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Jews in mourning are finding unexpected comfort in virtual minyans

(JTA) — As soon as New York state began recognizing same-sex marriages in 2011, Judith Trachtenberg married her partner of decades. They were the first such couple to be wed by a rabbi from their beloved synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

It was also around that time that Trachtenberg’s partner, Renie Rutchick, showed signs of what would later be diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease. Rutchick grew sicker, eventually developed cancer and died in June, a few months into the pandemic.

Becoming one of the few people to board a plane in those days, the 80-year-old Trachtenberg flew to St. Paul, Minnesota, Rutchick’s hometown, for the burial. She was far away from home, sanctuary doors were closed and social distancing rules were in place — but Trachtenberg was not bereft of spiritual support.

B’nai Jeshurun’s Rabbi Felicia Sol, who had officiated the couple’s wedding in New York, appeared on video to preside over the funeral and at least 250 people tuned in.

“It was so moving that we could have Felicia there,” Trachtenberg said. “The use of Zoom turned out to be very warming and meaningful, and it allowed the funeral to be taped.”

Since then, the bereaved professor of social work has been logging in to the synagogue’s virtual services every morning without fail. The required quorum of 10 Jews is always there, and Trachtenberg proceeds to recite the Jewish prayer for the dead known as the Mourner’s Kaddish.

In person, worshippers recite the Kaddish in unison. Due to the variable speeds of internet connections, however, it’s nearly impossible to produce the same effect online. What arises instead is a cacophony, voices popping in and out seemingly at random. The unusual sound, however, is easily recognizable as a recitation of the age-old prayer, and many have found equal comfort in this discordant rendition.

“I don’t know if I would have gone to BJ every day,” Trachtenberg said, referring to her synagogue by its acronym. “But with Zoom, you don’t have the excuse to miss a day.”

Typically, she said, it would have been hard to make a minyan or quorum, but now as many as 80 people show up.

Millennia in the making, Jewish mourning rituals are among the most foundational aspects of the religion. Grieving Jews can expect to be comforted in their homes during the shiva period by a stream of visiting family members and friends who come bearing food and uplifting tales of the deceased. The memory of the dead is kept alive for the next 11 months through the Kaddish, which is recited in physical proximity to at least nine other Jews.

But the coronavirus, which has killed more than half a million people in the United States alone, has demanded a pause on traditional rituals.

Initially it seemed like the only option was to grieve in isolation. The crisis engendered new rules to accommodate public health directives, but communities adapted to the temporary culture of quarantine and devised new modes of gathering and engagement.

A particularly public example is what happened following the September death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Jewish Supreme Court justice and cultural icon. Hundreds of mourners gathered online to perform a virtual shemirah, the Jewish tradition of watching over a person’s body for the period between death and burial.

The initiative came from Kavod v’Nichum, a group that helps Jews engage with burial rituals.

“In all that sadness [of the pandemic], we got even more sadness when Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, and there was this spontaneous request for something that people could do,” David Zinner, the group’s executive director, said in a Zoom event marking the anniversary of the pandemic.

Kavod v’Nichum gathered online comments from some 600 people during the virtual shemirah and put them into a word cloud.

“The word cloud sort of gives you a little snapshot of what people were thinking and how they were feeling,” Zinner said. “It’s just an image of communal grief, but also communal support at the same time.”

Most who have died during the past year were not celebrities like Ginsburg, of course, but the mourning of ordinary people has also taken new shapes.

The website My Jewish Learning responded to the pandemic by establishing a daily Kaddish minyan. (The site is part of 70 Faces Media, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s parent company.) For almost a year now, 60 people or more from around the world participate by listening to a few minutes of spiritual guidance by a rotating set of rabbis and then reciting the prayer.

One of those rabbis is Sari Laufer of Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles, a Reform congregation.

“You can’t actually go to your local synagogue and pack in in that same way,” she said. “And so we have been learning how to virtually pack the room and having an address to do it. For a lot of people it became a community. People see each other day after day.”

That’s been the case for David Aronson, a 61-year-old software developer who lives in suburban Chicago and lost his father at the start of the pandemic to an unrelated illness. Aronson was apprehensive at first about doing the mourning ritual online as rabbis in the Conservative movement, his denomination, did not all agree that a virtual gathering could count for the quorum required to say Kaddish — a question most were answering for the first time.

But that feeling disappeared once Aronson made sure that he could see and hear the required number of people on screen at the same time.

“We are able to enter into a holy space via the Zoom minyan,” Aronson said. “We have made a minyan out of what we had. It is incredibly meaningful.”

Keeping his father’s memory at the front of his mind has helped Aronson become the kind of person he wants to be.

“My father was the most outgoing person I have ever seen. He would open up to complete strangers. For the longest time I was the complete opposite of that,” he said.

But Aronson realized something that helped him emulate this trait.

“I saw that being outgoing was not just for my benefit,” he said. “It was also for the other person.”

Dvora Rotenberg, a Canadian, has continued bearing witness to Aronson’s grief and that of other online mourners long after the formal period of bereavement for her own deceased father has ended.

“I don’t say Kaddish anymore, but I am there every day just because it’s like a family and a home,” said Rotenberg, who logs in from Ottawa. “This is where I found my comfort and it’s always on my calendar now. I especially love how Rabbi Menachem Creditor sings on Wednesdays. Powerful and gentle.”

The many positive experiences raises the question of what will happen once the pandemic subsides. Laufer said many rabbis are talking about returning to physical rituals while continuing to incorporate some virtual elements.

“There is the reality that I can sign on for about 15 minutes a day. I don’t have to get in my car, I don’t have to sort of plan it out, I can block out that time and connect with the community,” the Los Angeles rabbi said.

“I love synagogue, I work in a synagogue. But … we have to figure out ways to balance the need to be in person with the reality that we have these tools and this ability to create community in a different way.”


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