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A Shiva Without Hugs

A Shiva Without Hugs

Grieving from afar is an experience both jarring and inspirational.

A shiva house, in normal times. These days, Zoom is the technology of choice for those in mourning. Richard Cahan/Flickr/My Jewish Learning
A shiva house, in normal times. These days, Zoom is the technology of choice for those in mourning. Richard Cahan/Flickr/My Jewish Learning

My friend Ronnie died last week after a valiant almost-six-year battle with ovarian cancer. She had more kindness, compassion, understanding and wisdom in her tiny frame than most people have in their larger bodies. If she had died in another time, she would have had a standing-room-only funeral and a house overflowing with shiva guests.

Her family would have been physically embraced by the warmth of community. Not only friends and family, but the parents of the kids (and the now grown children) of those who participated in the Tot Shabbat, which she lovingly led each week at Temple Israel in Great Neck, L.I., for 30 years. She and her husband, Marc, also published the synagogue newsletter and they were partners in the business they built together, Katz Communications.

There would have been so many people wanting to show their love and respect that it’s likely Marc, and children Amy and Jake, would not only have been grateful — but exhausted — with all the traffic and well-intentioned food and support.

Ronnie’s family was her reason for being. And when chemo failed, she enlisted in clinical trial after clinical trial. Her goal was to spend more time with her growing family — and she lived to see the marriage of her son and the births of three grandchildren, the youngest just 4 months old. According to her family, she would never allow herself to be defined by her disease, but rather by the loving and devoted family that she assiduously built with Marc.

Ronnie lived much longer than the odds gave her. She was near death just three months ago, but her sheer will enabled her to persevere. For example, while receiving hospice care in her home, she sat at her kitchen table and made hamantaschen with her 4- year-old granddaughter, Violet.

Last week, we participated in a virtual shiva minyan for Ronnie. Each of the 102 people who logged in sat in their own homes, connected by the miracle of technology.   

Technology is wonderful when it works, and in this case it worked pretty well — except for a couple of awkward silences and the haunting disconnect of being physically separate. Additionally, many other individuals were unable to get online, Marc later told me, and were excluded by the limitations of Zoom. For that there is also a 2020 solution — the entire service is now on YouTube.

The experience was both jarring and inspirational. A shiva without background chatter, the aroma of smoked fish, or hugs and kisses. Yet, in the stark and poignant silent background of Zoom, the message came through loud and clear: Ronnie made us all better human beings in so many ways. Her life mattered and she will be remembered.

Rabbi Howard Stecker of Temple Israel, along with family and other clergy, spoke movingly about how Ronnie always put others before herself. 

“Ronnie brought kavod [honor] to every place that was graced with her person,” Rabbi Stecker said. He shared how Ronnie brought honor to her synagogue and Hadassah community, to Tot Shabbat, to her work and especially to her family. “She imparted wisdom about what it means to love a person with all of your heart and all of your soul.”

That love was abundant as her children spoke.

“Mom never let cancer define her and never shared her discomfort and true pain,” said her son, Jake. “She fought and fought and fought, determined to beat the disease and get better so she could celebrate more simchas with family and friends. I am so grateful for her fight and for every extra year, month and day it gave us together.”

Her daughter, Amy, recalled how people often commended her and Jake on their constant physical and emotional presence and involvement in their mother’s care. “We didn’t do it out of obligation,” Amy said. “We did it because that was the challenge we were facing and her challenge was our challenge. We saw mom do it for her parents in countless ways, big and small. And how she lived the commandment to honor your father and mother and because she deserved the same.”

Jake’s wife, Amanda, and Amy’s husband Jon, said that Ronnie treated them as if they were her own children. “Ronnie loved me like a daughter,” said Amanda, “not only because she told me so but because she showed me so.”

The coronavirus pandemic exposes our frailties as human beings and cuts to the core of what is most important to us: family, community and love. After this plague passes — which it surely will — may we remember and act upon this lesson.

And may we make it a point to especially remember Ronnie and all those who have passed away during this pandemic and were shortchanged by it. What really matters is to share their stories and keep their memories fresh and green forever. As Marc said, “To remember not how she died, but how she lived.” Those memories will endure longer than the type of funeral or shiva that was held.

Ronnie Katz was 67 years old. In addition to her husband and children, she leaves three grandchildren: Violet, Mikayla and Miles; brothers Howard (Judy) Zweig and Joseph (Michelle) Zweig, nieces and nephews and countless friends and admirers. May her memory always be for a blessing.

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