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Faith, family and funerals: The pandemic through a rebbetzin’s lens

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I write this from a makeshift war-room: lists of synagogue-members’ phone numbers and holy books spread out over the desk, a bottle of Purell in the center.

My husband, a pulpit rabbi, paces our New York City apartment on endless phone calls, all day, for weeks. It began in March with conference calls with local rabbis, the modern-Orthodox declaring immediate closures, the more yeshivish pushing back, until one by one, the synagogues all went dark.

Since then, our lives have revolved around the bizarre nature of remote pastoral care: Torah classes via Zoom, the guiding of a tiny at-home bris, the counseling of a son whose father is dying of cancer, the conversations with shuttered business-owners. His voice rings from another room: “How are you doing, Mr. So-and-So? Do you have water and food? Is there anything we can do to help you?”

Then people started dying.

Well, people are always dying — that’s something one learns quickly, in synagogue life — but this sort of grief was something entirely new.

“Rabbi, I’ve been in this business 30 years and I’ve never seen such a thing,” an undertaker’s thick Brooklyn accent blared through the phone. “It’s taking days to get bodies out from the medical examiner.”

At first, the logistics of my husband, Benyamin, officiating funerals in this pandemic worried me. We don’t have a car — how would he get safely to the cemetery? What if he stood too close to the mourners, the grave-diggers? Couldn’t he find a young healthy colleague who lives closer to the cemetery, for whom it would be less complex?

“I’m doing it,” he insisted. It’s the last mitzvah he could do for a congregant, he reminded me. And what is a rabbi, if not someone who is present in the darkest of moments?

The first time he left quarantine to officiate a funeral, I was on the verge of tears. A community member, who was also in quarantine and had a car, offered to be Benyamin’s designated driver for funerals. I watched Benyamin go — one gloved hand holding a prayerbook and the other disinfectant wipes — and told myself it was time to accept this new anxiety as my normal. By the time the fourth funeral came, I heard myself calling out, while balancing the toddler on my hip, “Just don’t you dare touch the shovel.”

Meanwhile, the women in my orbit have asked me to lead virtual Torah classes, but I have been too busy obsessively disinfecting every surface in the house, monitoring kosher-grocery inventories, snapping at my children for touching a Central Park fence, an elevator button. I couldn’t stop imagining every microscopic demon lurking at every corner, threatening to tear our lungs apart.

I was too devastated by the news, too angry at God over the toll of human suffering. How could I think about communal duties right now? What inspiration could I share when my own tank was empty, when I struggled to pick up a prayerbook myself? Few clergy and their partners talk about these things publicly — we grow accustomed to taking on the loads of community work with a tight-lipped smile. We artfully hide our inner turmoil behind cheerful social-media posts and colorful event flyers.

And so, these days, I turn more than ever to talking to others in this line of service — to rabbis and their partners — to learn from the veterans about how they take care of themselves while caring for others, and perhaps, deep down, to feel less alone.

Every week, dozens of rebbetzins join conference calls organized by Yeshiva University and the Orthodox Union. I try to call in when I can, to listen to how other women are carrying the burdens of this moment.

“My dear holy rebbetzins,” Zehava Farbman, a social worker who specializes in trauma, said on one recent call, “we have grown up with emunah, we have been teaching emunah — now is the time to be living emunah.”

Emunah is faith. Listening to Farbman helped me crystallize that these past weeks have taken not just an emotional toll, but a spiritual one. Is my faith strong enough to get through this — and to uplift others? Do I feel God’s presence? And if not, how do I seek Him when He feels so distant?

And that is perhaps the most terrifying part of it all: That this isolation forces us all to face our relationship with the Divine in the eerie silence of our homes.

It is as if the 25 hours of Yom Kippur have been stretched into months. Traditionally, the annual Day of Atonement is when we contemplate our deaths, our fragility in the hands of God. Only now we live it, day in and day out, and in relative isolation. Stripped of the performance of the bimah, the formal regimen of group prayer with others, the rhythms of our social lives surrounding our faith — now, no one knows when we pray, or for how long, or if we study our texts. There is no tallis to fuss with, no vigorous swaying in prayer, none of our usual virtue signals of religious observance.

It is just us, in our homes, facing our living room walls with eyes closed, trying to imagine far-off Jerusalem stones. Two months into this, and we are still compelled to grapple with the question of “Why, God?” in solitude — and those serving in communal roles must search even deeper, work even harder, not only for that answer for themselves, but for the strength to lift others.

“I struggle because I am afraid,” one senior rebbetzin said on a recent conference call. Hearing her gave me comfort, because when women in my community turn to me with their big questions, I am maddeningly speechless. “I don’t know what God means by this,” I mustered when a community member asked. “I am trying to find Him, too.”

In the evening, when there is a break from the phone calls, when my two young children are finally asleep, I pour myself a cup of tea and I fantasize aloud — should we have left New York City before the lockdown? The Talmud advises one to flee one’s city when there is an outbreak. Should we have heeded that ancient wisdom? Perhaps boarded one of those last flights to Israel? Rented a house out in the suburbs, so the children could have space to run around outdoors?

Benyamin considers it for a moment, and then shakes his head. “A rabbi,” he says firmly, “does not leave his community.”

Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the life editor at the Forward. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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