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Jewish Mourning Rituals Up-ended By Coronavirus
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Jewish Mourning Rituals Up-ended By Coronavirus

Covid-19 precautions have forced alternatives to saying Kaddish and attending shiva.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

When Joshua Lannik, a 35-year-old teacher living in Riverdale, completed sitting shiva for his mother on March 8, he walked straight into quarantine.

“Getting up from shiva consisted of me walking around my apartment and taking a shower,” said Lannik, a history teacher at Salanter Akiba Riverdale High School (SAR), where students and faculty members were among the first New Yorkers to be quarantined after a Westchester student’s parent in early March became the second confirmed coronavirus case in New York.  “The end of shiva didn’t feel as momentous.”

The seven days of shiva are themselves a sort of spiritual quarantine, after which mourners are expected to “get up” and slowly merge back into society. But the coronavirus outbreak is upending a host of rituals across the Jewish world, although none perhaps as dramatically as the rites surrounding mourning.

The coronavirus outbreak is upending a host of rituals across the Jewish world, although none perhaps as dramatically as the rites surrounding mourning.

Across denominations, rabbis and community leaders are weighing in with different solutions to accommodate mourners on issues like the ritual preparation of dead bodies for burial, funeral services, reciting the Kaddish prayer in public and the many detailed mourning practices that follow death.

For example, even with his official quarantine over, strict measures of social distancing have left Lannik unable to say Kaddish for his mother, the prayer traditionally recited in the presence of a 10-person minyan. At one brief point, before his congregation ceased services all together, he was able to recite Kaddish via video chat.

“It was both very comforting and very jarring,” said Lannik, describing the experience of saying Kaddish virtually while under quarantine. “It heightened the oddness of the situation. The start of my year of aveilut [mourning] has been so strikingly abnormal.”

Rabbi Adir Posy, director of the Orthodox Union’s Community & Synagogue Services, is in the process of developing new guidelines for mourners during the outbreak.

The classic funeral is nonexistent now.

“The classic funeral is nonexistent now,” said Rabbi Posy, who helps instruct 1,000 OU member synagogues. Preparing bodies for burial — often undertaken by a volunteer burial society, or chevra kadisha — is now accompanied by “specific guiding precautions.” They include protective gear for those attending to the body and measures that take into account “appropriate social distancing and maintaining a strictly hygienic environment.” Funerals are restricted to “gravesite gatherings only” with a cap of 10 attendees.

“We are balancing a variety of factors — public policy, public health guidelines and fealty to halacha,” or Jewish law, said Rabbi Posy, who said he is keeping abreast of changing recommendations “hour by hour.”

While Jewish mourning practices are “meant to alleviate isolation,” at this point Posy is advising that no shiva visits be paid in person. Instead, he said, calls, emails and video conferences will need to compensate.

Eldar Mayouhas, a lawyer living in Crown Heights, is struggling to find ways to continue saying Kaddish for his mother. She passed away nearly 10 months ago. His first resort was to search “pay for Kaddish” online. He was able to find a service run by a Chabad Lubavitch that guarantees a surrogate will say Kaddish for your loved once daily for a $180 flat fee.

While this solved the “technical problem,” Mayouhas still felt a personal loss. He turned to a local Orthodox rabbi, who advised him of “other ways to commemorate a loved one, aside from reciting the Kaddish.” He decided to learn a page of Talmud every day in place of reciting the daily mourner’s prayer.

“I can’t say I’m not dealing with a certain amount of guilt for the time off, but taking on another commitment has helped,” he said. “I’m certain my mom would have encouraged me to stay home.”

Debbie Findling, a philanthropic adviser living in San Francisco, began saying a virtual Kaddish for her father last April, before Covid-19 was even on the horizon. A “progressive, liberal American Jew,” Findling, her five siblings and other family members convened a virtual minyan over Zoom, the online conferencing platform, in order to recite the Kaddish every day from their different locations and time zones.

Now, set against the backdrop of coronavirus, shuttered synagogues and social isolation, her virtual Kaddish has “taken on a whole new meaning,” said Findling.

“My siblings and I have been inviting others to join,” she said. What began as a novel way to keep her family together has expanded to become a community resource for those who can no longer recite Kaddish at local synagogue services.

“Independent of the outbreak, this has been one of the most powerful Jewish experiences I’ve ever had,” said Findling. She is eager to share the model with other rabbis and congregations in light of the changing reality. “We’re all going to have to find new ways to create meaning and structure in our lives.”

Rabbi Roy Feldman, a Modern Orthodox pulpit rabbi in Albany, has been encouraging members of his 140-family congregation to “re-educate themselves about the real meaning of Kaddish” in the face of the outbreak. His synagogue, along with hundreds of other synagogues across New York, decided to cease all communal services last Friday.

Our parents’ souls will not be stuck somewhere in between because we didn’t say Kaddish.

“Kaddish is not a magical prayer that needs to be said,” said Rabbi Feldman, 32, continuing that there is no “official obligation” to recite the communal prayer. “Our parents’ souls will not be stuck somewhere in between because we didn’t say Kaddish.”

Instead, Rabbi Feldman is encouraging members of his congregation to “exalt God” in different ways, whether it be taking on other religious commitments or merely “continuing to follow in the trajectory of our parents.”

“We don’t have to attribute mystical meaning to things we simply can’t do right now,” he said. “It’s not helpful to sentimentalize things that are impossible to fulfill right now given the circumstances.”

Still, for Jeremy Novich, a 34-year-old clinical psychologist living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the decision, in the interest of socially distancing, to stop saying Kaddish for his mother with a minyan has left him unsettled.

“There’s a lot of internal conflict,” said Novich. He said he knows of certain small “shtiebels” in the city that have continued to hold services with a minyan, despite public calls not to congregate. “I wonder, am I letting myself off easy?” Prior to the outbreak, he had maintained a near perfect track-record of reciting the communal prayer for his mother three times a day with a minyan.

He sought substitutes for the daily Kaddish but found the experience did not measure up. “There is some relief that comes with the release from obligation,” he said, “but saying various alternatives to Kaddish on my own doesn’t have the same effect.” 

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