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At Keneseth Israel, the Shiva Committee not only runs the shiva minyan, but is even given special training to do so. “Often congregants who are marginal to the shul actually want to join this committee, so it usually ranges between 12 and 20 people,” Sussman said. This year, his wife, Liz, has also joined.
In general, the practice of sitting shiva is markedly more relaxed today than it was in previous generations. Mourners rarely sit on austere wooden boxes anymore and are often provided with low folding chairs that provide cushioned back support. And unlike the past, when people paid a shiva call wearing suits, visitors’ clothing today is much less formal, says Lucy Bregman, professor of religion at Temple University. “I recall seeing people showing up in track suits,” she remarked.
“Usually, when people return from the cemetery, the mood is lighter than it was at the funeral, and interestingly, it’s the teens who seem most bothered by this,” Sussman said. “They see their parents joking with their friends and back-slapping, but they themselves are still in mourning mode.” Knowing this, Sussman often counsels teenage children of the mourners before the funeral, by letting them know that even though their parents may not look sad throughout the shiva, that is natural. “I tell them that it’s just a way of finding relief from mourning,” he added.
“Americans have relegated death to the funeral parlor and the cemetery,” Jonathan Sarna, professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis University, explained. “Having removed death from the home, the home becomes the locus for a ‘reception.’”
Although on the surface, the difference in shiva practice appears to be dictated by whether the mourner belongs to a traditional community or not, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, an organization that reaches out to unaffiliated and intermarried families, believes otherwise. “The big divide today is not between different denominations, but between those Jews who are engaged and affiliated, and those that are not,” he said.
Religiously liberal Jews, he adds, may take the shiva just as seriously, if they feel connected to other Jews in their community. For example, according to Jewish law, if shiva has begun and a Jewish holiday intervenes, the rest of the days of shiva are nullified. “Yet, those who are accustomed to reaching out will do so anyway, even during and after the holiday,” Olitzky said. “They may not be doing it out of obligation to custom, but simply because they feel it’s the right thing to do.”
Today there are even companies that help the bereaved through the mourning process. In Los Angeles, for example, mourners can contact the Shiva Sisters, to help people carry out the appropriate Jewish rituals: providing water for washing hands after returning from the cemetery, covering the mirrors, burning memorial candles and providing low seats or cushions.
Co-founder and owner Danna Black believes they provide an important service for Jews unaffiliated with any synagogue or Jewish community. “Usually, the younger generation wants a more creative shiva that’s not so solemn,” Black remarked. “You see the mourner interacting more with the guests, rather than waiting for the guests to come over.”
But Shiva Sisters also arranges catering, provide photographers, videographers, babysitting and even valet parking.