Daily Minyan in the BJ Chapel, pre-pandemic
Mourning During a Pandemic: A Conversation Between BJ Members
More than a year into the pandemic, many are reflecting and trying to make sense of their experiences during this challenging period. For those of us in the BJ community, that includes thinking about how BJ affected and, in many cases, informed those experiences.
Longtime BJ member Shira Nadich Levin (board member and Development Co-Chair) spoke at length with new member Liz Greenstein, whose mother passed away in March 2020. Liz’s mother fell ill at the very beginning of the pandemic, and she and her brother were able to be with their mother in the hospital when she died, unlike so many other people in the past year. But there is no question that, as a result of the pandemic, the typical Jewish mourning period and observances differed dramatically from those Shira experienced 13 years ago when her father and, seven months later, her mother, passed away. The following is a lightly edited version of Shira’s conversation with Liz:
(SNL): Liz, somehow, you and your brother were able to visit your mother in the hospital. How and when did COVID-19 affect your mourning your mother’s passing?:
(LG): We were so very lucky to have been able to be with our mom when she died, since the hospital had been closed to visitors. But, we felt the impact of COVID-19 immediately when I called my mom’s rabbi and he said that he couldn’t officiate at a service because he had COVID-19. It hurt so much to not be able to celebrate my mom’s life with the traditions we knew and expected—no funeral, no in-person shiva, and, a year later, no unveiling. But I wouldn’t trade the four deeply meaningful Zoom shivas that we had. More than 50 people attended each night—probably more than would have come in person and from all across the U.S. and even Europe.And without the distractions of side conversations and jockeying for rugelach, we were blessed to hear stories about our mother that we would have never heard otherwise.
(SNL): I remember when my father died, that it was only when I heard my sisters discussing saying the Kaddish daily for 11 months that I made the decision to say Kaddish for my father (and then for my mother). I remember thinking that I should have known that instinctively, as a result of my upbringing. My father was a rabbi, as you know, having been a congregant at Park Avenue Synagogue where he was the rabbi for many years, and I went to a Jewish day school. Yet, I did not make that decision immediately. How did you decide to say Kaddish daily?
(LG): I can’t say why, but I immediately knew that I would say daily Kaddish for 11 months. To me, saying Kaddish is an act of love. My father died when I was in elementary school, so it’s not like I had done this before. But, I had been part of a Kaddish circle at BJ a few years ago for my friends Lawrence Gardner and Katie Sanders, and I knew that I liked the intimacy of the small morning minyan. From the beginning, I found the daily services so helpful—they literally got me out of bed in the morning. My mother’s death coincided with those first really scary weeks of lockdown, and I was living in my brother’s basement in Brooklyn, together with my family, and yet very alone. The regularity of the prayers, the chanting, standing, and saying her name, all helped me to breathe through my tears. We were all sharing our losses and emotions in a simultaneously public and private way: I knew that I was with people who understood, without my having to say anything. I will always be grateful to another mourner who one day “reached out” via the chat to offer a virtual hug. We know the names of each other’s loved ones, and we have listened to each other’s “virtual eulogies” at the first yahrzeit. Being able to share some words about my mother’s life with this group offered me a chance to have the closure I had been missing, and I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.
(SNL): It seems that you have gained so much from being a part of the daily minyan. In what other ways has this experience affected you?
(LG): Well, for starters, I’ve made some lovely friends, and I know that, as a new member, I’ll see familiar faces when we are finally praying in person. I have also learned so much more than I’d ever learned in Hebrew School about the daily service and the flow of the Jewish calendar. I understand why things are recited and when, and understand the reasons behind those practices. And, I was able to be with others (albeit via Zoom) during some especially dark moments for all of us last year. I feel close to the BJ community and the clergy in a way that I might not have been able to—or that might have taken much longer— had I joined at another time or through another door.
Early on in my year of mourning, I remarked that, at times, it felt to me like the entire city was sitting shiva—all of us huddled indoors, having food delivered, wondering how we would ever move forward. Yet, for all of my personal sadness, there was so much positive, at once so strange and yet so natural. I cannot imagine having mourned any other way. I have continued to participate in the daily minyan both for myself and to be there for others. I will always feel grateful for the comfort I received this year from my fellow “minyanaires” and our clergy—although I do hope that we can meet in person before too long.
This article originally appeared in B’nai Jeshurun’s September 2021 issue of Kol Hadash.