‘A modern prophet:’ How rabbis reacted to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death
Addressing her congregation virtually on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, Cantor Meredith Greenberg of Temple Ner Tamid, a Reform congregation in Bloomfield, N.J., sang the traditional blessing that precedes the reading of the haftarah.
But what happened next was anything but traditional.
Instead of chanting that week’s haftarah portion, Greenberg and the synagogue’s rabbi, Marc Katz, used the tropes, or melodies associated with the text, to recite words of wisdom from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died of complications from cancer on Friday evening.
“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made,” Katz sang from the bima, drawing on one of Ginsburg’s most iconic quotes. The five-minute ritual ended with Greenberg sharing what Ginsburg, famous for her dissenting opinions, called “the dissenter’s hope” — “that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.”
Justice Ginsburg, a beloved political and cultural figure who connected her pursuit of justice to her Jewish values, died just as Rosh Hashanah began. Her passing posed yet another dilemma for Conservative and Reform congregations that are venturing into virtual services for the first time, and whose congregants would likely be processing the news while observing the High Holidays: Should they address the news? And how best to do it?
The Forward viewed virtual tributes to Ginsburg that were shared online and spoke with several rabbis from liberal denominations who were available by phone during the holiday. Because most Orthodox clergy eschew technology on holidays, it was not possible to form a clear picture of their reaction over the weekend.
The news broke around 7 p.m. Eastern on Friday night. Depending on the time zone, some learned the news after services, when they checked their phones, and others learned it before, when they turned on their computers.
Katz said he knew he had to acknowledge the death of a legal figure he described as “a modern prophet.” (Disclosure: Jodi Rudoren, the Forward’s Editor-in-Chief, is a member of Temple Ner Tamid). “The wind was out of everyone’s sails,” he said.
He wasn’t the only rabbi who turned to song to meet the moment. At Central Synagogue, a large Reform congregation in Manhattan, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, who is also a cantor, sang a Hebrew version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” alongside a slideshow of photos of Ginsburg. Video of the tribute had been viewed more than 100,000 times on YouTube by Sunday evening.
Rabbi Joshua Stanton of East End Temple, another Reform congregation in lower Manhattan, heard the news minutes after closing the synagogue’s Rosh Hashanah livestream on Friday night. Later that evening, he joined an impromptu Zoom call where about 30 congregants remembered the justice as an inspiration and exemplar. Attorneys on the call said they had “modeled their career after her,” Stanton recalled, while others worried aloud about the “the sacred role the court plays in our democracy.”
The grief and anxiety in the virtual room convinced Stanton that the Rosh Hashanah sermon he’d written couldn’t possibly do justice to the “earth-shattering news.” So he woke early the next morning to compose a new one — no mean feat given that most rabbis, including him, work on their High Holiday sermons, often considered the most important of the year, for weeks in advance.
“I was terrified until the moment the service was over,” Stanton said. “Only when I read the text in the afternoon was I comfortable. It wasn’t a perfect message, but it was a good enough message.”
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While Stanton and other East Coast clergy had at least a night to prepare remarks, many rabbis in other parts of the country scrambled to comfort congregants who learned the news just before tuning into erev Rosh Hashanah services.
Just minutes before pre-recorded erev Rosh Hashanah services began at Nashuva, a non-denominational congregation in Los Angeles, Rabbi Naomi Levy posted a video tribute for congregants to view on Facebook. (Disclosure: Levy is married to Rob Eshman, the Forward’s national editor.)
“The notorious RBG was tiny, but she was mighty of blessed memory,” Levy said, recalling that Ginsburg’s own mother passed away on the eve of her graduation from high school.
During Friday night services at IKAR, another non-denominational synagogue in Los Angeles, Rabbi Sharon Brous praised Ginsburg’s “commitment to justice, equality, and basic fairness” and urged congregants to act to preserve her legacy. “We grieve, and then we pick up the baton and carry on,” she said.
Not everyone decided to integrate Ginburg’s death into the holiday.
Rabbi Caryn Aviv of Judaism Your Way, a non-profit that offers free High Holiday services in Denver, Colo., said that she and her colleagues decided to proceed with Rosh Hashanah services as planned. After the holiday, they will discuss a tribute to recognize Ginsburg for her values, not her politics.
“We have a really politically diverse community,” Aviv said. “We have Republicans and super lefty Democrats, and we have really tried to stay true to our north star mission of offering sermons that are based on values, and not reacting to the present political moment.”
Jewish mourning for Ruth Bader Ginsburg wasn’t confined to synagogues. One member of a crowd of mourners who gathered outside the Supreme Court on Friday night, 11-year-old Micah Blay, blew the shofar in the justice’s honor, the Washington Post reported. Others in the crowd recited the Mourner’s Kaddish. Brooklynites gathered at 3 p.m. on Saturday amid a bustling farmer’s market to remember her.
Stanton said that Ginsburg’s death had irrevocably “changed the tenor of the High Holidays.” Still, he sees a silver lining in the outbursts of public mourning that followed the news.
“As much as people are filled with sorrow, I do wonder if this singular tragedy is helping them continue to process the latent grief from a year so filled with pain,” he said.