Comfort and consolation during COVID-19

Area rabbis share perspectives on mourning 

By Amy Wolff Sorter

Rabbi Howard Wolk, Jewish Family Service of Dallas community chaplain and founding rabbi of Congregation Shaare Tefilla, shared the story of two recent funerals at which he officiated. At the first one, which took place before Pesach, those in attendance included the deceased’s daughter, granddaughter, granddaughter’s husband and a friend, as well as the rabbi. Those in attendance at the second funeral included a friend of the deceased (the deceased was from out of town), the rabbi and the funeral director.

Both services were short, and all who were present wore masks and gloves. “That’s been the norm,” Wolk said. The new norm, some might say, due to restrictions put into place by the spread of COVID-19.

Jewish lifecycles, consisting of births, b’nai mitzvah, marriages and deaths, are similar. They offer food, prayers and a gathering of many people. In the face of the death of a loved one, mourners have comfort coming from the love and support of friends, relatives and extended family, during the service, at the graveside and while sitting shiva.

However, COVID-19-created isolation and social distancing requirements have curtailed the number of people able to participate in the Jewish mourning process. This has put a burden on mourners, and requires rabbis to work through alternatives. 

Synagogues at this point remain closed to the public. Furthermore, limiting the number of people who can attend a burial “makes for difficult conversations with families about how extended the family member can be that can even attend,” said Rabbi Ari Sunshine, senior rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas. “Having the conversation with the family about whether it’s all right, from a health and safety perspective, to have the grandkids there, it’s a difficult conversation.”

Another difficult area, Wolk said, is for out-of-town loved ones. “If someone’s mother passes away in Dallas, and he’s in Toronto or New York and can’t come to the funeral, that’s more profound than limiting numbers,” Wolk observed.

Some mourners, however, have succeeded in livestreaming services and burials to extended family and friends, both locally and out of town, who are unable to attend in person. Rabbi Brian Zimmerman, who leads Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth, recently attended a virtual funeral, on Zoom, in honor of a former Jewish classmate, who lived in Cincinnati. “I felt a sense of loss, but also of closeness,” Zimmerman said.

That sense of loss can escalate after the service and burial, during which individuals either sit shiva alone, or with their at-home family members. These days, rabbis’ shiva calls become virtual shiva calls. “The task of the rabbi is words of consolation at this time, obviously it takes place at the cemetery,” Wolk said. “Otherwise, personal visits by the rabbi have to take place either by Zoom or over the phone. That kind of disconnection can add to a mourner’s bereavement.”

The rabbis acknowledge that technology tools, such as Zoom and Facebook Live, can ease some of the loss and loneliness. And, while they understand that virtual shivas have their place, where they disagree is the place of the virtual minyan in the current situation, and recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish during such.

Zimmerman, a Reform rabbi, acknowledged that a Zoom minyan is far from ideal. However, “if you have a virtual gathering of a family that can’t get together, and this is the only chance to bring comfort, I believe the response of ‘Amen’ during the Mourner’s Kaddish fulfills the obligation of bringing support,” he said.

At the other end of the spectrum, Wolk said that, in Orthodox circles, a minyan consists of at least 10 men, in a physical location, period. Taking this further, without the physical minyan, there is no Kaddish recitation. There are, however appropriate prayers that are acceptable to recite in lieu of Kaddish, which can be recited without a minyan. “The highest priority is that we don’t put ourselves at risk unnecessarily,” Wolk remarked. “These times are prompting adjustments by the mourners, by the rabbis and other family members.”

Sunshine, meanwhile, said that, on the one hand, a virtual minyan service precludes the recitation of certain d’varim she-bi’kedushah, “holy words/things”such as the barchu, the kedusha, traditional Torah readings with aliyot, and the various kaddish prayers. Having said that, there is some leniency during a virtual minyan. “What we are doing, and what a lot of Conservative congregations are doing, is allowing from this category the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, only,” Sunshine said. “None of the rest of those prayers are happening, but we are being lenient with the Mourner’s Kaddish, as we’re focused on the heightened emotional need of people who are suffering from loss who feel a powerful connection to the Mourner’s Kaddish specifically.”

While they might disagree on some aspects of the mourning ritual, the rabbis suggest that mourners understand that this is a difficult time, even without the grief of loss. “Hopefully there are no feelings of guilt on letting someone down in not having the funeral or shiva they’ve envisioned,” Sunshine commented. “We are all doing the best we can, and that should be enough. Hopefully that will be enough comfort during these times.”

Zimmerman added that mourners should take any opportunity to gain and maintain a sense of connection, whether that connection takes place online, or by phone. And Wolk suggested that mourners should have no expectations about emotion or grief, COVID-19 or not. “There is no calendar for emotions,” he said. “There is no script that, on Day Five, you should feel like this. Each person is different.”

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