Advice Well offers historical background and discusses the options.
I've noticed during Yom Kippur services that when it comes time for Yizkor, some people walk out of services. I'm never sure what to do.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Dear Stay or Go,
When I was young, Yizkor, the memorial prayer that is said four times a year, including on Yom Kippur, was a very pleasant memory for me. It was the time that the kids were released from services to get a breath of fresh air outside. It provided several minutes of respite from the seriousness of Yom Kippur. Still, when we were called back in, I always felt like we'd been caught having too much fun when other people had to stay inside the sanctuary. As I got older and more aware, I came to realize that, as I walked back inside still blinking from the sunshine, the older members of my congregation were all blinking back tears. I came to understand that this wasn't a specially-designed break in services for children. This was the culmination of seriousness; everyone who stayed inside was mourning, while I was running around carefree.
Yizkor is traditionally said by people who have lost a close family member. The generally accepted rule, as far as I can tell, is that if you would say Kaddish for someone, you should say Yizkor for them, but specific customs may vary. Yizkor also includes prayers for martyrs and is a way to remember Jews who have lost their lives who have no family members to remember them. Many people (including me) have the tradition to leave the service during Yizkor if both of their parents are alive. This tradition stems primarily from superstition, from the idea that to experience this powerful moment of mourning as a non-mourner tempts the evil eye. (Read more about traditions surrounding Yizkor here.)
Other traditions, stemming from more rational and typically more liberal strands of Judaism, say that the whole congregation should remain together for Yizkor. For one thing, there are too many Jews who are not remembered specifically in someone's prayers, and we have a communal responsibility to remember them. Some rabbis invoke the Holocaust and other atrocities as reasons we should all mourn. Others encourage non-mourners to stay as a way to support those in the congregation who are reciting the prayer for loved ones.
If you have a close family member to remember, I would encourage you to take part in this ritual. I've heard that it can be a very powerful, cathartic and spiritual experience. If you don't have someone specifically for whom you are saying Yizkor and you don't have strong negative feelings associated with staying inside the service, I think it's a nice idea to be there to support your fellow congregants and to honor those who are deceased who may otherwise be forgotten. If, like me, it gives you the absolute heebie-jeebies even to think for a second about being there for a service that isn't for you, kenahorah (keep away the evil eye), then take a break and step outside. But, if you do, remember what's happening inside and act in a way that respects both the living and the dead.